We’ve all seen an orchestral conductor doing their thing on stage. They seem kinda important, right? After all, they are right in front, leading the music, and even bow to the audience after a performance. So what, exactly, do they do? To find out, we chatted with New World Symphony Conducting Fellow Dean Whiteside.
🖐 What do the hand gestures mean? Conducting is like its own language. With this language, Dean told us, conductors show the orchestra to start and stop, along with setting tempo by moving their hands or a baton up and down in time. These conducting gestures are universal throughout the orchestra world. However, each conductor has their own style or “handwriting.” Some conduct with pronounced arm gestures, while others may have much smaller gestures and rely on facial expressions.
🎼 What does it take to become a conductor? While training programs can vary from country to country, Dean, who trained in Vienna at the University of Music and the Performing Arts, said it was a very intensive four-year program that focused a lot on music theory.
🧙♂️ How do conductors pick their wand? Well, we first learned that it is called a baton, not a wand. D’oh! And you can purchase them at any musical instrument retailer. (So nothing like stepping into Ollivanders Wand Shop in Diagon Alley, like we imagined.) Conductors choose their baton based on their preference in weight and material like lightweight wood, fiberglass or carbon fiber. The baton as we know it did not become popular until the 19th century.
❓ Can an orchestra perform without a conductor? Short answer: Yes. Dean said there are many orchestras that perform without a conductor. Long answer: A conductor can be very important, especially when complex and difficult pieces are performed. Conducting is really the art of directing a musical performance. For the skeptics in the house, there was a 2012 study from the University of Maryland where two conductors — one a veteran and one a novice — led the same orchestra. Music experts who listened to the performances in a controlled environment found the music conducted by the veteran conductor to be more aesthetically pleasing to listen to.