“What does a conductor do, anyway?” Most classical musicians have likely fielded this question from well-meaning but perplexed family and friends.
Here at medici.tv, we think part of the confusion may stem from the fact that much of a conductor’s work is done before the concert—by the time the big performance arrives, the conductor has spent countless hours studying the score, refining his or her interpretation of the piece, and communicating this vision with the orchestra members. To help you craft an answer to this question, we’re pulling back the curtain and diving into a world many music lovers rarely get the opportunity to explore: the rehearsal…
In an episode of his Omnibus series, legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein explains that the conductor’s instrument “is a hundred different humans, each one a thorough musician with a will of his own. And it is his job, to cause them to play like one instrument with a single will.” Anyone who has managed a team or even struggled their way through a group project as a student can understand that this is no small feat. As Bernstein continues,
“To do this, he must possess enormous authority and have psychological insight in dealing with this large group… He must also be a master of the mechanics of conducting. He must then have an immense amount of knowledge. Then he has to have profound perceptions of the inner meaning of music. And finally, he must have uncanny powers of communication.” —Leonard Bernstein
Let’s start with the part that’s most obviously on display in the concert hall: the mechanics of conducting. In the same Omnibus episode, Bernstein breaks down different technical elements like keeping time, subdividing the beat, cueing different entries, etc. But even on this very technical level, the conductor has dozens of decisions to make each measure, ranging from “should I conduct this passage in two or subdivide into four?” to “what gesture will best tell the cello section that the melody they’re about to begin should be powerful and emotional, not powerful and aggressive?”