Great conductors in rehearsal: dive into the mysterious world of the rehearsal…

“What does a conductor do, anyway?” Most classical musicians have likely fielded this question from well-meaning but perplexed family and friends.

Here at, 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

Leonard Bernstein, 1959

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?”

In this master class, Michael Tilson Thomas coaches student Daniel Stewart on the mechanics of conducting the complex rhythms of Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite. Watch as Tilson Thomas helps him gauge the ways different subdivisions and gestures can help bridge the shifting tempos:

However, as many great conductors would tell you, the mechanics are just a small piece of the puzzle. As Bernstein says, conductors must have “uncanny powers of communication” and in order to share their vision with dozens of orchestra members, they draw on every means of expression available to them. In this behind-the-scenes excerpt, Tilson Thomas rehearses Strauss’s Til Eulenspiegel, drawing on verbal descriptions, singing, and evocative gestures to help the musicians understand his interpretation of one of the key themes:

“For a conductor, this is the question: how to use his personality and his education and the strength of his character… so that the musicians will be very quickly involved in the atmosphere of the piece. It doesn’t really matter how well you move with your hands. It should be in your face, it should be in your expression. — Valery Gergiev

Of course, there must be a vision to communicate in the first place! Backing up a step, the conductor must first develop a profound understanding of the music and refine his or her interpretation: for some this may entail extensive research into a composer’s oeuvre, for others a detailed harmonic analysis, and for other still a deep dive into the people or places the music is meant to depict. For example, here Valery Gergiev discusses his desire to bring out the innate Scythian culture in Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, a process that, for him, is not necessarily 100% rooted in a libretto or historical books. His comments to the orchestra reinforce this goal, as he encourages them to imagine they are running together, urging one another along, rather than to aim for machine-like precision.

Conductors are responsible for determining both the interpretation of a piece on a macro-level and for shaping thousands of micro-decisions into a cohesive whole. Here, rehearsing Debussy’s La Mer, Esa-Pekka Salonen describes the constant process of deciding how to manage the nebulous layers of melody and harmony that characterize the piece, and the important process of determining what he wants to emphasize in particular versus what he wants to let the listeners “filter” for themselves…
“You might want to emphasize the themes as opposed to the accompaniment; then you have to decide what is a theme and what is an accompaniment. Or else you might want to emphasize the unity of the material; let it blend completely and let the listener do the filtering of material. Or else you can combine all these things and decide, phrase-by-phrase, what is important and what is not.” — Esa-Pekka Salonen
Between the hours of intense reflection in front of a score to the hours of powerful, persuasive communication in front of an orchestra, conductor’s are faced with a monumental task. If you’d like to dive deeper into the fascinating process that rarely gets put on display, check out our playlist of Great Conductors in Rehearsal!
Watching masterful maestros like Abbado, Boulez, Gergiev, Karajan, Salonen, Tilson Thomas, and more at work is sure to deepen your understanding and appreciation for the somewhat mysterious art form. At the very least, it’ll help you explain the magic a little bit better to your friends. ▶️ Click here to see the full playlist!

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