What is a Conductor?

Also known as: Principal Conductor, Musical Director, Music Director, Music Ensemble Conductor, Concert Band Conductor, Choral Director, Orchestral Conductor, Chief Conductor, Music Conductor.

A conductor is a vital part of a music ensemble, acting as the director to keep the performers unified and on cue. A profession which dates far back into the middle ages, conducting has taken many forms and followed many traditions through the centuries, only taking on its most modern incarnation in the early 19th century as a dedicated, non-instrumented position. The classic image of a leader standing in front of an ensemble of musical artists using a thin wooden baton to direct the performance harkens back to the time of Felix Mendelssohn, who was the first to be credited with the modern baton's use.

A conductor can be necessary to a variety of performing groups, from choirs, marching bands, orchestras and other instrumental groups. The exact title of the position can vary depending on seniority or the specific type of group being directed; 'musical director' in an orchestral setting, 'choral director' or 'choirmaster' when directing a choir, 'bandmaster' when the ensemble is primarily brass and percussion instruments. A conductor who has excelled in the field and achieved a certain level of seniority may gain the title of 'maestro', a coveted honour and tradition.

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What does a Conductor do?

A conductor directs and shapes a musical performance by an ensemble, from its infancy in rehearsal to the eventual exhibition in front of an audience. He or she communicates beat, tempo, and at times, the emotion to be conveyed while playing a musical piece to unify the performing group.

A conductor is often paired with a particular performing group throughout many performances, guiding the artists through rehearsals and giving vocal feedback to shape the outcome of the musical piece. The exact nature of a conductor's duties can vary from one venue to another, and are also determined by the skill-level of the particular ensemble being directed, which can range from professional to amateur. While some conductors are expected to follow formal rules that dictate gestures, duties, and non-vocal nuances, others are allowed considerable freedom with their means of communicating artistic direction.

How to become a Conductor

Being a conductor can be challenging and requires a deep understanding of musical theory beyond simple appreciation. Among many guidelines laid out by Sir Henry Wood in 1945, a background in musical performance is a must, whether that is through obtaining a formal musical education at a university, or being educated through private instruction preferably by an established musical director.

It is also recommended that one interested in becoming a conductor also be proficient with at least one musical instrument, but familiar with a variety of others; the piano and a string instrument being the most preferable. A musical director must understand the elements of musical composition from the ground up, including tempo, harmony, dynamics, and theory.

The position requires a considerable amount of skill beyond musical comprehension as well. Firm leadership is required to keep the ensemble on cue and working together to convey the musical piece as a unified whole. Being able to quickly read and process sheet music at a glance is vital during the execution of a performance. Physically being able to follow through gestures quickly and consistently will help the artists understand how to pace and shape their individual responses. Also, the ability to hear the group in its entirety, but to still be able to pick out the pitch of individual instruments is very important to keeping the overall harmony.

Even before the final performance, a conductor must be able to direct musicians throughout the rehearsals and give constructive criticism to ensure the best possible outcome. No matter the venue or title, the conductor is to be the leader of a group, applying personal understanding and expertise of musical composition as a whole to those who are familiar with only specific elements of its performance.

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Further Reading

  • What Does a Conductor Of An Orchestra Actually Do?

    A conductor of an orchestra has the primary responsibility of preparing the musical ensemble for public presentations.

  • Conductor

    Conductors are leaders of orchestras, choruses, opera and ballet companies, as well as other musical groups. They work with instrumentalists and singers to make sure that pieces of music are interpreted and performed correctly.

  • Is Being An Orchestra Conductor Really As Easy As It Looks?

    Although the portrait an orchestra conductor is of the wild-haired man with the frantic arm movements, the most essential part of the conductor's job is the one you will never seen unless you are either in the orchestra or in one of those really badly placed but exceptionally expensive box seats.

  • A Day Of Music, And Movement Therapy, For A Conductor

    Julian Wachner, the music and arts director at Trinity Church, is a conductor at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Juilliard Opera Theater.

  • I'm An Orchestra Conductor. What Do You Want To Know?

    I can't describe how cool it is to make a movement with my arm to speak to the musicians and hear back the sound I wanted...

  • Esa-Pekka Salonen: 10 Tips To Becoming A Conductor

    Esa-Pekka Salonen is the principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. His career took off when he stood in at the last minute for a sick conductor when he was just 25. Almost 25 years later, he was recently named conductor of the year.

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