Conductors use dynamic movement to lead orchestras in performance.
Orchestral music is complex, featuring numerous instrumental parts that come together to form a cohesive piece of music. Each player or section has a specific part to play at a specific time, which may coincide with another part. Even the most skilled players need guidance to know when and how to play; this is the role of the conductor. A conductor uses gestures, movement, and a thin stick called a baton to keep time, cue each part, and express the feeling of a piece. This requires a very precise skillset; a conductor must know each piece of music inside and out - every swell, every pause, every solo. Every gesture demonstrates an action to a player; to play gently, rapidly, violently, or whatever the piece calls for.
When an orchestra's director selects the music for a performance, a conductor immediately gets to work deconstructing it. In many ways, conductors are the emotional drivers of an orchestra; their interpretation of a piece may drastically change how an audience perceives it, or reveal the intent behind its composition. They will look closely at the music, taking into account how the notation shapes the piece, and may consider what other conductors have done with it. The process of learning each part's nuances can be excruciatingly precise, but the conductor will emerge knowing how to guide each individual to the right sound and feeling.
Work as a conductor may include...
- Analyzing written music
- Giving players precise gestural cues
- Keeping time and controlling tempo
- Rehearsing with an ensemble
- Leading ensembles in performances or recorded sessions
Conductors are often employed by individual orchestras or symphonies. They may work closely with that particular ensemble, developing close connections with its members, organizers, and patrons. Not all conductors work with orchestras; some conduct youth bands, choruses, or other ensembles, which requires much the same skill set, if a slightly different approach. In school settings, an ensemble conductor is often the choir director or music teacher. Conductors looking to gain experience may find positions leading community ensembles and work their way up to a high profile position. At a certain level, conductors are very much in the public eye, and some consider their role to be a performance in itself. For those who don't want quite that much attention, there are further options, such as leading recorded scoring sessions for film or TV, or conducting pit orchestras who perform music for opera, theatre, or ballet.
Professional conductors hold a prestigious role in the classical music world, and it can be hard to break into that sphere. Most conductors are classically trained musicians with ensemble experience of their own, and can read written music fluently. Playing an instrument can give an aspiring conductor valuable insight into the experience of an ensemble member. It's common for conductors to pursue degrees in music, and they may have an opportunity to learn the art of conducting in a music program or conservatory setting. Some universities offer Master's degrees in conducting specifically, and these programs can be great launching pads for a career in the field.
Conducting is so much more than just waving a baton. If you feel music with your whole body and want to steer a symphony, consider a career as a conductor.
The League of American Orchestras leads, supports, and champions America's orchestras and the vitality of the music they perform.
The International Conductor's Guild serves as an advocate for the conducting profession throughout the world.