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What does a conductor do?

What Does A Conductor Do?


We were watching an LA Philharmonic performance thanks to this blog post when a young child came up to us and asked about Gustavo Dudamel.

To an adult, Dudamel is an internationally known conductor, known for his charismatic personality on stage. Yet, to a young child, he was this man who was moving his arms wildly and wore unique expressions on his face. What was he doing, the child asked, and why wasn’t he playing an instrument?

So, what exactly does a conductor do? We’re sure that young children aren’t the only ones who have pondered this. Here are some thoughts with the help of a wonderful BBC article.


1. Research: Oftentimes, a conductor’s most difficult task occurs before he or she steps on stage. There is the monumental job of selecting a composition, deciding on the musical interpretation and researching the composer.

“Conductors may look like they have an easier ride, not having to master any fiendish passages of finger-work like the violinists, say, or risk the exposure and split notes of the wind and brass players,” writes the BBC. “But ‘conducting is more difficult than playing a single instrument,’ claims [composer-conductor Pierre] Boulez. ‘You have to know the culture, to know the score, and to project what you want to hear.’”


2. Beat time: At the most fundamental level, a conductor sets the tempo and ensures other musicians play as a cohesive unit. This is especially true during rehearsals when the orchestra is becoming familiar with the piece and less so on the night of the performance. The conductor also plays an important role in introducing new and important elements to the musical composition with the use of a baton or, simply, his or her hands. For a conductor’s perspective of beat time, watch this New York Times video.


3. Act as a Visual Representation of the Music: The BBC writes: “Concertgoers may have their ears trained on the orchestra, but our eyes are invariably drawn to the podium. We too want to be steered, to be able to align the way the music sounds with the conductor is doing. He or she is a vital visual connection: the bridge between our eyes and the sense of what is happening in the music.”

Perhaps that is why we as an audience are drawn to conductors with personalities. We love to watch their face light up when music becomes intense are watch them delicately move their hands during a quiet passage.


4. Compose: Nearly every great composer – from Beethoven to Mahler to Copland – were also conductors. More recently, Dudamel wrote the score for the movie “Liberator.”


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