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Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

How important is a conductor when it comes to leading an orchestra?

Asked by Pied_Pfeffer (22377 points ) August 31st, 2012

It is understandable on the front end as the role of a music director. How often do the orchestra members rely on the conductor to guide them during a concert? They always seem to be looking down or at their music sheets.

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22 Answers

creative1's avatar

Well he/she tells the orchestra when to come in to come in, get quieter, keeps all the different instruments playing in harmony instead of being all over the place. I would say its hard to keep all the different types of insync of each other.

gailcalled's avatar

Vital. Every instrumentalist has good peripheral vision. The conductor is on a raised dais and is moving his arms and upper body vigorously.

elbanditoroso's avatar

You don’t need one 100% of the time. You can use a semi-conductor.

Seriously – on most concert stages the violins are far away from the winds and percussions – on opposite sides of the stage. Synchroninization – timing – syncopation – relies on someone managing the whole process from a central location.

I would argue that a conductor is essential. Even though the players are looking at the music stands, they can see the conductor with peripheral vision.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

If the orchestra has rehearsed for hours, it seems like they would be able to perform well without a conductor…sort of like students taking a exam or a sports team performing on the field. Both have a coach in the sidelines if needed. If bands can do it, why not an orchestra?

wundayatta's avatar

I think the conductor is very important. As an instrumentalist, I’m often looking to the conducter to give me cues as to when I am to come in, and as to how they want me to phrase things. And volume indications are also very important.

Yes, if we know a piece well, we can play it ourselves, but we need the conductor to teach us how to do it in the first place.

Although it is possible to play without a conductor, that is a whole different kind of experience.

flo's avatar

But if they practice long enough to perfect it, they shouldn’t need him/her. And they are looking at the sheets straight on.

Earthgirl's avatar

I know that depending on the conductor the interpretation of the musical work can vary. Some conductors stick strictly to the composers notes for interpretation, others rely on their own taste and musical instinct for interpretation. There are conductors I just love to watch because they seem to channel the music through their body! It is so amazing and emotional to watch. One of my favorite composers to watch is Carlos Kleiber. You can see some of his work on youtube.

Yes, once the orchestra practices they can sort of do it on their own but they have already had the benefit of the leadership of the conductor. The conductor needs to have the respect of the orchestra members as a musician. If they don’t think of him/her as an accomplished musiician in their own right, they are less likely to respect him/her. This was brought out to me in a recent trip to Tanglewood where the announcer explained that one former conductor had had to struggle to gain just such a recognition. That was an interesting story to me.
This seems to be a very good explanation.

“Yes, professional musicians can keep time by themselves, but a
conductor does significantly more than just beat time. A good
conductor will add interpretation and shape to a piece of music by
controlling the dynamics of the music and by indicating entrances and
cutoffs with great precision. There are some orchestras that play
without a conductor (the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra springs to mind),
but even in that case, there is usually one instrumentalist who
functions as the “leader” for a particular piece and whom the other
musicians look to for cues. Many pieces change tempo in mid-stride,
and a single person making the choice of exactly when and how can make
the transition occur with great precision.

In a large symphony orchestra there is also the additional problem
that very often the acoustics of the hall are such that the musicians
on, for instance, the extreme right of the orchestra simply cannot
hear what the musicians on the extreme left are doing, and thus it is
necessary to have a common reference, namely, the conductor. While it
is true that each musician can keep time, the accumulated error would
eventually cause the rhythm to become murky.

The conductor has yet another purpose, and that is to set the “tone”
of a piece. Whether the conductor uses sudden, forceful movements or
smooth and delicate strokes will in many ways affect the way the
musicians interpret the music and subsequently, the overall color of
the work.

Listen for yourself to the effects of the conductor. Pick any work
that you know well and listen to a particular recording many times…
until you really feel you know it. Then buy or borrow recordings of
the same piece under other conductors. How is it different? Is the
conductor interpreting the music differently? Is he adding color to
certain areas and letting other areas speak for themselves? With
practice it becomes relatively easy to differentiate conductors’
styles.”

CWOTUS's avatar

The conductor is vital to the correct interpretation and direction of the orchestra to perform the whole piece properly.

Once there was an orchestra conductor who had a feud with the composer of a piece his orchestra was scheduled to play. Since the piece had already been rehearsed and the concert tickets sold, there was no way to schedule and rehearse a new piece. So he decided that he would intentionally give the worst performance of his career for that one piece.

So saying, he failed to coordinate the orchestra properly, and the various sections were playing at different rhythms, different tempos and keys. The performance of that piece was so ghastly that the composer, sitting in the audience and expecting his beautiful music, grew more and more agitated until he had a stroke and died on the spot, right in his seat.

The police held an inquest into the death, and it was determined that the death was a premeditated homicide: the orchestra was badly directed deliberately by the conductor, who knew the effect that awful performance would have on the listening composer. So a murder trial was held, and the prosecutor pressed for the death penalty to show that he was tough on crime, even when committed by apparent non-criminals.

After a short trial, the jury convicted, and later sentenced him to die in the electric chair. The conductor, hearing the sentence pronounced, just laughed mockingly for the entire court to hear. The judge vowed to carry out the sentence as soon as possible.

Months later, when they attempted to carry out the sentence and electrocute him, the equipment failed and he had to be set free. It turns out he was a very poor conductor.

gailcalled's avatar

If nothing else, you need a conductor (or the first violinist or other volunteer) to start things and to end things.

wundayatta's avatar

OK, @CWOTUS, I’m gonna GA you because you got me to groan.

Silently (no conductor to tell me when to come in), but still, I felt it, inside.

Tropical_Willie's avatar

When the band director was out sick in high school, I was the student conductor for a 85 person orchestra / band. Substitute teacher came in but was not a musician. I was also the drum major when we went marching in the town parades. You need a conductor, I may not have been the best but members of the band still remember those days I was conductor as good music.

josie's avatar

I have to assume that if they weren’t important, they vwouldn’t be there.

jaytkay's avatar

The conductor plays the orchestra just as the members play their instruments.

Sunny2's avatar

Orchestra members may look as if they are not watching conductors, but they always look for down beats, entrances and endings. It just takes a quick look, since they know when those places are. The lively conductors may move around a lot to remind the orchestra of what he told them he wanted during rehearsals. Some conductors are not very good, for example, those who wave their arms in circles; but the orchestra has learned what is expected of them without paying attention to the meaningless conducting.

wundayatta's avatar

@Sunny2 One thing I sometimes amuse myself with when watching orchestras is trying to see where the conductor’s downbeat is, precisely. Those conductors who wave their arms in circles drive me nuts.

Sitting in an orchestra, something I haven’t done in 35 years, made it crucial to understand the downbeat. We needed to come in together. But when first working with a conductor on a new piece, there is always that initial moment of truth where the conductor and the orchestra learn about each other and how we interpret his downbeat. It’s not always where he wants us to think it is. Then there’s this process of triangulation where we gradually get closer and closer together, until we are finally all, pretty much, on the same beat. This should happen before the performance, but there is not always enough time in rehearsal, alas. ANd, of course, with professionals, this process takes much less time and similarly, the longer you have worked with a conductor, the less time this process takes.

Earthgirl's avatar

@wundayatta Thanks for taking the time to explain all of that. As a non musician it’s very interesting to me to see it from the perspective of the orchestra members.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@wundayatta Another thank you for providing the perspective from a musician’s point-of-view.

Despite all of the comments that say the conductor’s role can be integral, I’m still not completely sold. It may come from years of being a trainer and manager where the goal was to create a team to work in harmony with little supervision once cut loose.

Another example is a large dance or other type of performing team where people have specific tasks to accomplish in order to paint the big picture. The coach, or “conductor”, stays behind the scene.

Sunny2's avatar

@ Pied_Pfeffer Even in a string quartet, one member is the conductor using just a nod of the head
@wundayatta Depending on where you live, the ‘downbeat’ is an up gesture. I find this confusing, but I haven’t found it much in in the U.S. Have you had to work with that?

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

@Sunny2 A college friend’s parents were professional performers in a string quartet. When I saw them, there was no person whose sole responsibility was of conductor during a concert. Assigning a member to kick it off is understandable though.

wundayatta's avatar

@Sunny2 Yes. Interestingly. Just went to a concert by a Russian Orchestra, and I finally decided the “downbeat” was on the upswing. It was driving me batty! I’m glad I didn’t have to play with them. It would have taken me forever to get it.

And like I said, there are a few ensembles of a fairly large size (20 or more) that do not use a conductor. I think when you get above 40, it is really hard to play without a conductor. Although it would certainly be possible, just not so easy.

Most of the ensembles I work with are small and have no conductor. Sometimes I facilitate the groups, but that isn’t conducting, exactly. We work through improvisation, so it is about listening and whatnot more than it is about following direction. There are times, however, when I do provide direction, but because of the way we work together, it is different from the kind of direction a conductor usually provides. I might go over to someone and give them verbal instructions about how I want things to change. Or sometimes I will use hand movements to provide dynamic instructions or indications to come to an end.

gailcalled's avatar

Keep in mind also that the conductor often sets the tone for the orchestra. Some famous love affairs were:

Arturo Toscanini and The New York Philharmonic
Sir Thomas Beecham and The London Philharmonic and The Royal Philharmonic
Herbert von Karajan and The Berlin Philharmonic
Sir George Solti and The Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Musicians can often ID the orchestra by the style the conductor imparts to it.

“In 1969 Solti was appointed music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a post he held for 22 years. He restored the orchestra’s reputation after it had been in decline for most of the previous decade.” Source…google Wikipedia

Under the baton of Leopold Stokowski (1912 – 1941) and then Eugene Ormandy (1 until 1980) The Philadelphia Philharmonic was known for its “lush style” and easily recognized. When the baton was passed to Ricardo Muti, c. 1980 to 1992, the sound of the orchestra changed dramatically.

This is a far different cry from the first violinist nodding his head and waving his bow around from time to time.

SaveTheRhinos's avatar

Very! Since they are at a central location they can adequately hear every instrument. Musicians are sitting in various locations so different sounds are going to have various levels so it’s harder for them to judge the piece as a whole. Conductor puts it all together.

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