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_bob's avatar

Does an orchestra conductor really do all that much?

Asked by _bob (2485points) May 19th, 2009

Evidently, I don’t know much (or anything at all) about music, but it has always seemed to me like the guys who play in an orchestra don’t really look at the conductor… do they?

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21 Answers

DarkScribe's avatar

Does the steering wheel on a car really do all that much?

zephyr826's avatar

The conductor chooses the interpretation of the music and keeps the musicians in line, so that all of them work together in an organized group. Of course, when I was a violinist, I hardly ever looked at the conductor, but that was mostly my fault. :)

miasmom's avatar

Most players are looking at a conductor while looking at their music so it might not be obvious to you that they are looking. But yes, the conductor keeps everything flowing smoothly and helps the players to not overpower each other and sound great together. It’s a pretty critical role.

cwilbur's avatar

Yes, actually, the conductor does quite a bit. It’s not that he does a lot all the time, but that he does a little at the right time, and that he coordinates everyone else.

cheebdragon's avatar

Let’s see you try to swing your arms around for hours….

Dansedescygnes's avatar

What miasmom and zephyr826 said. The conductor keeps the music flowing during the performance (most of the conductor’s motions with the music happen just before the particular part comes in; he sort of signals what to do and when to come in regarding the instruments) and before the performances, the conductor is the one who interprets the music. True, classical music is mostly written down, but the speed of the music is usually left to interpretation. That’s why no two recordings of a classical performance are the same; some are faster, some are slower, some have certain instruments louder; that’s all up to the conductor.

I remember being a little kid going to the symphony and wondering what the point of the conductor was; I just assumed that everyone could play without him. Of course, I don’t play any instruments so I don’t have hands-on experience, but I have been to many symphonic concerts and I own many recordings of classical music, some of the same composition and there are plenty of differences between them.

Strauss's avatar

I agree with all that has been said. Having conducted several ensembles over the years, I can tell you that the conductor to the orchestra is the stage manager, director, interpreter, etc., etc.

I have also played the same instrument (tuba), same composition (a John Phillips Sousa march, _Stars and Stripes Forever—) in at least three marching bands. You would be surprised to hear the difference in the interpretation due to the conductor.

The conductor does most of the work during rehearsal, coaxing the desired effect of all of the individuals to form a cohesive, hopefully artistically valid end product.

gymnastchick729's avatar

haha, my director/conductor would laugh out loud at this question. to be honest, the prefessional orchestras really dont need a conductor, only for tempo(time) changes and the beginning. in some high school, or college orchestras, the conductor is necessary because the individuals arent, usually, as advanced, and they still require the extra help of time, entrances, interpretation of the music, style and tone quality direction.

cwilbur's avatar

@gymnastchick729: Then why do people like Furtwangler and von Karajan get such different performances of Beethoven? Why do Helmuth Rilling and Phillippe Herreweghe get such different performances of Bach, even with the same orchestra?

The conductor of the orchestra is like the director of the play—when it’s actually being performed, it doesn’t look like he’s doing much. But that’s mainly because he’s spent the time in rehearsal explaining what he wants, and practicing the difficult parts until the ensemble gets it the way he wants it.

raptorum's avatar

I beleive from what I know that the conductor helps keep the orchastra in sync. I also beleive they keep the speed and pitch of the song.

gymnastchick729's avatar

when you are conducting, you have the power over the entire orchestra. its like writing, almost… whatever you tell the orchestra to do, they will or should follow. how they interpret it at that precise moment, will have an impact on the finished product.

_bob's avatar

@Dansedescygnes “I remember being a little kid going to the symphony and wondering what the point of the conductor was; I just assumed that everyone could play without him.”

That’s exactly what I’m wondering. Guess my inner child is alive and well :P

Jack79's avatar

Actually the conductor is just a guy that moves a stick. His job is to wake up people (especially in the audience) who fall asleep, either through vigorous movement of his stick, or, if all else fails, by sticking his stick in them.

He is usually the guy that was not good enough to play in the band, and never got picked. Or maybe he plays the accordeon, which doesn’t fit with a string orchestra. But he looks good in a frock, which is why they let him play with his stick instead.

Also, it is important not to be too tall or too fat, because you’ll be hiding the people on stage from the lady in the front row, who’s usually some rich bitch or a corrupt politician’s wife. And you don’t want to piss her off!

Jack79's avatar

ps I don’t think anyone remembered to mention that most of his job, just like in cwilbur’s very good director comparison, is not done on the day of the performance. He is there at the rehearsals teaching the people how to play the music. And in some cases even does the arrangement.

NuclearSnail's avatar

The conductor is absolutely vital when singing in a choir. He/she keeps eye contact with the entire choir in order to indicate certain things (crescendo, dynamics etc) at certain times. Without a conductor it becomes very difficult to work together as one fluid voice. Not impossible, but much more difficult.

That’s just choral music though, I couldn’t speak for orchestras.

Blondesjon's avatar

Pull your wand out and wave it around, in time, to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, and then tell me whether or not you’ve accomplished something.

Dansedescygnes's avatar


I love Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. One of my all-time favorite classical pieces.

La_chica_gomela's avatar

The conductor is to the orchestra what the coach to the basketball team. By the time you get to the performance, I sure as hell hope that they don’t do that much. It’s what they do before that, behind the scenes, that’s important.

mattbrowne's avatar

Good conductors have memorized the whole scores. All instruments. They are excellent listeners (which requires many years of hard training) and notice any mismatch of the intended interpretation of the score. They are also good leaders and team builders.

_bob's avatar

@La_chica_gomela Now I have this image of basketball players playing in an orchestra.

minolta's avatar

You have to think of the conductor as it’s literal definition. It conducts electricity and music through to the players. I am a member of orchestras, and can honestly tell you: each conductor, conducts his own electric feel to the players, which brings out the music the way he hears it. You would be surprised what difference a good conductor can make over an average one. It’s like night and day. A conductor transmits energy, and that energy lets us musicians play as a single organism, a unified structure, selfless and in respect with the ideas the conductor is transmitting to us. Orchestras are magical in that sense.. next time you go to a concert, listen to the silence carefully, watch the players, and then try to feel the electricity right as the first beat is played. It is truly amazing.

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