The Conductor. Umm, what actually do they do?!
Updated: Mar 7, 2020
Conductors are so important, aren’t they? Aren’t they?!
They can enthuse, and inspire; create, and craft; build and entertain. Or they can crumble people’s confidence, crush their self-belief, and sap all joy out of music-making from someone who loves music.
We’ve all had them though; those terrible conductors who are often confident in what they’re doing, but actually, what they are doing is often of little help to anyone. To boot, they often seem to have an indiscernible beat, and no one seems to be able to decipher their waving. They also seem to speak in technicalities that are rarely understood by the everyday enthusiastic musician. With that in mind, why do we need them? Bloody good question one might ask!
At the most fundamental and rudimentary level, a conductor is a human metronome. They set the tempo, manipulate the tempo when needed, and with a little bit of artistic license, pick a suitable tempo for the ensemble they are conducting. When conducting amateur ensembles with a mixed ability demographic, I will more often than not select tempos that are a bit slower than written (ok, I don’t turn an ‘allegro’ tempo into an ‘andante’, but rather turn ‘allegro’ into something a smidgeon more leisurely). But this means we can tackle more challenging rep with a bit more precision and accuracy, and as the weeks progress and the musicians become more fluent, the tempo can comfortably be turned up a notch. The sense of achievement when the ensemble achieves something beyond what they thought their capability was, does wonders for band cohesion and sense of belonging.
A little bit of an extension to their highly coveted title of ‘human metronome’, the conductor is important for keeping the band together from start to finish, often through multiple time signature changes, and through a journey of tempo changes. Try starting a race without a “ready, steady, go” and you’ll find the runners set off the block at different times. The same applies to the ensemble. The conductor is the “ready, steady, go”, the ‘starting gun’, the mechanism to make sure everyone starts precisely together. They are also crucial for aiding entries when necessary.
So, what else?!
The conductor is most importantly an ambassador for the written music. What on earth do I mean by this? The conductor’s role is to communicate the needs of the music score to the ensemble and negotiate with the band on how to achieve this. This is critical more than ever at the amateur level with a mixed ability skill set. The conductor’s role is often to find a compromise between what’s written on the paper, what sounds good for the band and what the band can technically achieve. This is all achieved through rehearsal technique, a bit of leadership, and if I’m honest a little bit of the fabled “gift of the gab”. At the professional level, and we’re talking conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, the conductor’s role is more ‘translator’ than ambassador. Through gesture, body language, and pure energy, they translate the written music to the orchestra, and the orchestra will respond to every nuanced body movement. To put it more simply, the beauty of any language is that there is more than one way to say something, and even then, what you do say can mean something else based on how it is said. Trying saying “I feel happy”. Now trying saying it angrily. Now sad. Now pained. See how the meaning of “I feel happy” changes with how it’s said? Music is exactly like that. The conductor must make sure that no matter the ‘translation’ (or interpretation) of the music, the orchestra follow the conductor's ‘translation’ to ensure a cohesive performance.
Above all else, the conductor has to enthuse and empower every musician in the room. I must stress the ability to empower! If musicians don't feel empowered, but rather they feel under the iron fist of a musical dictator, then where is the fun in that? How are they supposed to grow and develop? The conductor must empower people so that they feel they have it within themselves to push beyond musical and technical barriers that they may initially feel are beyond them. Furthermore, people need to be reassured, nurtured, be able to make mistakes, and above all, guided so they learn from their mistakes. I’ve come across many conductors in my time, even at the professional level who lack empathy and understanding, and have resulted in tears, even causing one poor soul to run out of a rehearsal. If you’ve seen the film ‘Whiplash’, yes, unfortunately those J.K Simmons characters do exist, but I think they’re on their way out.
I reckon the ol' saying "remember where you've come from" should be the mantra for everyone, especially those in the position of conductor (or any leadership role in fact). For one to lead, one must lead from a position of knowledge, and that knowledge should have a grounding in experience from being a young musician learning the ropes, facing challenges, and over coming adversity. It gives a wonderful insight and understanding how novice musicians maybe feeling at any one moment as they grow and develop.
There we have it, my basic justification for the conductor’s existence!