BFO Conductor and Artistic Director, Alyssa Wang, answers this popular question in her own words.
Okay, this is a big question, but…the answer doesn’t have to be complicated. At first glance, the conductor is like a mystical wizard, wand in hand, with the magic of music flowing out of them. It can be hard to identify by simply observing a conductor exactly what they do for the simple reason that they don’t produce any sound. A violinist in the orchestra puts the bow on the string and plays, and as a result, we hear their instrument creating sound. A conductor waves their baton through the air, but the baton doesn’t make the sound. Instead, a group of musicians make contact with their instruments in response to the conductor and their baton, thereby producing sound. The conductor is, ultimately, a conduit for the people who actually make the music. It is for this reason that the role of the conductor isn’t immediately obvious.
The number one job of a conductor is to keep time. The speed of the music, and when the music starts and stops, are two things for which the orchestra does generally rely on the conductor. Using a series of beat patterns, the conductor can speed up and slow down the music with great precision. Sometimes the composer will write in directions for the musicians, such as ritardando (slow down) or accelerando (speed up), and it’s the conductor who can guide a large group of musicians through these transitions as a unified body. One of the qualities that makes for a great orchestra is the ability to play exactly together, and having a conductor at the helm for these tempo changes is one of the ways that an orchestra can excel.
Beyond the Tempo
Besides tempo, there are many more elements in the music that the conductor can convey with their body motions. Some examples include volume, phrasing, articulation, and character. There are also very practical duties for conductors, such as cueing musicians’ entrances. Imagine the lone percussionist at the back of the orchestra who frequently must count dozens of bars, sometimes hundreds, before they play a single note. A conductor can help to avoid incorrect entrances by indicating that it’s time for that musician to play. The same applies at the ends of very long notes–the conductor will show the musicians when to finish a note.
Behind Closed Doors
The most significant part of a conductor’s time with the orchestra isn’t during the concert–it’s in the rehearsals. The conductor’s job is to improve the orchestra in a series of rehearsals leading up to the concert, as well as unify the group under their personal interpretation of the music. Ideally, the conductor is in a constant give and take with the musicians, requesting their own personal musical decisions while also giving the musicians the freedom to play with their own voices. It’s one of my personal goals to be able to sense how to bring any orchestra I conduct to their highest potential, an end goal that changes depending on the group.
Every Body Is Different
Something that has been heavily on my mind lately has been about the idea that, as conductors, it is our bodies that are the instruments. Rather than an instrument made in a factory with exact measurements, each conductor has to reckon with an “instrument” that no one else has. Now that I’ve laid out some of the duties of a conductor, you can see how the execution of these duties can vary widely from conductor to conductor. Even basic technical advice for conductors doesn’t necessarily apply from one person to another. I think it’s important for conductors to find their own personal physical connection to the music. And as long as they can show these musical elements clearly, it’s okay to look different from each other!
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