What Does a Conductor Actually Do?

Brandon Patoc

The Maestro comes onstage to a roar of applause. He has a little piece of wood: the baton. With it he will stand at the podium, face a throng of musicians, and, with nary a word, count off a piece of music in front of them. One, two, three, and with a flick of the wrist or the wave of the arm, the orchestra creates music, shepherded by the Maestro.

Clemency Burton-Hill wrote a piece for BBC about what a conductor actually does:


Famed composer and conductor Richard Wagner once wrote, “The whole duty of a conductor is comprised in his ability always to indicate the right tempo.” Is the music supposed to be slow? Slower? Fast? The conductor shows the band through movement, facial expression and the like, how time will envolve in that short span of music.


The conductor is there to bring the music to life, communicating their own sense of the work through gestures. They bring their own sensibilities to the piece. There is shade and light and color, and the conductor’s baton is a paint brush.


Burton-Hill quotes Tom Service, author of Music As Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and Their Orchestras: “The best conductors are the best listeners…They become a lightning rod of listening; a focus so that the players and the conductor can become something bigger than all of them.”


Pierre Boulez,  a French composer, conductor, writer and pianist, said of conducting, “You have to impose your will – not with a hammer, but you have to be able to convince people of your point of view.”


The conductor is the vision connection between the audience and the music – the bridge between what’s seen and what’s heard.


A conductor can not simply stand up on the podium ready to play a symphony by Beethoven without ever having studied the score. They could – of course – but by studying the piece one can interpret it. By interpreting it, one can color it.


If the performance is a good one, the conductor gets the lion’s share of praise. If the performance is a bad one, the conductor gets the lion’s share of flak.


A conductor can be more than a conductor. Their personality and vision can change the culture of not only an organization but the culture of classical music itself.

Here’s a bit of Seattle Symphony’s Ludovic Morlot conducting Verdi’s Requiem…