What’s That Guy Doing With That Stick?

It has come to my attention that something I know about may not be something you know about.

The other day, Donna sent this link to all of us on the MAL backchannel. It's a video depicting the motion-captured movements of Alan Gilbert, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, as he conducts a Stravinsky chorale. It does a great job of showing what a conductor is actually doing up on that podium, especially at the point when it juxtaposes the conductor's movements with the respective volumes and positions in in the orchestra.

This video sparked a conversation in which many of the MAL contributors admitted that they had always wondered how a conductor's movements correlated with the sounds produced by the orchestra. I've been a musician since the tender age of 12; since then, I've thoroughly forgotten that a conductor could even be something that someone would be puzzled by (much less interested in).

Judging from my small 'Lab sample size, I will extrapolate to assume that many of our readers are curious about the man in front of the orchestra as well. Without further ado, here is a basic primer on the art of conducting.

To begin, let's watch a bit of this video of Tan Dun, the composer most famous for the music for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (and the recent conductor of the YouTube Symphony, which this video comes from).

From the front, you get a bit more of an impression of what the conductor is doing. At about 0:17, watch his baton. What he's doing here is a basic 4/4 pattern — beating out the four beats per measure of a 4/4 time signature. Specifically, what he's doing is this:

4/4 Pattern

As you can see in the diagram, each corner of the pattern symbolizes a specific beat. This way, a musician can look at his or her music for as long as they need, and only take a second or two to look up and see what beat the orchestra is on. Indeed, you could even say that the flamboyancy of a conductor's movements are specifically designed to let musicians see what he or she is doing from the corner of their eyes while they're focusing on the music notes flying past on the staves before them.

Of course, an orchestra full of musicians who never actually look at the conductor would be terrible. Conductors aren't just there to mark the beat, though oftentimes that is all that a fledgling conductor can do (memories of 8 a.m. Beginning Conducting class are flooding back to me). A truly effective conductor communicates nearly every element of the music — dynamics, style, articulation, emotion. They prepare the cello section to come in or let the poor, poor percussionists know that their 70 measures of rest are about to come to an end. Let me show you how.

Check out this picture of Vagn Egon Jørgensen.

Vagn Egon Jørgensen

See his left hand? The left hand is the interpetation center of the conductor. It says play louder, play softer, come in, cut off, play with anger, play with grace. In this particular picture, he's instructing a section to play quieter. If his palm were upright, that would be the signal to gradually play louder.

Interpretation doesn't just stop at the hand, however. A conductor's entire body can communicate the subtlest or most powerful of messages. A step or lean forward, for example, suggests intensity, while the same done backward lets the musicians know to back off a bit. And the face, of course, communicates in droves. The speed of the movements matters as well: a speedy swipe would suggest a short or intense note, while graceful, ballerina like strokes direct the orchestra to play with sweetness and lyricism.

“But wait!” you might exclaim. “What, exactly, does a conductor's urges of ‘louder’ or ‘graceful’ or ‘short’ mean for an orchestra filled with musicians whose decades of impeccable practice have unquestionably taught them to read the music's dynamics and articulations?” A whole hell of a lot, in fact.

A conductor is a lot like a good boss. What if you had a bunch of experts in their fields that you brought together to collaborate on a single project? Even though each person might be incredibly smart and talented, the quality of that project would depend on the ability of the leader to make those people work together — perhaps by subduing some of their individual desires in favor of what's best for the group; perhaps by letting certain ones shine to make the entire project better.

No matter how good a musician is, he or she cannot hear the entire orchestra the way a conductor can. The conductor knows what to tell the musicians to make the entire piece sound amazing (and perhaps subdue their natural tendencies to want to play out like a soloist). No matter how subtle an eyebrow raise or how quick a hand signal, gestures from the podium go a long way for musical interpretation, and the mastery of those gestures can be the difference between a mediocre performance and a spine-tingling one.


Featured image by Flickr user sogolitta, conducting pattern image from How to Conduct Music: A Primer for Beginners, photo of Vagn Egon Jørgensen by Flickr user apgroner.

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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  1. I think it is also important to mention rehearsal – a lot of the conductor's work takes place long before the performance.  Decisions concerning shaping, interpretation, and detail happen in rehearsal, where the conductor gets the final say on how the piece gets performed.  Not that there isn't spontaneity with a live performance, but the conductor can't completely change his interpretation 'in the moment' and expect the ensemble to follow.  
    And thanks for sharing the Alan Gilbert video – very good use of visualization to show what is going on in the ensemble.  

  2. Speaking of how much a conductor can communicate with his face, this little video shows Leonard Bernstein conducting Haydn with ONLY his face!

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