What does a Conductor of an Orchestra Actually do?

The primary responsibility of an orchestra conductor is to prepare the musical ensemble for public performances. This necessitates the interpretation of musical works and the transmission of those interpretations to musicians in real time via arm gestures. In general, the conductor is expected to learn the entire score rather than the individual parts. He or she will almost certainly be expected to perform a number of important business duties as well, which will have a significant impact on the orchestra’s success. Many orchestra conductors are also educators who seek to further their knowledge through advanced degrees, seminars, workshops, and other events.

Orchestra Conductor

The most important job of an orchestra conductor is to lead members of the orchestra through rehearsals and performances. He or she does this in part standing in front of the musicians on a podium and making a series of precise arm movements. These movements are interpreted the musicians, who gain information such as how fast or loud they should play. A conductor’s education includes learning standard conducting patterns, but each one develops his or her own style or approach over time. Fundamental knowledge of each instrument is also expected, and conductors may physically demonstrate or verbally describe exactly what they want orchestra members to do to achieve specific sounds during rehearsals.

Music Interpretation

One reason why the same work can sound vastly different under different conductors is the way orchestras read and translate differences in conducting styles. Another reason is that an orchestra conductor is also tasked with interpreting the score’s artistic nature. If he sees the term “ritard” in the score, for example, he knows he should slow down, but how much he should slow down is up to him to decide. This individual interpretation of the score, combined with the conductor’s personal style, contributes to the orchestra’s overall “voice.”

Identifying Individual Scores

All musicians in an orchestra must know their individual parts, but a conductor must know entire scores because he or she serves as a musical traffic director, cuing musicians to enter and exit the musical highway at the appropriate times. A conductor usually studies a score visually to become familiar with it, paying close attention to theoretical considerations such as instrumental transposition and harmonic progression. As study and rehearsal progress, he or she usually makes personal notes in the score. Symphony conductors also learn works listening to recorded performances, with some people being able to visualize at least one instrument’s part at a time as they hear it. Some even stage mock performances for themselves, “directing” a performance recording to practice cuing and other patterns.

Professional Education Advancement

Because symphony conductors have access to such a large number of orchestral works, they are constantly expanding their repertoire, often taking formal classes or attending seminars on advanced conducting techniques. They must also learn music theory related to orchestral conducting, such as choral diction, and have a basic understanding of Latin, French, German, and Italian music languages. Conductors frequently teach these skills as professors, usually at the university level, and the best are in high demand as artists.

Making Choices and Advancing the Arts

A conductor of an orchestra frequently serves as the ensemble’s creative and business decision maker. He or she may be involved in a variety of non-performance tasks, such as selecting repertoire, providing media quotes, promoting orchestra events, guest lecturing, resolving conflicts, auditioning or recruiting new professional musicians, and participating in contract negotiations. The conductor’s decisions on behalf of the orchestra have a significant impact on how the public perceives the orchestra and how successful it becomes, so he or she is essentially the orchestra’s public face.

When symphonic and related arts funding or other support is scarce, a conductor of an orchestra usually focuses his or her business efforts on being a promoter. He or she could, for example, rally public support for legislation that would increase music funding or conduct and publish research demonstrating the positive effects of music on communities. Without these efforts, the programs in which conductors are involved are more likely to be cut, putting them at risk of losing their jobs. Because new open positions are uncommon and highly competitive, most conductors work tirelessly to support the arts and their own jobs.