What Does A Conductor Do, Anyway?

By Donato Cabrera, Music Director for the Las Vegas Philharmonic

I am frequently asked questions like, “What exactly are you doing up there when you wave your arms?” Or, “Do the musicians really need you, because it doesn’t look like they are watching you all the time?” And, “If the music for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 is the same as it’s always been, why does the orchestra need a conductor?” I truly enjoy answering these questions because, for those of us who have played in an ensemble, whether it was in a middle school band, in a church choir, or in a professional orchestra, we have a fairly good idea of what a conductor does. Imagine, however, what a conductor must look like to someone who has never studied music?

The conductor’s role is primarily that of a teacher. A traditional Italian name for a conductor is maestro and the literal translation is master, but in practice it means teacher. I’ve always felt that my primary job as a conductor takes place during the rehearsals, helping everyone in the group play the music to the best of their abilities, and making sure that the orchestra is executing the composer’s intentions at the highest level. To me, the concert is the public celebration of the hard work we have all put into learning the music and the conductor’s role during the concert is to help connect the audience to the orchestra and music being performed.

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While individual members of an orchestra may begin practicing weeks in advance, the first rehearsal as a group usually happens just days before the concert. There are usually only four rehearsals, which means the conductor must be able to bring together, in a very short time, a room full of highly trained individuals who all have their own ideas of how the music should go. At the first couple of rehearsals, there are notes and rhythms to fix, balances within the orchestra to adjust, and coordination of the various sections of the orchestra so that they are playing together – in other words, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. Sometimes it may be necessary to spend many minutes on just a few seconds of music to get it right. This can be tedious work but there isn’t a professional musician that doesn’t appreciate this process. After all, we want to present our audience with the best possible product and serve the composers by performing these timeless compositions at the highest level.

Speaking of composers! Composers such as Bach, Haydn and Mozart never intended their music to be played centuries later. The music was written quickly and intended to be performed by their close circle of friends and colleagues. So, their directions are often minimal and vague. In a typical piece of music from the 18th and 19th centuries, a composer wrote only the word, “allegro,” to indicate a quick speed.  Well, allegro literally means cheerful, but in musical terms it means fast. But, how fast is fast?  How loud is loud?  How slow is slow? The conductor’s job is deciding all of these things, in advance of the first rehearsal.

The music that you see on a conductor’s music stand is called a score. It has the music of the entire orchestra on it and on any given page a conductor can see what everyone is playing. It is complicated and takes many years to learn how to read and decipher. In order for the conductor to do his job, he or she must know what everyone is doing at all times so that if there’s a problem, the conductor can know what to do to fix it. Think of it this way: learning a score is like memorizing a map of a national park. One studies the map to learn all the trails, the topography of the mountain ranges and forests, the depth of the rivers, etc. The rehearsal process is like visiting the park for the first time. It’s my chance to transform what I’m hearing in real time to the sonic image I’ve created of the score.

The physical gestures that every conductor uses are the nonverbal means of communicating basic musical ideas to the orchestra and they certainly don’t require any musical background to understand. Bigger gestures mean louder or slower, and smaller gestures mean softer or faster. Pointed gestures mean accented and direct, smoother gestures mean gentle and, well, smooth. You get the idea! But, music is constantly transitioning from happy to sad, slow to fast, loud to soft, high sounds to low sounds…the variations are endless. These transitions are moments in the music where musicians rely on the conductor. Once the transition has happened, the musicians can go back to focusing on playing all the right notes until the next transition occurs.

Why is it necessary to have a conductor for a piece of music like Beethoven’s 5th Symphony? While there are moments in this piece that would be technically challenging to play without a conductor, it certainly wouldn’t be impossible to do it.  In fact, I know of orchestras who have performed Beethoven’s 5th without a conductor. But whenever I’ve seen an orchestra perform a grand symphonic piece without a conductor, I’ve always left the concert being impressed with the technical challenges that have been conquered, but uninspired by the lack of interpretive insight – that individual voice deciding how things should go. Too many cooks have been in the kitchen and the meal that I’ve just eaten, even with the best ingredients being used and the recipe followed to the letter, is boring and bland.

If one were to bring together the fifty most famous painters in the world, take them to the Louvre, plop them down in front of the Mona Lisa, and tell them to paint exactly what they saw in front of them, my guess is that we would get fifty unique and entirely different versions of this iconic masterpiece. The same is true for the great musical masterpieces. Fifty different conductors, fifty different interpretations of Beethoven’s 5th. Art, whether we are enjoying it or creating it, is always about perspective. It is the journey we all take in understanding and appreciating it that matters.

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