If you’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing an orchestra in person you will know that it is an impressive feat to witness. You may have marveled at the limbs of string players all extending and retracting at the same time. You may have been blown away by how loud and emotive a horn section can belt out expressive notes. You may even have been impressed with the percussionist, keeping a constant beat or moving through a series of vertically standing drums that you hardly recognised. What is definite however is that you would have spent a lot of time focusing on the one person with their back to the crowd, the one person without an instrument – the conductor.
Though they are an unmistakable part of an orchestra, their actual purpose is somewhat mysterious to the layman. Most people don’t understand why someone waving a little stick (simply called a baton) is necessary for an orchestra to play, especially when they all have the sheet music in front of them. They often can appear to steal the show, dancing and jumping around energetically, which is always met by great applause, which some people often think is undeserved. So, what exactly does the tail-suit wearing person on the podium actually do?
Yes, it’s true that written music often has timing inscribed into it, but what you can often forget is that there are many musicians all trying to work together here and a visual representation of timing is necessary to keep everyone in order. Learned musicians are often more than capable of keeping time, but they are also fantastic at following the leads of their peers, which means if left unattended, only one person in the orchestra would need to go slightly off time for the rest to quickly follow. The conductor uses their baton to help performers visualize the beats and keep them all tightly coordinated.
Emphasis and Flair
Though some of the written music may be hundreds of years old, each performance is free to interpretation. A good conductor knows the work intimately and in the moment is capable of enhancing elements. Often with their free left hand they can gesture to parts of the orchestra to prepare themselves, hold notes, or amplify what they are doing. Think of the conductor like a director giving notes in real time, though actors may be able to recite lines from the page, their delivery can always be altered.
The conductor can control many aspects from their place at the front, from the volume to the intensity of each portion of the orchestra. This also means that their place on the podium is the prime spot to hear what is happening, orchestras circle this spot for a reason. Just like the sound desk at a rock gig, the conductor is in the prime position to get the best quality sound and is able to tweak anything that doesn’t sound correct. Meaning without them, not only would the performers be prone to timing and one-upmanship, but the sound the crowd hears just wouldn’t be as polished.