Behind the scenes: Conducting an orchestra

Attending an orchestral performance can be magical. But to be perfectly honest, it’s not always that interesting to watch the musicians. They just don’t move around much. No, when listening to an orchestra perform, it’s the motion of the conductor that tends to draw the eye.

Yet many of us have little understanding of why a conductor is important or what the conductor is bringing to the performance. Orchestras are made up of professional musicians, after all. Experts with years, possibly decades, of experience. Do you even really need a conductor?

Yes. Yes you do!  At the most basic level, it’s important that someone keeps the tempo for the musicians. As the music speeds up or slows down in accordance with the composer’s direction, the conductor keeps chaos at bay. That’s why one of the first things that young musicians learn is to keep an eye on the conductor.

And the conductor weighs the sounds of a performance. After all, a work will sound different to the first-chair violinist seated at the front of the stage than to the percussionist standing to one side at the back. It’s up to the conductor to create a pleasing balance.

But the real fun comes with artistic interpretation, perhaps the conductor’s most important job. Sheet music is filled with the composer’s instructions, but those notations still allow for considerable differences in the performance of a work. For example, the score may direct the musician to play con fuoco — “with fire” — but what exactly does that sound like? When the music should swell with volume, how much volume is enough?

This role is always important, but particularly during rehearsals, when musicians go over every nuance as a group. This is when the conductor brings his or her vision for each piece of music to life. This vision can take the performance of a piece from predictable to transcendent.

So the next time you watch a musical performance, take a few moments to observe and appreciate the conductor. And in the meantime, check out this fun video in which conductor James Gaffigan talks about the wildly different styles of several preeminent conductors and explains in detail how they use gestures to speak the language of music.