So then what does the conductor do up there?
The conductor of any ensemble has two roles: interpreter and sound engineer. As an interpreter, the conductor spends countless hours sitting in an office, likely sipping some sort of alcohol-based beverage – I prefer a well-warmed sampling of Frangelico, accompanied by the occasional cigar – while studying each note and phrase of a composition.
A good stick waiver takes the time to pick apart every aspect of a composition, and examines it from every angle. From the melody and harmony, to the inspiration for and historical significance of the piece, the conductor knows that each bit of information is valuable to their understanding of the work (they also fear the awkward situation of being asked a question about the piece, yet unable to give an informed reply). The intense studying also helps them form their own educated opinion and interpretation about the piece, and know exactly what they want and don’t want to hear from the orchestra. When the conductor steps onto the podium, all eyes and ears are on him, and every cue, cut-off, and motion are (ideally) followed – and scrutinized just as closely.
As a sound engineer, the conductor listens to what everyone is playing, what they just played, and what they are about to play. He then processes it all, makes a judgement on what's happening, and communicates back to the orchestra what adjustments need to be made.
Think you have what it takes to handle all that? Click here for a fun 2-minute challenge I put together to give you an idea of what goes through a conductor's mind when he's on the podium. See how your time compares to that of a professional conductor. Can you think like a maestro?
In the end, the job of the conductor is to determine and communicate how the orchestra should work together to achieve the best sound possible - similar to a chef perfecting a gourmet dish by utilizing their years of study and training to determine how much of each ingredient should be used to create the best taste.
Got a conducting question of your own? Send it my way and I'll fill you in on all the "behind the scenes" action of life on the podium.
Andrew J. Lyon