How to Conduct an Orchestra

What does a conductor do, and how does he or she do it?

By Jim Menick

Who hasn’t waved their hands in the air during a familiar piece of music, conducting the orchestra inside the stereo, urging them on, getting them to hit the right notes at the right time? Me, I’m an expert at this.

But I haven’t got a clue at how to conduct an orchestra.

Anyone can imagine that it isn’t easy to get a philharmonic orchestra working together so that they sound like one organic unit. According to Justin Davidson, classical music and architecture critic for New York Magazine, one of the most important things a conductor does is learn the score. Every note. Every nuance. Which makes sense, given what they’re doing up there. But think about it. A conductor directs dozens of pieces of music. They memorize all of them? They’d better!

For the amateur conductor of the stereo, one thing about real life is radically different from make believe. In real life, the conductor is a beat ahead of the orchestra. When Davidson takes on the challenge of actually conducting an orchestra himself, that is one of the things he has to think about:

“As I get deeper into the score, I focus on one crucial but difficult aspect of the job: preparing a moment before it arrives… A conductor has to be simultaneously ahead of the music and with it, experiencing and expecting at the same time—manufacturing an extended déjà vu. When [NY Philharmonic Music Director Alan] Gilbert works, you can see the pulse thrumming through his body, diggadiggadiggadigga, yet he also projects a commanding serenity. He crooks a finger at the timpanist to alert him of an impending event, flicks it a beat before the entrance, and then drops it in exactly the slot where it belongs.”

Join Davidson on his trip learning to conduct. There’s also some interesting video and slideshow instructions. Read: What Does a Conductor Do?

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