Baton or No Baton

August 11, 2012 at 02:13 PM · In Laurie's blog on Celebrating Classical Music she included a video clip from the Firebird Suite played by the Chicago Symphony. I immediately noticed that the conductor did not use a baton. I was shocked but in a very good way. I personally don't like using a baton to conduct, and I don't typically use one in rehearsals. However, I have always used one in performance because I thought this was extremely standard. Now that I've seen a conductor of an major symphony not using one, I'm wondering how many of you have played under a conductor and didn't use a baton. For those of you who conduct or have conducted, what are your thoughts on batons?

Replies (23)

August 11, 2012 at 03:49 PM · The few conductors without batons I have played under have been primarily choral conductors. Those occasions were choral works with orchestra, and, let us say, I wasn't always too happy with the definition of the beat. However, I have played under one or two orchestral conductors who did not use a baton but were well aware of the orchestra's requirements. They were fine.

The other day I saw on TV Daniel Barenboim conducting Beethoven 9. He didn't just conduct without a score, which would be standard for him and many other conductors, but he went up a level and dispensed with his music stand. The psychological implication was that a barrier was no longer there; he was physically closer to, and clearly much more at one with the orchestra, choir and soloists.

August 11, 2012 at 03:54 PM · In a large orchestra, it's sometimes harder to follow a conductor without a baton--it acts as an extension of gesture and a very important aid to musicians sitting on the sides of the orchestra.

Most of the conductors I've worked with who don't use them are choral conductors in their principal work. The gestures and 'language' of choral conducting is quite different, and it's unusual for the choir to not be directly in front of the conductor, so the visual angles are different.

Of course, the value of the baton lies in the conductor's skill with it. Sloppy baton work is of little help to anyone.

August 11, 2012 at 06:23 PM · All things being equal, It's easier to make certain details clearer with a baton. But it depends a lot on the individual conductor. Some are very clear w.o. a baton, and some are very muddy with one. Some conductors alternate, using a baton for certain precise beat and sub-division indications, and put the baton down for broad, expressive passages.

Once, during Kurt Masur's tenure at the new York Philahrmonic, a cellist friend of mine, who was also studying conducting, went to a concert. Afterward, she waited at the performers exit door, and started talking to one of the cellists coming out and asked her: "I notice that Masur doesn't use a baton. Does that present any problem?" The answer: "Masur doesn't use a baton??" (As though she never looked up at him to notice! No doubt she was pulling my friend's leg, but...)

August 11, 2012 at 07:54 PM · Raphael, no "buts" about it - it's par for the course for some orchestral players I know ;)

August 12, 2012 at 11:58 AM · Which reminds me of this apochryphal story, in the version that I heard it, attributed to the Met:

There was a member of the viola section who was an assitant conductor at the Met. One day James Levine got sick and this violist was asked to sub-conduct for him at the last moment. He was nervous but excited at the opportunity, and did OK.

The next evening Levine was back, and the violist took his usual seat in the viola section. Said his stand-partner: "And where were you last night?" ;-D

August 12, 2012 at 10:48 PM · As Marjory says, using a baton provides "an extension of gesture" which is helpful to the players and/or singers in following the conductor's wrist actions in particular. As to conductors, not using a baton means having to wave arms around when a simple wrist action could have sufficed if a baton were used. OTOH, I do not approve of the sort of baton which is the better part of a foot long - a shorter and smaller baton suffices.

August 12, 2012 at 11:11 PM · On "conductor.com" or whatever is the conductor's equivalent of violinist.com, I imagine there are baton wars equivalent to our shoulder rest wars.

Get rid of your batons! Feel more freedom, feel more connected to your orchestra, improve your tone.

August 12, 2012 at 11:23 PM · Hi,

The conductor in the clip is Pierre Boulez. He is known for conducting without a baton and is an amazing specialist of contemporary music (and a brilliant composer).

Many conductors who conduct a lot of contemporary music do not use a baton. I have done much contemporary music as a concertmaster and soloist with conductors conducting without a baton and found it clearer in many regards, especially with rapidly changing dynamics and meters and with the freedom it gives the conductor's hand to indicate the often minute and very precise details of dynamics and expression in the score. It can be clean, very precise and incisive.

This does not mean that one is better than the other. I tend as a concertmaster to prefer one who uses a baton for non-contemporary or very complex music meter-wise as it makes things broader and leaves more margins for larger lines.

It just depends on the music in my very humble opinion. In the end, like all the SR wars, as long as it works, is clear, efficient and helps us sound great, it's all good.

Cheers!

August 13, 2012 at 11:45 AM · I am slightly prejudiced since I directed choirs for many years. The hands are much more expressive than a stick.I guess you could make them more visible by wearing white gloves. Of course

If you insist on a stick you could make it audible as the French Director Lully did by pounding his stick on the floor, just keep your foot out of the way. LOL

August 14, 2012 at 03:01 PM · Jack that's an interesting point -- choir directors often don't use batons and it seems okay for them!

August 14, 2012 at 03:32 PM · I'd say the reason that losing the baton works for choral conductors is that the choir reads the conductor's lips. Not having an instument to mess with lets you get the music closer to the sight line to the director.

October 4, 2016 at 03:10 PM · I personally prefer not to use a baton when conducting. I prefer smaller ensembles for the musicians can hear themselves better and thus get better. I was mentored by Dr. Carolyn Broe who does use a baton, but I also studied recorded master classes by Herbert Von Karajan, who rarely used a baton, and I found that if you do not use a baton, the musicians have to count for themselves because the beat is not always completely apparent in "freehand" ictus.

Also it is easier to express the dynamics to the musicians when using both hands for expression.

Also when playing music written before the baton became popular, it is best to not use it. Mozart did not use a baton, and his concerts went fine. Of course one can conduct Mozart with a baton, but it would not be period correct. And when playing baroque music, there rarely would be a conductor at all. The conductor would lead from the organ or harpsichord. Only gesturing the tempo before the piece and then simply playing with the ensemble.

October 4, 2016 at 03:28 PM · WHO RUSSERECTED THIS BLOG? Oh well. Its still new anyway

October 4, 2016 at 09:44 PM · Boulez used his whole forearm instead of the baton (which the french call "baguette", like their soft but crusty loaf of bread).

Choral conductors often shape phrasing rather than define a beat, which can make life difficult for the orchestra.

December 8, 2016 at 06:11 AM · I was in a conducting Masterclass several years ago, where the conducting professor yelled at me, and said "You are under the delusion of the tactus!" I was conducting Mendelssohn's "Fingal's Cave Overture" with a community orchestra. He insisted that I try it again without the baton. So, I put my baton down on the stand, inhaled for the start of the overture, and did not move my hands. Not one musician in the orchestra came in! The professor blustered, unable to understand why his brilliant advice had failed so completely. Yes, when you are conducting a choir, or a much smaller Baroque orchestra, it makes sense to conduct without a baton. The conducting professor is used to conducting professional musicians, and top notch university music majors. A word to the wise, when you are in front of a community orchestra, you had better use a baton, and use a very clear beat with plenty of cues, or reap the consequences. I have found in my twenty five years of conducting professional musicians, that they appreciate a baton and a clear tactus as well. Conducting without a baton, or without a tactus is something major league conductors do, with major league orchestras, to impress major league patrons, and media critics. If you really want to show off as a conductor, try conducting left handed, or flip your baton from one had to the other just for effect. Just make sure that you catch your baton, or there may be a little egg to clean up afterwards. :D

December 8, 2016 at 09:00 AM · Baton is a hard instrument and for some, it is easier to get to the point (heh) without one. You don't have to tie yourself up in knots like a choral conductor. It does help if you move your hands, of course.

Among those who managed just fine without: Boulez, the young Bernstein, Mitropoulos (before his heart attack), Stokowski. Plenty of evidence on YouTube of their abilities. Turn down the sound and see if you could have followed them.

December 8, 2016 at 02:41 PM · "Some conductors alternate, using a baton for certain precise beat and sub-division indications, and put the baton down for broad, expressive passages."

I remember Arvid Yansons lodging his baton in the principal 'cellist's music for the "songful" passages in Tschaikowski's 6th. Symphony, taking it back for the frantic episodes.

December 8, 2016 at 03:23 PM · How about Baton Rouge???

December 8, 2016 at 03:31 PM · Even with a baton in both hands many conductors would still be hopeless, IMHO.

December 8, 2016 at 03:44 PM · I think the clearest conducting I have encountered in my 66 years of community orchestra playing has been under a conductor who did not use a baton. He took advantage of the expressiveness possible with individual fingers. Many conductors who use batons don't seem to know what to do with that extension of their hands and there are times when their hands and batons are not quite in agreement with each other.

For the past 5 years I've played in a "self-directed" (no conductor) community orchestra of 30 players and although that solves the baton problem, it does limit the range of music that comes together well. It does make the concertMASTER job critically important - fortunately for all - not my job!

December 8, 2016 at 05:11 PM · oh, you mean those salt sprinkling movements maestro Gergiev does?!

December 8, 2016 at 06:34 PM · I thought that was tickling his ferret.

Of course, Karajan in his very last years, conducting only in Vienna and Berlin, would sit there kneading bread to remind everyone what they discussed in rehearsal.

December 8, 2016 at 10:32 PM · It is up to the conductor. A baton makes the conductor's job easier, in my opinion. Max Rudolph's The Grammar of Conducting (Simon Fischer Basics for Conductors) highly recommends a baton.

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