How can you tell if someone is good at conducting an orchestra?
I play violin in orchestra, but I hardly know anything about conducting. What are the main skills that a conductor needs when waving around their hands and stick besides the basic counting?
For a student and amateur orchestrsa some things like clear indications of "the beat" are very important. For professional orchestras these things are less critical because the players know what they are doing.
Re ~ How can one tell if someone is good at Conducting?
Paul Deck suggested that you write and save your posts in Word or some other word-processing program. That would help you, certainly.
Most of the conductor's work is done before the concert, in score study and rehearsals. The conductor needs to have a clear idea of what he/she wants and the ability to communicate it to the musicians in rehearsal.
The chief requirement to be a successful conductor is a ten-gallon ego
A conductor is not "waving around his hands and stick". That's just what you see during the performance. A conductor has a concept (after study) of what he wants with the piece of music, and there are usually two or three big compositions in any given program.
I once played in Baltimore Symphony's "Rusty Musicians" program. Marin Alsop conducted us. From that experience, I can tell you two things she did which I believe are crucial to good conducting. First, the beat was very clear. You could always tell where you were. Second, when she wanted us to do something, she was able to explain it very clearly. To me, those two attributes are crucial. In my current community orch, sometimes it is hard to tell which beat you are on in a measure. That makes life difficult if you are trying to follow the conductor.
Following a conductor is a skill too. If you have only played in a few ensembles then you might not adapt well to different styles, different kinds of movement, too quickly. And just watching the conductor while you watch your part sitting in the back of your section -- is a skill that takes time and effort to improve. I think that's why a lot of community orchestra conductors favor the strong downbeat (even Marin Alsop, according to Tom) -- because they can see the eyes of their charges and they know that "watching" is maybe at a 30% level and they want more than anything just to end the damned piece together. Of course the subtlety and sophistication of the conductor can reasonably be expected to scale with that of the players. I seriously doubt Maestro Alsop is concerned about being watched and followed when she is conducting the Baltimore.
Good eye contact with a solo woodwind/brass/percussion player or a section principal half a measure or so before the player's entry is essential. Making eye contact on (or even after!) the entry itself is a sure sign of a conductor who still has a lot to learn.
From a player into a community orchestra's perspective I need two things from a conductor: a clear down beat, especially when the tempo slows down, and clear indication of the dynamics he/she wishes the orchestra/section to play. I have no need for confusing gestures arms up in the air, eye winks, and body motions for show off, especially when watching from my periferal vision from the back row of the 2nd violins section. From an audience's perspective it's another story.
Conducting opera orchestras is a marvelous indicator of a conductors skills, in particular the vagaries sometimes of the soloists and nailing the recitative passages - the orchestra can not rely on its knowledge of the piece and has to hang on each baton movement (and eyes and whatever else she's got).
Empathy is essential for conductors, and frankly for anyone in a leadership role in any organization. I've been in community orchestras with technically skilled conductors who have almost zero empathy, and I've played in those same orchestras with not so skilled but empathetic conductors. My experience is that the emphatic skills trump the technical. Why? Because the emphatic leader knows how to connect with the players at an emotional level and pull out your best without screams, tantrums and threats.
The difference between a good conductor and a useless one is;-- one beat. The good conductor is mentally ahead of the music, leading, making his gestures right before the musicians need them. That other kind of conductor is following, reacting to the music, his gestures arrive too late.
I assume that when conductors learn and polish their craft, they do the same as pianists and violinists with regard to thinking ahead. Bow distribution, shifts, etc., all require advance preparation during the music. Most conductors are/were themselves accomplished instrumentalists first, so looking ahead is probably part of their basic psyche.
Conducting musical theater and opera are the most revealing takes on a conductor's skills when it comes down to the most critical aspects of "air traffic control." The need for clarity, adaptability, and humility are front and center.
As far as technique, the aim is first to know what the whole thing should sound like, and then to get each section to contribute appropriately. Sort of like giving instructions to the 10 fingers of a pianist. A good look at that process is in the Karajan rehearsal videos— Mozart with Menuhin, and Schumann 4 with the VSO. Sometimes you given direct information, sometimes you give guidance so that everyone knows whom to listen to, and sometimes you get out of the way.
As far as technique, the aim is first to know what the whole thing should sound like, and then to get each section to contribute appropriately. Sort of like giving instructions to the 10 fingers of a pianist. A good look at that process is in the Karajan rehearsal videos— Mozart with Menuhin, and Schumann 4 with the VSO. Sometimes you give direct information, sometimes you give guidance so that everyone knows whom to listen to, and sometimes you get out of the way.
A good conductor is sort of mesmeric. You can't play any OTHER way. The best I've played for is Sir Adrian Boult. He did very little, but everything meant a lot.
I agree with Malcolm. To me, a good conductor is someone who basically is playing the orchestra with their whole body. If you watch them, you react automatically. They do not make extraneous motions. You can understand what they are doing instinctively. (And they also have something to say musically.)
A quick test: Does the conductor give an upbeat at the beginning or does he/she count a "bar for nothing"?
Albrecht, if the conductor gives an upbeat, which is then followed by the first downbeat, you have effectively been given a time interval, so you now know what the tempo is.
If the conductor's contract is renewed at the end of the first year of residence that is usually a sign that all is well (I'm talking advanced community orchestras here).
There are three essential components of a good conductor in my opinion:
Preparatory beats: The pro orchestra only needs one to set the tempo. For the amateur or community orchestra, two is safer. More than that is an insult to the musicians.
The conductor of my LA* orchestra meets Susan's criteria on all three counts. As an example, this autumn we have a challenging all-Sibelius programme, and our conductor has just sent us all an email specifying exactly what is going to be rehearsed on each of the rehearsal dates. He does this meticulously for every concert.
The conductor of my community orchestra does what Trevor's does -- all sets and their rehearsals are meticulously planned, and this also allows musicians to plan their schedules (i.e. people do not have to arrive early if we're not rehearsing a work that uses their instrument).
I concur with Susan's three points. In my experience, though, bad conductors have actually been more likely to lack clear movements. All but one of the conductors I've had in my life have been the type to meticulously plan every rehearsal to the minute. But I've had more than one conductor do the infuriating thing I mentioned where every beat looks like a down beat, and I've had at least two whose movements got very fuzzy around fermatas and tempo changes (as if reacting, as Joel suggests).
Sometimes the pros have that. Roberto Abbado seems to have a nice sense of musicality, and gets orchestras to play with a good tone. But when he first came to the BSO, tempo changes were real nail-biters.
Be emotional, Bernstein did this well. Feel the music, be part of the music.
A good conductor gets a different sound from an orchestra.