How can you tell if someone is good at conducting an orchestra?

Edited: August 2, 2019, 9:33 PM · 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?

Replies (30)

Edited: August 2, 2019, 10:25 PM · 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.

In general I would say the following things are important in any conductor

1. Knowing the music for every part and able to communicate this to the players through conducting motions and verbally.
2. Consistency both in interpretation of a piece from rehearsal through concert and in conducting motions: i.e., "every little movement has a meaning all its own").
3. To go with this, I appreciate lack of extraneous motions. This makes the conductor easy to follow.

There are basic conducting motions in the "conductor textbook" but at the highest levels of conducting you will see them violated all the time. This is fine as long as the violations have a clear rational, the players understand them, they are consistent, and the same in performance as they were in rehearsals.

Edited: August 2, 2019, 11:59 PM · Re ~ How can one tell if someone is good at Conducting?

Very late & after writing succinctly, I've lost my Post due to not Logging in! It's far too late to re-do now, so I shall try to visit again to list a few pointer's, lost ~

I'll be back, time allowing, sooner than later & I apologise ~

Elisabeth Matesky *

*former Member of Sir Georg Solti's Chicago Symphony Orchestra + much
more ~

August 3, 2019, 12:32 AM · Paul Deck suggested that you write and save your posts in Word or some other word-processing program. That would help you, certainly.
August 3, 2019, 12:53 AM · 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.

As for the actual mechanics of beating time, it might be easier to think about what a good conductor doesn't do -- consider what conductor habits have infuriated you in your orchestral playing experience. One of my pet peeves in community orchestra conductors, for example, is a "drum major" conducting style with a large downward motion to start every single beat, which makes it easy to mistake any beat for a down beat.

August 3, 2019, 1:58 AM · The chief requirement to be a successful conductor is a ten-gallon ego
Edited: August 3, 2019, 2:46 AM · 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.

During rehearsals he (or she!) guides the orchestra towards this concept and the concert is just the execution, though the different concerts usually are not exactly the same, because a good conductor sees the music as an organic whole. Really good conductors are also open to the ideas of the principals in the orchestra. There's always a oboe solo or any other instrument in a symphony or concerto, and it works better if the conductor doesn't spell it out note for note.

August 3, 2019, 6:59 AM · 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.
Edited: August 3, 2019, 7:20 AM · 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.
August 3, 2019, 9:59 AM · 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.

A conductor who is experienced in conducting choirs can be invaluable in an orchestral context - they know all about herding cats :)

August 3, 2019, 11:05 AM · 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.
August 3, 2019, 2:36 PM · 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).

I once watched the Toronto Symphony play a 20C piece conducted by a guest maestro from Europe. The conductor seemed to not bother conducting the downbeats and I had a hard time following him (playing mental air violin in the mezzanine). I corresponded later with one of the symphony cellists and commented that he must have been very hard to follow - her reply was not at all, he was actually very easy. Indeed, the proof of the pudding was excellent. I think this illustrates the point above that the amount of basic information required by the orchestra declines with experience and ability. I wish I could watch him conduct again to see if I could get into the 'swing' of the music as obviously my friend had.

August 3, 2019, 3:46 PM · 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.

Empathy also is essential for business organizations, families, churches, and all sorts of human activities that require a central organizer.

August 3, 2019, 5:01 PM · 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.
Agree with Andrew H.- I have done only a little conducting. While driving to my first concert as a conductor I was surprised that I was not nervous. I realized that my job was mostly over, now it is the musicians turn; just give the down-beat and stay out of the way, -no wrong cues.
August 3, 2019, 5:07 PM · 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.
August 3, 2019, 5:59 PM · 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.

The greatest lesson my mentor taught me was to say to myself every time something went wrong with a group I was conducting: "It's MY fault." Then get on and do something about it! ;)

August 4, 2019, 1:21 PM · 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 to measuring the value, you use George Bailey pricing. How much worse will it get when the conductor leaves the podium?

Edited: August 4, 2019, 1:22 PM · 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.

As to measuring the value, you use George Bailey pricing. How much worse will it get when the conductor leaves the podium?

August 5, 2019, 7:50 AM · 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 remember at one point, we were rocking a bit, so the hand came out and it was one-two (metronomic) until we were back, then he went back to just gestures with that big stick - and a big grin!
August 5, 2019, 8:53 AM · 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.)

I've seen my orchestra's conductor and past assistant conductor switch off at the podium when some problem of ensemble is unsolvable, and our conductor can simply make it go away with a subtle change of gesture.

My experience with Marin Alsop conducting side-by-sides (both at Rusties, and at Academy, where she switched off with her assistant Nick Hersh) is that she gives clear beats but her body language is always expressive. The BSO, though, supplies significant artistic interpretation in the wind and brass soloists, and in the instinctive music flow of the string sections, that simply isn't present in the side-by-side community folks.

Marin's conducting students tend to use similar gestures; they almost dance on the podium. The fluidity of the body language, I think, reflects Marin's background as a violinist.

Conductors also need to be able to explain what they want in words, but ideally, all of the information that you need is conveyed in their body language.

Conductors who serve as organizational music directors also need a bunch of nonmusical administrative skills.

August 5, 2019, 10:01 AM · A quick test: Does the conductor give an upbeat at the beginning or does he/she count a "bar for nothing"?
The second possibility points to lack of confidence or lack of feel of tempo or lack of technique or a mixture of those things.

A good conductor gives the upbeat and everybody instinctively knows what the tempo is. How exactly that works I have never figured out (you'd think you'd need two beats minimum to define the tempo). But it works. Every time. And BTW the same goes for a good leader in a chamber music ensemble where every player can be a leader depending on context--look at e.g. the beginning of Haydn's "lark" quartet. We all should learn to lead that way.

Don't get me wrong: There are situations in rehearsal where counting a full measure ahead is useful, especially if you are off tempo or working on rhythmic trickeries. But this is the exception to the rule, no more.

August 5, 2019, 10:06 AM · 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.
August 5, 2019, 3:51 PM · 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).
August 5, 2019, 3:59 PM · There are three essential components of a good conductor in my opinion:

1) Musical conception and understanding - the conductor must have a clear vision of the piece and be capable enough to use his/her ear (and motivational skills) to achieve it.
2) Clear physical movements - must be able to keep the beat, cue, and signal his/her vision.
3) Preparation and organization - must be prepared for rehearsals (musically and materially) and have a set plan on how to get the orchestra from first rehearsal to performance.

Interestingly, most of the difficult conductors either my kids or I have worked with fail mostly on #3. They haven't prepared enough before rehearsal (haven't learned the pieces well enough themselves), they fail to show up on time, they don't let the orchestra manager know the schedule of pieces ahead of time, etc.

August 5, 2019, 7:29 PM · 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.
Edited: August 6, 2019, 8:34 AM · 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.

* For the avoidance of doubt, "LA" in this context is the local symphony orchestra in Long Ashton in the County of North Somerset, England

August 6, 2019, 9:09 AM · 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).
August 6, 2019, 6:17 PM · 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).
August 7, 2019, 8:11 AM · 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.

Not usually a problem, but what did he program in his first year? Mahler 1. Year 2: Schumann 4.

He hasn’t appeared with them recently.

August 7, 2019, 3:41 PM · Be emotional, Bernstein did this well. Feel the music, be part of the music.
August 17, 2019, 4:26 PM · A good conductor gets a different sound from an orchestra.
Two of the best were George Hurst and Bryden (Jack) Thomson. The two conductors who built the BBC Northern Orchestra from an ordinary regional orchestra into the BBC Philharmonic. One of the best.
I was playing for Jack, and in the pub afterwards one of the players asked "Jack, why do you conduct the opening like that?"."I don't know - I've just found it gives me the sound I like".
We would have played the notes equally well together for anybody. But the sound was different for these guys.
Couldn't say WHAT they did. But it worked.

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