What Does a Conductor Do?

It's a familiar sight: the silent, well-dressed musician at the podium waving a baton to keep time. Yet conductors are much more than timekeepers—they're interpreters and leaders who shape and refine every aspect of the performance's sound and, when working at their best, unify the performing group. In fact, most of a conductor's work takes place long before the performance and perhaps even before meeting with the orchestra.

Conductors must be insightful and charismatic—capable of inspiring hard work and deep musicality from ensemble members, and able to verbally and nonverbally communicate a vast array of emotions.

When conductors receive the setlist for the next concert or season—usually created by the orchestra's music director, when these roles are separate—they begin to explore and analyze the music at hand, seeking to understand the composer's vision as well as to interpret the music in their own way. Shortly thereafter, they begin rehearsals with the orchestra: shaping particular and sometimes minute aspects of the performance—dynamics, phrasing, timing, and more—to better blend the orchestra's sound, promote rhythmic unity, and realize their own interpretation of the piece.

When it comes to performance, conductors typically use a baton to outline tempos and their free hand to indicate entrances and nuances, but some conductors dispense with the baton altogether, freeing both hands and arms for more elaborate interpretive directions. Conductors also use torso movements and facial expressions to convey their wishes for phrasing and dynamics to the ensemble. While some conductors are only there to conduct, others' duties extend far beyond the podium. Orchestra music directors, for example, have broad authority over the ensemble's affairs, including selecting repertoire, overseeing auditions and hiring, and assisting with fundraising and publicity. On the other hand, session conductors—who are plentiful in Hollywood—work on a freelance basis.

People in the Field

Cian McCarthy

Name:

Cian
McCarthy
Class of 
2005
Position: 
Pianist, Composer, Music Director, Conductor

Conductor at a Glance

Career Path

Generally speaking, conductors are accomplished instrumentalists with significant musical training. Many spend the early part of their careers working as orchestra musicians, although some dive right into conducting. For first professional conducting experiences, it's common to start out with youth and college orchestras, or as an assistant or associate conductor. From there, one might become the principal conductor of a small regional ensemble before finding a position with a more prestigious group. Those who are successful might have their pick of orchestra, while the top conductors could even become international celebrities. Experienced conductors with managerial abilities and a vested interest in their organization might become music directors

Finding Work

Conductors work for and with orchestras, concert bands, choral groups, opera and ballet companies, and schools (as music teachers or professors). Those who aren't the principal conductor or music director for an ensemble are likely freelancers who travel to different orchestras and ensembles across the world as guest conductors, or assist with local orchestras on a part-time basis. Conductors with studio experience can also perform freelance session work, which is plentiful in Hollywood.

Professional Skills
  • Conducting
  • Music theory
  • Reading and writing music notation
  • Music history
  • A unique style, interpretation, or viewpoint
  • Live performance
  • Leadership
  • Verbal communication
Interpersonal Skills

A good conductor is an insightful, communicative, and charismatic individual, capable of inspiring hard work and coaxing strong performances from ensemble members while also being able to verbally communicate a vast array of emotions. It takes discipline and endless study to be successful as a conductor, the best of whom are constantly refining and revisiting their understanding of pieces, composers, and conducting techniques. 

Work Life

The life of a conductor is varied, including stretches of introspection and solitude while looking over scores, long hours in the rehearsal room working with the orchestra, performances at night, and—sometimes—a public life as a center-stage performer. If the conductor is a music director, the job might include a slew of additional managerial duties. While established conductors can make a living from their work, conductors who are just getting started might supplement their income by working in music prep—as an arranger, orchestrator, copyist, or proofreader—or leading recording sessions for film, TV, and video game soundtracks.