What Does a Conductor Do?

It's a familiar sight: the silent, well-dressed person at the podium waving a baton. Yet a conductor, like a conjurer, retains an air of mystery, breathing life into a composition with a few flicks of the wrist. No mere timekeeper, conductors are above all interpreters and inspirers. Most of their work takes place before even meeting with the orchestra—exploring and analyzing the music at hand, seeking to understand a composer's vision. The unique interpretation of a musical work is what conductors bring to an ensemble, and with it a gift for shaping and refining all aspects of the ensemble's sound—with verbal directions during rehearsals and with a veritable symphony of hand and body movements during a performance.

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

Typically, a conductor uses a baton to outline tempos while his or her free hand is used 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 to the group their wishes for phrasing and dynamics. Some conductors have broad authority over an ensemble's affairs, extending far beyond the podium—selecting repertoire, overseeing hiring and firing, and assisting with fundraising and publicity, among other duties. These influential maestros are known as music directors. 

People in the Field

Cian McCarthy

Name:

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

Conductor at a Glance

Finding Work and Advancing

All conductors are accomplished instrumentalists, and some spend the early part of their careers working as musicians before shifting to conducting. Many gain experience working with youth and college orchestras, finding work as assistant and associate conductors, or as the principal conductor with a small regional ensemble before advancing to a more prestigious group. A conductor at the top of his or her form may take on the broad duties of music director. 

Employers

Orchestras, concert bands, choral groups, opera and ballet companies, and schools

Professional Skills

Conducting, music history, theory, harmony, sight-reading, notation, arranging, orchestration

Interpersonal Skills

A conductor must be an insightful, charismatic individual—capable of inspiring hard work and deep musicality from ensemble members, and able to verbally and nonverbally communicate a vast array of emotions. Conductors, and especially music directors, also must be quite disciplined in order to jump from study to rehearsal room to administrative office to concert hall without losing the exceptional focus and creativity this demanding job requires. 

Work Life

The life of a conductor includes stretches of introspection and solitude, long hours in the practice room working with a large group, a public life as a performer, and—if the conductor is music director—a slew of additional duties as the leader of an arts institution and its ambassador in the community. Days and nights are full, and the responsibilities are enormous.