How does one become a conductor and what does a conductor do? These are the two most common questions I am asked, and though they appear simple, it is often difficult to answer them concisely. According to my father, who is not a musician but has been my greatest fan since childhood, I have the best job in the world, waving my arms around and telling musicians what to do. I have assured him that this isn’t exactly how it works. The arm waving is the easy part and can be learned in roughly ten minutes, as I’m reminded of every youth concert where I teach fifth graders to conduct. But the role of a conductor has changed dramatically over the past three centuries.
The first conductors were either keyboardists or principal violinists. Composers were also prominent leaders, often directing with a large and heavy staff pounded against the floor to keep time. I imagine this was distracting to anyone trying to appreciate the beauty of the music and it also proved fatal to one conductor; Jean-Baptiste Lully stabbed his toe, contracted gangrene, and died. Louis Spohr supposedly invented the baton, a smaller and generally safer sliver of wood brandished for musicians in various patterns.
Some conductors use a baton, some don’t. Most hold it in their right hand, but there are a few who use their left. There are conductors who leap from the podium to get a big sound while some older, revered maestros simply raise their hand an inch and achieve an even more spectacular fortissimo. Some conductors seldom speak in rehearsal, others rarely stop. While there remains a spectacular diversity in conducting styles, there also exists no direct route to the podium. There are no real undergraduate programs in conducting, but in order to be accepted into a graduate program, you need to have significant experience, a conundrum for many aspiring maestros. How do you practice your instrument when the orchestra is your instrument? Many conductors, including myself, have degrees in something other than orchestral conducting. So the answer to how one becomes a conductor: a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck.