The Conductor

While one might expect a conductor to work for a symphony orchestra, it may be surprising to learn that a large ballet company with an orchestra needs both a music director and a conductor. A music director makes sure the musicians are prepared for their performances; selects the version of the score that will be used, and makes minor changes in the score that seem appropriate. The main task for an orchestra conductor is to rehearse and practice the musicians in preparation for a live performance. A conductor can be either male or female and almost always has a degree in music.

The orchestra conductor is responsible for “keeping time” by monitoring the playing speed, and for initiating major shifts or changes in the musical score. The conductor also has an important responsibility of interpreting the music (based on notes from the composer). This is what makes each conductor unique. Every conductor has his or her own way understanding and expressing music. In some small musical ensembles or chamber orchestras, there is no conductor. In this case, the role of the conductor is taken on by one of the musicians – who set the tempo and monitors “musical rest” points. In the past, this was very common. It was not until the 19th century that orchestras became larger and having a conductor became a necessity.

Music Director & Principal Conductor Martin West with the SF Ballet Orchestra. (© Erik Tomasson)

In order for all the musicians and instruments of the orchestra to play in harmony, they must know when to start, when to pause or stop, and how fast to go. Knowing when to begin playing a selection of music is called a “cue." The conductor provides the cues for every section of the orchestra throughout the musical composition. Basic conducting is done with the use of patterns that correspond to time signatures. (Time signatures tell how soft or loud the music should be as well as when there is a special emphasis on a particular note.) When a conductor conducts music, there are specific places that the baton is expected to be during the measure, and the musicians can always look up and follow the pattern. Professional musicians don't need much help keeping time, so the patterns are greatly modified to emphasize the feeling and tone the conductor wants the musicians to play.