A conductor is the leader of a band, orchestra, choir or other large group of musicians, usually ten or more. Without him, such a large group may not be as well coordinated and this may affect the performance. The conductor should be a musician himself and should have studied music as well as conducting. It is not necessary for him to be a virtuoso, however many world-class conductors are.
Conducting is actually a specific art and technique. The person doing it is actually embodying the composer's essence, and, as such, interpreting the piece of music and coordinating the musicians so as to have coherence and shape. Let me explain more.
One of the most important aspects is how hand gestures are used. Usually (mostly because there are more right-handed people), the right hand is responsible for tempo and rhythm (time or metric signatures) such as 2/4, 3/4 or compound ones like 6/4, 6/8, 9/8, etc. Each time signature has its own particular hand and arm motion and so should be done correctly. Though many evolve these gestures, it always adheres to the main. The left hand is responsible for various other things such as cuing for entrances of different instruments, dynamics (loudness and softness), phrasings, staccatos and legatos, articulations, characterization, etc. These hand motions must be practiced and done naturally, without strain and with ease. A conductor may also communicate with facial expressions.
Gestural movements and body language are done naturally. For example, during a downbeat, the motion is to move physically downward. Or, to cut off a note, it is done with a circular motion. Big gestures indicate loudness; small gestures indicate softness.
A conductor is essentially a leader and should possess leadership qualities on top of his musical ones. Some musical people like to conduct a recorded orchestra. That is quite often a sign of talent for conducting and should pursue learning it professionally, which will minimally help them as musicians.
Pianists and instrumentalists can also play and conduct at the same time. This is done with head and body gestures while playing and with hands while not. But any person, whether a pianist, instrumentalist or conductor, should have studied conducting. It is a precise technique and, if done incorrectly, can actually throw off an entire performance and make it lose its integrity.
Therefore, it is a myth to think that anybody can just get up and conduct, especially non-musicians. This is violated in schools very often, primarily due to budget cuts in music programs. An example that I have observed of incorrect conducting was a violinist who was a music teacher at a private school. She did not know conducting and her beats were misplaced, which caused a poor performance and miseducation in her students. This might not seem important. However, what was at stake here was the musical appreciation that many children may have missed out on during the window of opportunity they had. Even worse was another instance where a group of home room teachers, not even musicians, were given the task of conducting a choir in choral workshops.
A miseducation in music results in a lack of appreciation, which has deeper effects, given the powerful nature and benefit for humans that music possesses. If music was so unimportant, then why are there doctorate degrees offered in higher learning institutions for it? Therefore, it is almost sometimes better to not teach anything than to teach it incorrectly. It is like trying to learn a language and learning how to babble jibber-jabber instead. There is no real benefit and no communication results. And conducting is one of the most insidious aspects of learning music, especially for youngsters in schools. So, it must be known correctly.
All musicians are encouraged to at least study the basics of conducting. It makes one much more alert if they do. And who knows, you might even discover a talent you never knew of before.
About The Author
Evelyn Simonian is a pianist and music teacher who applies "music with movement" to her students. She has been featured in televised interviews as well as several magazine and newspaper articles.