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#1369979 - 02/10/10 05:52 AM Regarding Orchestra Conductors?
Ludwig van Bilge Offline
Full Member

Registered: 04/13/09
Posts: 204
When I see a orchestra performing there's always a conductor waving his little stick...and none of the musicians ever seem to look at him. And the movements of his hand and stick don't seem to relate to what the musicians are doing. Forgive my profound ignorance - I never was in an orchestra but I'm curious anyhow. Once the conductor gets the piece started does he have any function besides giving the audience something to look at? If he walked away would the musicians miss him? I've seen some pretty elaborate performances by rock bands, jazz bands etc and they seem to keep their place without a conductor. What's he (or she) for?

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#1369985 - 02/10/10 06:36 AM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: Ludwig van Bilge]
survivordan Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/01/09
Posts: 844
Loc: Ohio
The conductor is *extremely* important. His 'little stick' is called a baton. Also, With all due respect I don't know *how* **anyone** couldn't see that it is the conductor and his movements that direct, control and keep the ensemble together.


Edited by survivordan (02/10/10 06:37 AM)
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#1370023 - 02/10/10 08:44 AM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: survivordan]
Kreisler Offline


Registered: 11/27/02
Posts: 13818
Loc: Iowa City, IA
Rock and jazz bands have between 4 and 20 people.

Orchestras have 80.

But yes, on stage, most good orchestras could stay together and play well without a conductor. Most of what a conductor does is in rehearsals and behind the scenes.
_________________________
"If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid, and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him." (John Holt)

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#1370049 - 02/10/10 09:34 AM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: Ludwig van Bilge]
John_B Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/17/10
Posts: 621
Loc: Bristol, UK
This is actually a fascinating subject.

Yes, it's true that for much of the time the members of an orchestra aren't looking directly at the conductor but seem to be concentrating on their part but, as Kreisler has said, most of the work will have been done in rehearsal.

What does a conductor do? When performing, say, a symphony that might last anything from 20 mins (for classical symphonies) to well over a hour (e.g. Mahler and Bruckner) someone has to have a vision of what the composer is trying to say, what the structure of the work is, how to reveal that, sometimes going into great detail (e.g. a conductor might decide what bowing the strings should use and sometimes even mark up the parts in advance), what the balance of the orchestral sections is, etc, etc. Usually they will have studied the score in great depth beforehand.

Each conductor has his or her own style on the rostrum. Some seems totally immersed in their own emotions and fling their bodies and arms around (e.g. Berstein), some seem relatively cool and with very restrained gestures (e.g. Haitink), with some their hand movements are so weird that you wonder what on earth an orchestra makes of them (e.g. Gergiev). But, and it is a huge but, ultimately it isn't about perfect conducting technique - it is about communication ... and that is often something that defies logical analysis.

I remember hearing Edward Downes (an extremely fine opera and Russian music conductor) saying how Hermann Scherchen (with whom he studied) had said to him that the the most important thing was to have a very clear vision of the music and to know exactly what you want - and "if you have that, you can wiggle your ass at the orchestra and it will follow you".

I also remember someone telling of how she had sung (as an amateur) in the choir for in a work for chorus and orchestra conducted by Barbirolli in his later years. She told how he seemed very infirm and wondered whether he would be able to last out the concert. However, as soon as he was on the rostrum he radiated tremendous energy and fire, so much so that it was one of the most memorable events of her life.

It's a mystery!


Edited by John_B (02/10/10 09:35 AM)

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#1370745 - 02/11/10 04:42 AM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: John_B]
RogerW Offline
Full Member

Registered: 01/10/08
Posts: 439
To understand the importance of a conductor, you should try conducting yourself. Having attended some conducting classes, it has been interesting to see how much the conductor affects the playing of the orchestra. The same orchestra playing the same piece sounds very different depending on the conductor. With a good conductor, it sounds great, with an insecure conductor, the playing is very insecure. In fact, the orchestra often plays better without a conductor than with a bad conductor.

Playing without conductors is possible to some extent. Most professional orchestras could do a decent performance of a classical symphony without a conductor (though it will be better if they have a good conductor). But trying the same thing with the Rite of Spring would be disastrous.

Anything with a very large orchestra will require a conductor because the players cannot hear each other accurately. If you have the timpani upstage left and the double basses downstage right, the time it takes for the sound to travel between them makes it impossible for them to play in sync without a conductor. I've often been following the rehearsals of my local symphony orchestra, every now and then sitting on the stage among the players. It is funny how the music on stage sounds very chaotic, out of balance and out of sync, but in the audience it sounds great.

As for his movements relating to the orchestra, the conductor is always ahead of time. The orchestra is playing slightly behind the beat and the conductor anticipates all mood changes to give the orchestra time to react.

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#1370876 - 02/11/10 11:13 AM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: RogerW]
dianekeeton Offline
Full Member

Registered: 08/18/08
Posts: 28
Loc: Seattle, WA
The way i read the original post, the question pertains to the need for a conductor on stage. Yes, kriesler and John both alluded to the "need" for conductor in visualizing a piece of symphony and in the preparation but doesnt necessarily answer what conductor is doing on stage when the symphony is actually being performed when the preparation part is over and these orchestras go over the piece of music like so many times the spontaneity in performance of classical music is almost none(some exceptions here and there).
Now Roger you talked about the need for a conductor from a technical stand point which makes sense but i still dont quite understand how a piece of music on stage when you sit on stage and listen sounds chaotic and it sounds great in the audience. Isnt the conductor on stage as well? Does he have a different acoustics where he is standing and waving his baton?
My take on this is I agree the need for conductor in the preparation stages, in the interpretation of a piece and even in adding their own unique touches to it but on stage during live performance it may be just matter of aesthetics and norm just like many other things in classical music are. BTW I love that, I cant possibly think of attending a performance of a symphony with out a conductor and some conductors have unique postures and movements which makes it all the more fun and interesting!!

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#1370884 - 02/11/10 11:30 AM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: dianekeeton]
John_B Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/17/10
Posts: 621
Loc: Bristol, UK
Originally Posted By: dianekeeton
...but doesnt necessarily answer what conductor is doing on stage when the symphony is actually being performed when the preparation part is over and these orchestras go over the piece of music like so many times the spontaneity in performance of classical music is almost none(some exceptions here and there).


First let me say that I have no particular insight or expertise in this - I am just someone who has had a passion for classical music all my life (but I work on the basis that it's better not to let knowledge spoil one's prejudices wink ).

I think that, with an experienced conductor and a professional orchestra, rehearsals are rehearsals and performances are performances - there is a very clear distinction between the two. (Of course there are differences between amateur orchestras and the top line professional orchestras.)

I believe that, with a good orchestra and a fine conductor, there is something that 'happens' in the actual performance, and the conductor and his communication with the orchestra is very much part of that. It can be spontaneity or just the 'electricity' of performing in front of 2000 people all listening intently that puts performers and conductor on their mettle ... I don't really know.

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#1371466 - 02/12/10 01:52 AM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: John_B]
Theowne Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/26/06
Posts: 1099
Loc: Toronto, Canada
I've been to rehearsals, and obviously the conductor plays a huge role in there. But I can understand how someone who isn't familiar with rehearsals might see the conductor as being pointless when looking only at a performance day. There are a lot of videos on youtube of conductors who stand there floating their arms gracefully to the music and generally not appearing to have a great effect on the proceedings.
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#1372504 - 02/13/10 10:22 AM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: Theowne]
Kreisler Offline


Registered: 11/27/02
Posts: 13818
Loc: Iowa City, IA
In concerts, the conductor acts as a visual reminder of what was done in rehearsals, cues entrances in awkward or non-obvious moments, acts as moral support/coach to the "players on the field," and gives the audience something to look at.

That being said, there are professional orchestras who do not use a conductor.
_________________________
"If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid, and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him." (John Holt)

www.pianoped.com
www.youtube.com/user/UIPianoPed

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#1372512 - 02/13/10 10:30 AM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: Kreisler]
John_B Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/17/10
Posts: 621
Loc: Bristol, UK
Originally Posted By: Kreisler
That being said, there are professional orchestras who do not use a conductor.


I don't know of any full sized orchestras that don't use a conductor but there are a few chamber orchestra that don't: the really excellent Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is one.

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#1372609 - 02/13/10 12:18 PM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: John_B]
Kreisler Offline


Registered: 11/27/02
Posts: 13818
Loc: Iowa City, IA
The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields started without a conductor. I'm not sure, but they may still do some smaller works without a conductor on the podium. (Or, in the case of concerti, with the soloist conducting - Murray Perahia, for example.)
_________________________
"If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid, and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him." (John Holt)

www.pianoped.com
www.youtube.com/user/UIPianoPed

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#1372615 - 02/13/10 12:27 PM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: Kreisler]
John_B Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/17/10
Posts: 621
Loc: Bristol, UK
Kreisler,

Thank you for that information. I confess that I hadn't realised it originally performed without a conductor! I got to know it through the recordings which were mostly conducted by Neville Marriner in those days.

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#1373346 - 02/14/10 07:51 AM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: John_B]
RogerW Offline
Full Member

Registered: 01/10/08
Posts: 439
The Budapest Gypsy Symphony orchestra performs without a conductor and without sheet music (it is rather weird to walk in to the concert hall and see 100 chairs on stage but not a single sheet music stand). But they have been touring the same program for at least 10 years, so they should know it pretty well by now.

It is quite usual for pianosoloists to conduct classical concertos themselves. Haven't seen this being done with romantic or later concertos.

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#1373348 - 02/14/10 08:03 AM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: RogerW]
John_B Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/17/10
Posts: 621
Loc: Bristol, UK
Agreed.

Barenboim was conducting his Staatskapelle Berlin from the piano during his recent performances of the Beethoven Piano Concertos in London. (Also broadcast on BBC Radio 3.)

Though he took the baton for the Schoenberg pieces (Pelleas, 5 Orch Pieces, Vars for Orch, etc) that he programmed with the Beethoven concertos.

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#1380645 - 02/22/10 07:42 PM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: Kreisler]
riley80 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 08/03/08
Posts: 389
Loc: Florida
I do believe that conducting an orchestra for program music with something going on on stage has to be THE hardest job in the music world. The singer suddenly skips many measures, and or messes his lyrics....or slows waaaay down or speeds up. What's the conductor to do after thinking "Oh, s--t"? He's got a split second to keep the music going and I wonder how he signals to all instruments where he's going next. I'm sure it happens. Has to a heart stopping moment.

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#1380963 - 02/23/10 08:39 AM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: John_B]
musiccr8r Offline
Full Member

Registered: 01/16/08
Posts: 270
Loc: Denver
I am reiterating some things already presented as I got here late...two thoughts come to mind, 1. I admired the work of conductors MUCH more after working with a nonprofessional (high school) group..they have to KNOW the music backwards and forwards, to be able to point out "Oh, oboes, you were late with that 16-note articulation" and etc. So yes, a lot of their job happens BEFORE performing. 2. I always believed part of why it seems their motions didn't always match the players was because of the delay of the sound arriving to your ears? (obviously I never had a front-row seat!) smile 3. the "emergency" factor. Of course an experienced professional group shouldn't have many of those! But I was watching a performance and something did seem to get slightly out-of-whack...the camera happened to be focused on the conductor at that point so he was on the "big screen" (this was a large outdoor venue) and I swear I saw him briefly flick some fingers in some sort of number pattern...I believe he was directing them all to a certain measure or confirming what measure they were supposed to be in at the moment...it made me smile.

ETA: I think there must also be an element of "rest" for the players. Of course they are all CAPABLE and perfectly able to get through the music on their own. But when I play in the "band" at church, while I CAN hold a beat and maintain tempo on my own, there's a whole different feel of comfort when there's a good drummer behind me to "rest" on. With the conductor, every single member of this large ensemble has something to "hang their hat on" and lean on; they're not having to worry about whether the violins are going to run amuck a bit with the tempo during their fast lines, or if the trumpets are going to drown everyone else out just because they can... smile


Edited by musiccr8r (02/23/10 08:54 AM)

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#1381754 - 02/24/10 08:05 AM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: musiccr8r]
riley80 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 08/03/08
Posts: 389
Loc: Florida
I swear I saw him briefly flick some fingers in some sort of number pattern...I believe he was directing them all to a certain measure or confirming what measure they were supposed to be in at the moment...it made me smile.

Ah - one of those super cool moments which makes for an unforgettable performance. Love it. Might be a topic for an interesting thread?

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#1383283 - 02/26/10 10:00 AM Re: Regarding Orchestra Conductors? [Re: riley80]
keystring Offline
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/11/07
Posts: 11848
Loc: Canada
I had an interesting experience a few years ago. A guest conductor was conducting the orchestra, and this conductor was a "minimalist". I looked him up later. He believed that you should use very small motions, and chided conducting students who weren't minimal. If a wiggle of the finger could replace the motion of the hand, then you wiggled. The performance was of a piano concerto. The pianist played quite expressively. The orchestral part - It began with great pizzaz and the rest, dynamically, resembled somebody shyly mumbling, for the duration of the piece. Then it end with a pizzazz. It felt like "mumble mumble mumblemumblemumble TA DA!"

After the intermission another piece was performed, this time conducted by the regular conductor, Pinchas Zuckerman. Same orchestra. They played with dynamics and verve. Zuckerman throws his whole body into his conducting and what he wants is very clear. If the orchestra was not used to Zuckerman, would they have responded differently to the minimalist conductor?

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