A conductor of an orchestra has the primary responsibility of preparing the musical ensemble for public presentations. This requires the interpretation of musical works and real-time communication of those interpretations to musicians via arm gestures. Generally speaking, it is expected that the conductor will learn an entire score rather than its individual parts. He or she will generally be required to carry out a number of significant business duties, as well, which can drastically affect whether the orchestra will do well. Many orchestra leaders work as educators and regularly work to expand their own expertise through advanced degrees, seminars, workshops, and similar events.
Leading the Orchestra
The most important thing a conductor of an orchestra does is lead symphony members through rehearsals and performances. He or she accomplishes this in part by standing on a podium in front of the musicians while executing a series of specific arm movements. The musicians interpret these movements, gaining information such as how fast or loud to play. A conductor learns standard conducting patterns as part of his or her education, but each develops his or her own style or approach over time. Fundamental knowledge of every instrument is standard, as well, and during the rehearsal process, conductors might physically demonstrate or verbally describe exactly what they want orchestra members to do to get specific sounds.
The way orchestras read and translate variances in conducting styles are one reason why the same work can sound vastly different under different conductors. Another reason is that an orchestra conductor also faces the challenge of interpreting the artistic nature of the score. If he sees the term "ritard" in the score, for instance, he knows to slow down, but exactly how much is up to his judgment. This personal interpretation of the score, in conjunction with the person's individual conducting style, contributes to the overall "voice" of the orchestra.
Learning Specific Scores
All musicians in an orchestra must be proficient with their individual parts, but a conductor of an orchestra has to learn entire scores because he or she functions as a musical traffic director, cuing musicians so they enter or leave the musical highway at the right time. To become familiar with a given score, a conductor generally studies it visually, paying attention to theoretical considerations, such as instrumental transposition and harmonic progression. He or she usually makes personal notes in the score as study and rehearsal progress. Additionally, symphony conductors learn works by listening to recorded performances, with some individuals having the capacity to visualize at least one instrument's part at a time as they hear it. Some even hold mock performances for themselves, "conducting" a recording of a performance to practice cuing and other patterns.
Advancing Professional Education
The number of orchestral works available to symphony conductors is enormous, so these professionals never stop adding to their repertoire, often taking formal classes or attending seminars in advanced conducting techniques. They must also learn about music theory directly related to orchestral conducting, such as choral diction, and have at least basic understanding in the music languages of Latin, French, German and Italian. Conductors often pass these skills on as teachers, typically at the university level, and the best are highly sought after as artists.
Making Decisions and Promoting the Arts
A conductor of an orchestra often works as a creative and business decision maker for the ensemble. He or she might be involved in a range of non-performance tasks like choosing repertoire, providing media quotes, promoting orchestra events, guest lecturing, resolving conflicts, lining up guest performers, auditioning or recruiting new professional musicians, and participating in contract negotiations. The decisions the conductor makes on the orchestra's behalf greatly influence how the public perceives the orchestra and how successful it becomes, so he or she essentially is the public face of the ensemble.
When funding or other support of the symphonic and related arts is low, a conductor of an orchestra typically focuses his or her business attentions being a promoter. He or she might gather support from the public for legislation that would boost music funding, for example, or conduct and publish research demonstrating the positive effects that music has on communities. Without these efforts, the programs conductors are involved with face a greater risk of being cut, leaving them in danger of losing their jobs. New open positions are fairly rare and are highly competitive, so most conductors fight valiantly to support the arts and their own jobs.