The best way to become familiar with the art of conducting is to study music and the great conductors themselves. It is not possible to understand conducting beyond the most superficial level without a good background in music. Students of conducting should go to as many musical presentations as they can, such as symphonies, operas, musical theater, and the like, and study the conductors, noting their baton techniques and their arm and body movements. Try to determine how the orchestra and audience respond to the gesturing of the conductors. There are also many associations, reference books, and biographies that provide detailed information about conductors and their art. One of the most prominent organizations is the League of American Orchestras. It holds a national conference and conducting workshops each year.
Music directing or conducting, whether it be of a symphony orchestra, an opera, a chorus, a theater pit orchestra, a marching band, or even a big swing band, is an enormously complex and demanding occupation to which only the exceptional individual can possibly aspire with hope of even moderate success. Music directors have many of the same tasks as conductors, but may have additional administrative and business-related responsiblities, including meeting with potential donors and attending fundraisers. Music directors and conductors must have multiple skills and talents. First and foremost, they must be consummate musicians. Not only should they have mastered an instrument, but they also must know music and be able to interpret the score of any composition. They should have an unerring ear and a bearing that commands the respect of the musicians. Conductors need to be sensitive to the musicians, sympathetic to their problems, and able to inspire them to bring out the very best they have to offer. Conductors must also have a sense of showmanship. Some conductors have advanced farther than others because their dramatic conducting style helps bring in larger audiences and greater receipts. The conductor must also be a psychologist who can deal with the multiplicity of complex and temperamental personalities presented by a large ensemble of musicians and singers. Conductors must exude personal charm; orchestras are always fund-raising, and the conductor is frequently expected to meet major donors to keep their goodwill. Finally, and in line with fund-raising, music conductors and directors are expected to have administrative skills and to understand the business and financial problems that face the orchestra organization.
Conductors are distinguished by their baton technique and arm and body movements. These can vary widely from conductor to conductor, some being reserved and holding to minimal movements, others using sweeping baton strokes and broad arm and body gestures. There is no right or wrong way to conduct; it is a highly individualized art, and great conductors produce excellent results using extremely contrasting styles. The conductor's fundamental purpose in leading, regardless of style, is to set the tempo and rhythm of a piece. Conductors must be sure that the orchestra is following their interpretation of the music, and they must resolve any problems that the score poses. Failure to render a composition in a way that is pleasing to the public and the critics is usually blamed on the conductor, although there is a school that feels that both the conductor and the musicians are to blame, or that at least it is difficult to tell which one is most at fault.
The quality of a performance is probably most directly related to the conductor's rehearsal techniques. It is during rehearsals that conductors must diagnose and correct to their satisfaction the musical, interpretive, rhythmic, balance, and intonation problems encountered by the orchestra. They must work with each unit of the orchestra individually and the entire ensemble as a whole; this may include solo instrumentalists and singers as well as a chorus. Some conductors rehearse every detail of a score while others have been known to emphasize only certain parts during rehearsal. Some are quiet and restrained at rehearsals, while others work to a feverish emotional pitch. The sound that an orchestra makes is also identified with the conductor, and for some, the tone of an orchestra becomes a recognizable signature. Tone is determined by the conductor's use of the various sections of the orchestra. The brass section, for instance, can be instructed to play so that the sound is bright, sharp, and piercing, or they can play to produce a rich, sonorous, and heavy sound. The strings can play the vibrato broadly to produce a thick, lush tone or play with little vibrato to produce a thinner, more delicate sound.