What It takes to be a conductor

A Conductor should be a many faceted person with a wide artistic and human hinterland. Waving arms around is merely the visible thing people see, and even there, there are no real rules, only some basics. Impeccable technique doesn’t necessarily produce great performances, and less conventional methods can be brilliant.

Players and singers make the sounds, so what does the conductor contribute? Above all musicianship and interpretative skill, allied with an ability to make performers want to do their best. Needing excellent aural skills, impeccable knowledge of the score, technical expertise in instruments and voices and good rehearsal technique all contribute, but a passion to express this and communicate eventually, after all the preparation, to the audience. Despite the other things I am going to list, this remains at the heart of a conductor’s work, and it could suffice. But there are many more functions of a conductor, some will do all, others almost none, and my list is not intended to be definitive or exhaustive or be put in order of priority.

Leonard Bernstein said that he hoped his greatest legacy was his teaching. Allied to his genius as a conductor was a wonderful verbal ability, to talk about music, enthuse the young and teach conducting. Teaching future generations of musicians, enthusing audiences and reaching out to everyone is clearly not exclusive to conductors, but mighty important, and as in all these matters, a conductor is in, if not a unique position, a very strong one to influence and contribute.


As well as nurturing young talent, a conductor should perform and champion new work. All music was new once and must never become a museum. We all are enriched by the art of our own times, we must feel engaged with our present world, and will thus find that we understand and appreciate the older music we know and love far more. 

Another whole area of work falls to the conductor’s lot in many instances: artistic planning, the building and presentation of programmes, the choice of performers (soloists, choirs etc.). In many instances, fund raising is an integral part of the conductor’s portfolio (especially if Music Director). It is also likely that a degree of administration is required (especially in smaller organisations), but whatever the circumstances, an ability to work with boards and administration in a constructive way is very important. Inevitably there will be tensions between artistic wishes and financial constraints. When the relationship between the Board, the artistic direction and the executive is strong, organisations work best.


The conductor should also be an Advocate. For performers’ conditions and contract, helping to build good relationships with management and in the bigger picture for their orchestra, choir or opera company and their country, city, town, college, school and all music making. Music is a wonderful advertisement! Maybe we’d have the greatest conductor ever if they did all this to the highest standard, but they probably wouldn’t have time to sleep.