What Should Conductors Actually Do?

“The primary duties of the conductor are to unify performers, set the tempo, execute clear preparations (upbeats) and beats (meter), and to listen critically and shape the sound of the ensemble..”

Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music (Fifth ed.)

There is a textbook popularly circulated among collegiate conducting courses entitled, Conducting the Music, Not the Musicians, by Jerry and Henry Nowak. In general, it’s a great resource for beginning conducting technique and gesture. Although I taught from Koshak’s The Conductor’s Role, 4th ed. as an instructor during my master’s degree program, I frequently mentioned segments of the Nowak text to show both agreeable and contradictory philosophies.

However, the title of the former has been bugging me lately. A lot. From what little musical experience and success I’ve had as a conductor in my 28 years, I think this is a misleading title. Let me explain… 

First, let’s consider the Nowak brothers’ intention behind the title: 


“The path to motivation and inspiration,’ say the brothers Nowak, ‘is through clearly and eloquently conducting the phrases of the music. This approach is distinct from influencing musicians through domination, demonstration of consummate musicianship, telling clever and engaging stories, or employing other purely verbal means. Said another way, we work on being and expressing the musical phrases so clearly that the musicians find themselves naturally creating the phrases with us.” Hence the title Conducting the Music, Not the Musicians.

“Strings Magazine”, August/September 2002, No. 104

Respectable. And I agree…except the title still remains poor. Honoring the authors’ intent, I will attempt to clarify my own intent: I do not mean to sound whiny about mere semantics of a title. Rather, I intend to question the accuracy of this title and its implications and effect when disseminated to thousands of budding conductors every semester…

Let’s look to one of the greats for input:

Leonard Bernstein, conductor and musical wizard.


Surely you’ve heard of this guy. A world-renown, consummate musician who led the musical world with daring performances with risk. He receives much credit for shaping the modern conductor of the 20th century. Lenny was so good, so overflowing with creative genius, so confident, and yet so humble that he did this:

Finally, he makes these important statements regarding what is required to be a conductor par excellence:

“Mendelssohn…founded a tradition of conducting based on the concept of precision…There soon arrived, however, a great dissenter named Richard Wagner, who declared…that any conductor worth his salt should personalize the score he was conducting by coloring it with his own emotions. Mendelssohn fathered the ‘elegant’ school, whereas Wagner inspired the ‘passionate’ school of conducting.
The ideal modern conductor is a synthesis of the two attitudes, and this synthesis is rarely achieved. In fact, it’s practically impossible. Almost any musician can be a conductor, even a pretty good one; but only a rare musician can be a great one.”
-Omnibus: “The Art of Conducting” (1955)


So, it seems to me that Lenny believes that precision, elegance, passion, and personality create the elusive ‘great conductor.’ Clearly, I agree… Hence, “The Art of Conducting” (much better title). 

But how does this stand with the Nowak title? 

My musical IF/THEN statements…

Looking to Bernstein’s quote as truth, here is what I believe about conducting:


  1. Music can have precision. Notes, rhythms, dynamics, instrumentation are precise.
  2. Music can not be elegant, passionate, or have personality without people.


  1. People make precise music have elegance, passion, and personality.
  2. Conductors must inspire and conduct musicians to make music thusly.

I think great conductors conduct both the music and the musicians equally.


So, I leave you with my own personal rules derived from these thoughts:



Conductors must possess excellent musicianship, 

a keen and accurate ear, clear and effective gesture,

and an unflappable knowledge of the score.


Conductors must honor the music and the composer.


Conductors must emote and demonstrate investment.


Conductors must be prepared, organized, punctual, respectful

and expect the same from the ensemble. 


Conductors must make a connection with other musicians 

and evoke a human response to create memorable musical experiences.

…so conduct it all. 


08 Jul 1970, Lenox, Massachusetts, USA --- Conductor Leonard Bernstein at the climax of Mahler's symphony performed by the Boston Symphony in Lenox, Massachusetts. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
08 Jul 1970, Lenox, Massachusetts, USA — Conductor Leonard Bernstein at the climax of Mahler’s symphony performed by the Boston Symphony in Lenox, Massachusetts. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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