Baton Conducting in Opera and Classical Music Performance

Music conducting and particularly baton conducting by famous conductors is viewed and analyzed by those who wish to better understand how to conduct an orchestra. If you wish, you have an opportunity to view an orchestra conductor performance and analyse the baton conducting techniques.

Since baton conducting is as much a skill as an art, classical music conductors develop their orchestral conducting techniques over many years of experience on how to conduct music. The best orchestra conductors may use a music conductor wand while some prefer to keep wooden batons.

The origin of the word ‘baton’ dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries.

Read to Discover Baton Conducting:

 

What is Baton Conducting?

Baton Conducting
Baton Conducting

A casual internet search of baton conducting will produce a list of pages that sell various types of batons for conducting an orchestra. Obviously, these pages are meant for students aspiring to become music conductors or young professional musicians intending to upgrade themselves to the rank of conductor. It is probably quite accurate to conclude that established, professional conductors are not searching for batons. More likely, the companies that manufacture these batons are searching them out with the hopes that they will sponsor one of their products.

But, baton conducting is much more than the wielding of a thin stick to the beat of the music score. Leon Botstein (b.1946) in his introduction to The Art of Conducting Technique: A New Perspective by Harold Farberman (b.1929) references Heinrich Schenker (1868 – 1935), a Jewish musical theoretician born in the village of Wisniowczyk (present day Vishnivchyk) in the Ternopil Region and raised in the city of Lviv (then called Lemberg) of Ukraine.

According to Botstein, it was Schenker who in an article published in 1894 predicted “…that the future would require a new kind of orchestra conductor, not the proverbial ‘time-beater’ (the so-called Kappelmeister) to which late nineteenth century concert audiences had become accustomed. Musicians and listeners would increasingly demand someone who could ‘breathe with the spirit’ of music; who excelled in a sort of ‘painting’ that derived from the ‘work itself’…”

Music ability, knowledge of theory and composition are a must for the orchestra conductor. Additionally, baton conducting is a skill – one that needs to be learned. Contrary to what some people may believe, waving a stick in front of an orchestra or cueing opera singers is not as simple as it may appear.

On this page, we will not be neither advocating for any one type of conducting baton, nor endorsing any particular style of baton conducting. Instead, we will focus on baton conducting itself – how? when? why? and what?

 

Which Baton Conducting Techniques Are Widely Used by an Orchestra Conductor?

Baton Conducting Techniques
Baton Conducting Techniques

Baton conducting is a distinct skill. The ability to conduct with a baton is not something every musician can do. There are specific techniques that need to be mastered before someone can actually get up in front of a group of musicians and lead them using a conductor’s baton.

A quick search in music libraries or online will confirm that there is no one definitive, correct, generally accepted baton conducting technique. The reasons for this may be because:

  • baton conducting is still very much an evolving compendium of skills
  • famous conductors tend to develop their own unique style that suits them and their fellow orchestra musicians
  • conducting is not a mass profession.

Today, however, there are certain generally accepted basics of conducting which are true of whether a conductor conducts with or without a baton. In his A History of Orchestral Conducting: In Theory and Practice (1988), Elliott W. Galkin (1921?-1990) states that the description for the universally accepted “method of indicating four beats to the bar” was initially introduced by a linguist as the term tactus.

Thomas Balthasar Janowka (1660-1741) was a lexicographer (a person interested in words, their meanings and origins), who in his work Clavis ad Thesaurum Magna Artis Musicae published in Prague in 1701, described tactus – “The means of measuring an ordinary measure is that the first quarter is traced by lowering the hand, the second by carrying it to the left moderately higher, the third by going again to the right a bit higher, and the fourth by raising it to the height of the shoulder. And this is to be understood as concerning the right hand.”

Harold Farberman (b.1929), an American composer and conductor refers to this as the two-dimensional conducting technique. In his book The Art of Conducting Technique: A New Pespective (1997), Farberman introduces a three-dimensional baton conducting technique called The PatternCube, which “records where the baton should be in the conductor’s working space, what strokes to use, and how the strokes are delivered.”

Farberman rejects baton conducting as a simple rhythm indicator and argues that the goal of baton conducting is to physically recreate the composer’s musical score. To enable such a recreation, Farberman proposes that the conductor focus on the musical score’s beat, pitch and dynamics and recreates this while focusing on his or her personal space, the left hand (wrist, fingers and palm) and arm; and, the baton in the right hand with coordinated wrist and arm.

In short, baton conducting is not just a matter of studying the score and delivering. It is a matter of interpreting the composer’s score within a clearly defined visual system of hand and body movements.

 

When is a Baton Used by a Conductor to Lead the Symphony Orchestra?

Conductor as Orchestra Leader
Conductor as Orchestra Leader

Those who regularly attend classical and opera music performances may have noticed that orchestra conductors appear to always use a baton. On the other hand, choral conductors, both those who lead professional choirs and those who lead local community choirs, for the most part, will prefer not use a baton. Quite often these choir conductors use only their hands.

Interestingly, not all conductors have a desire to master the skills of baton conducting. This is particularly true of those who work as conductors of choirs in schools or community organizations.

As described above, although baton conducting techniques may appear easy from an audience point of view, the patterns, skills and tactus are not simple to learn and acquire.

One of the reasons why choral conductors frequently don’t use a baton is because they are closer to the choir members than the orchestral conductor is to the members of the orchestra and it is easier for the choir members to see them. As those who have sung in choirs can attest, choral conductors will, in addition to their hands, use their hair, eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth and body to communicate with the choir members.

Personally, there have been many occasions where for one reason or another, I have had to conduct without a baton. My first encounter with this was at the Kirov Opera and Ballet theatre (now Mariinski Theatre) in Leningrad in 1958 when I was going through an apprenticeship under Yuriy Temirkanov. I “caught the bug” of conducting without a baton from him…
Continue reading MusicNotes by Myron Yusypovych.

This trend to conduct choirs without a baton can be observed from time to time during opera performances. Opera music conductors will sometimes lay down their baton and use their hands in opera sections where choirs sing a capella (no orchestra) or when the conductor has a need to focus on the choir members.

During a symphony performance the conductor may emphasize the use of the left hand when a particular instrument has a solo piece (see the video below).

 

Why is the Baton Called an Extension of the Music Conductor’s Arm?

Baton Conducting Length
Baton Conducting Length

For conducting, the baton is an extension of the conductor’s arm, elongating the length of the arm and making it more visible. The baton enables more members of the orchestra ensemble, particularly those sitting at the back, to see the conductor and his or her hand movements.

Traditionally, the orchestra conductor is dressed in black. This means that at an opera performance, when the orchestra is seated in a dark pit with small lights illuminating their individual musical scores, it can be quite difficult to see the conductor.

Consequently, the baton is usually painted white, not as a contrast to the black clothes of the conductor and musicians, but because in the dark lights of the theatre it can be more easily seen by all those who need to see it.

Since the baton needs to be both visible to the orchestra and at the same time provide a semblance of being an extension of the conductor’s hand, it needs to be neither too long nor too short. Ultimately, however, the length of the conductor’s baton is very much a personal preference.

Personally, I just don’t like long and heavy batons. I don’t want to feel the baton in my hands. When I am conducting, the baton needs to become a part of me…
Continue reading MusicNotes by Myron Yusypovych.

As a striking aside, it might be interesting to note that there is another use of the word ‘baton’ related to it being an extension of a person’s arm – namely, a police baton. Certainly, in the case of the police, the baton when used to regulate the flow of traffic is used because it is much more visible than mere hand movements (note the similarity even in the wording – ‘to conduct traffic’ and ‘to conduct music’). Of course, when used in situations that require physical force and preclude the use of weapons and firearms, there is less similarity between a conductor’s baton and a police baton.

 

A Baton Conducting Performance

The video clip below allows you to review the elements of baton conducting while enjoying a live performance at the Lviv Opera House.

As you watch and listen, note how the baton becomes an extension of the conductor’s arm and is visible even for the musicians sitting at the very back of the orchestra when the background is dark. Take note of the use of the left-hand fingers when individual musicians and groups play solo.

The above is from a special production entitled Harmony of the Spheres which includes Part 3 of the Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome), a symphonic-poem by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), conducted by Myron Yusypovych.

You may wish to view another close-up of baton conducting techniques during performance by Myron Yusypovych – the Introduction (Vorspiel) to Act 1 of the opera Lohengrin by Richard Wagner (1813-1883).

 

What Does an Orchestra Conductor Hold – Baton, Wand, Stick?

Orchestra Conductor with a Baton Stick
Orchestra Conductor with a Baton Stick

The piece of equipment that a music conductor holds in his or her hands can be called many things.

The word baton is an anglicized version of the French bâton, which means ‘stick’ or ‘rod’, whereas the word stick is from Proto-Germanic stikkon- meaning ‘to pierce’ or ‘to stick’. In the 16th century, the French bâton was used to designate a rod or staff that was carried as a status symbol by a person holding a high office. As such in the 17th century, conductors, who tended to be composers and performers of high status, would use their large rod or staff, thumping it up and down on the floor, to hammer out the beat for the musicians.

The word wand is from Old Norse vondr meaning a ‘rod’ or ‘switch’ that has the ability to bend. The most widely used application today is that of a magic wand. But, it is also used as the designation for the ‘stick’ held by the conductor – a conductor’s wand – in the UK (United Kingdom).

The small stick, wand or baton, as we know it today, was introduced in the mid 1850s (mid 19th century) when it began to gain in popularity as a conductor’s tool. Contemporary commercially produced batons tend to be made of wood or fiberglass. Although the audience only sees the actual “stick” part of the baton, not everyone is aware that the conductor is actually holding a knob, sometimes referred to as a bulb, which is hidden in the palm of his or her hand.

In my conductor’s experience, I have used many different batons. I can still clearly remember the thick, dirty-grey Soviet-era batons with their vaguely inked 30коп (the price).
 
I was a student at the Conservatory during the period and I would file these batons, narrow them down and sometimes even paint them using oil-based white paint. This was a very churlish process because these batons would easily and frequently break.
 
In time, it became more convenient to order 10 or so light-weight baton’s (made from pine or linden wood) from the opera theatre’s woodworking carpenters and then file them down to the desired feel. At that time, I was already working as a prompter at the Lviv Opera House and this request would cost me a 0,5L bottle of “Moskovskaya” with a price tag of 4руб12коп.
 
I recall how once during the early days of Ukraine’s independence, while on tour, I took disposable chopsticks from a Chinese restaurant, adjusted them to fit my needs and got wonderful batons – light and very strong.
Continue reading MusicNotes by Myron Yusypovych.

Ultimately, the important work conducted by an opera or symphony conductor is done during his personal preparation prior to and during rehearsals with the orchestra. Yes, a baton is used during rehearsals but it is the verbal communication that occurs between conductor and musicians during the preparation for performance that plays a significant role in the ensemble results that an audience experiences.

Baton conducting – the up-down and side-to-side movements of the right hand, as well as the left hand and conductor's body movements, are visual manisfestations of the preparation that occurred prior to performance. During performance they are a visible expression of the auditory experience.

Text by: Oksana A. Wynnyckyj-Yusypovych

 

More to Explore:


Contacts