Music Conductor and Director Career

Music conductors direct large groups of musicians or singers in the performance of a piece of music. There are various types of conductors, including those who lead symphony orchestras, dance bands, marching bands, and choral groups. They use their hands, a baton, or both to indicate the musical sound variations and timing of a composition. Their chief concern is their interpreta­tion of how a piece of music should be played. They are responsible for rehearsing the orchestra and auditioning musicians for positions in the ensemble.

Conductors must have the complete respect of the musicians they lead. The great conductors have a per­sonal charisma that awes both musician and listener alike. Conductors are unique in the modern musical world in that they make no sound themselves yet con­trol the sound that others make. The orchestra is their instrument. Music conductors sometimes carry the title of music director, which implies a wider area of responsi­bilities, including administrative and managerial duties.

Music Conductor and Director Career History

Music Conductor and Director CareerThe origins of music conducting remain quite obscure. Some form of timekeeping undoubtedly went on even among primitive musical groups. In early orchestral days, timekeeping was often done orally, with the use of a scroll, or by pounding a long stick on the floor. During the 18th century, a musician often kept time, usually the organist, harpsichordists, or the chief of the first violinists, who came to be called concertmaster in modern times. There were no specialist conductors at this time; the composer generally served as the conductor, and he usually con­ducted only his own works. The concertmaster role grew increasingly more important, and for a period it was not unusual for him to keep time by stamping his feet even when there was a separate conductor who might also keep time by clapping his hands or tapping a desk. Needless to say, this simultaneous stamping and clapping could be very irritating to musicians and audience alike.

Just when the baton was first used is not known, but mention of using a staff in this manner was made in Greek mythology as early as 709 b.c. It is known that batons were used since the eighth century and became fashionable, as orchestras grew larger, in the late 18th century. By the mid-19th century their usage was a widely accepted practice.

Early in the history of the orchestra, most concert music was performed in conjunction with opera. In 1816, noted French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer used his violin bow to conduct the Paris Opera. In 1824, the Opera employed the services of a specialist conductor, the noted violinist Fran^oise Antoine Habeneck, who also conducted with a bow, and who, in 1828 became one of the first to establish an orchestra devoted entirely to concert as opposed to opera music. The first Beethoven symphonies heard in Paris were conducted by Habeneck. During these early days of conducting, it was common for the conductor to face the audience rather than the orchestra, a practice that was still common in Russia during the late 19th century.

In 1776, Kapellmeister Johann Reichardt conducted the Berlin Court Opera with a baton, possibly the first to do so. Early in the 19th century, Ludwig Spohr was perhaps the first musician to be recognized purely as a conductor and was another of the early users of the baton rather than the bow or a paper scroll. The baton was at first a rather large and awkward device similar to the instrument used by a drum major. Hector Ber­lioz used such a baton in his white-gloved hand. Felix Mendelssohn used a scroll or a stick; he was particularly notable for the grandeur of his style. Mendelssohn also regularly cut and reorchestrated the compositions he conducted, a practice that has continued. Some conduc­tors of the period eschewed the baton and used their bare hands. This practice was never widely adopted, although a few great conductors, including Leopold Stokowski, preferred the bare hand method.

Another innovation was the use of the full score by conductors. Before the full score was available, conduc­tors usually read from the first violinist’s part. Berlioz was one of the first to employ the full score and was one of the great 19th century composer-conductors who influenced conducting style into the next century. Among the other major influences were Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner. These men assumed full, autocratic command of the orchestra, each insisting on strict obedience from the musicians in carrying out the conductor’s interpreta­tion of the music. Each developed his own characteristic style, which brought him widespread adulation. Berlioz had an inspirational effect on the orchestra and, while his physical style was flamboyant, he was rather inflexible in his tempo. Mendelssohn was also strict in his timing, while Wagner took a more flexible approach.

Among the conductors influenced by Wagner were such notable figures as Hans von Bulow, Franz Liszt, and Wilhelm Furtwangler. Mendelssohn’s followers included Karl Muck, Felix Weingartner, and Richard Strauss, all distinctive for their minimal baton movement and methodical tempos. Some conductors defied categoriza­tion, however. One of these was Gustav Mahler in the late 19th century; he wielded a tyrannical power over the orchestra and flew into rages that became legendary.

Many different conducting styles emerged in the 20th cen­tury, including some that were highly exhibitionistic. One of the extremes of that type was exem­plified by Sir Thomas Beecham, the great British conductor. He sometimes raised his arms sky­ward imploring the orchestra to reach perfection; at other times he lunged at the horn section to raise its power, occasionally falling off the podium in his exuberance. Leopold Stokowski and Leonard Bernstein have also been noted for their dra­matic exhibitionism. In the early 1920s in Russia, an attempt was made at forming a conductor-less orchestra, undoubtedly an attempt at eliminating the dicta­torial rule of the conductor. The experiment died out after a few years, although in the late 1920s conductorless experiments were attempted in New York City and Budapest.

The number of outstanding conductors in the 20th century are too numerous to mention, but one name is perhaps legend­ary above all others. This would be Arturo Toscanini, originally an opera composer, whose infallible ear, musicianship, comprehensive knowledge of scores, and orchestral control made him virtually the prototype of great 20th century conductors. At rehears­als his famed temper flared as he exhorted his charges to perfectly perform his interpretation of a score. Before the audience he exuded charisma. Toscanini, who conducted the New York Philharmonic-Symphony from 1928 to 1936 and the NBC Symphony from 1937 to 1954, was perhaps the most influential conductor of the mid-20th century, his main rival being Furtwangler in Germany. Some conductors of the late 20th century, however, remained free of both influences. Perhaps the most notable of these is Sir Georg Solti, who, with large and seemingly awkward movements, inspired his musicians to brilliant heights of musical perfection. Many authori­ties acknowledge that under his guidance the Chicago Symphony Orchestra became one of the finest musical ensembles of the late 20th century. While many women have taken their places among the great orchestras of the world, few have been able to move into the field of con­ducting. In the second half of the 20th century, however, there were some breakthroughs, and a number of women conductors, such as Sarah Caldwell in the United States, achieved notable recognition.

Music Conductor and Director Job Description

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 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 soloist 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, such as Eugene Ormandy, formerly of the Philadelphia Orches­tra, 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.

Music Conductor and Director Career Requirements

High School

Formal training in at least one musical instrument is necessary for a future as a music conductor or director. Keyboard instruction is particularly important. In high school, participation in a concert band, jazz ensemble, choir, or orchestra will teach you about group perform­ing and how the various parts contribute to a whole sound. Some high schools may offer opportunities to conduct school music groups.

Postsecondary Training

It is unlikely that many people start out at a very early point in life to become a music conductor. Most conduc­tors begin studying music at an early age and possibly, at some later, more mature point of life may discover or suspect that they have the qualities to become a conduc­tor. Some conductors become involved at the high school or college level leading a small group for whom they may also do the arranging and possibly some compos­ing. There are some courses specifically in conducting at advanced institutions, and interested students may take courses in composition, arranging, and orchestrating, which provide a good background for conducting. Some opportunities to conduct may arise in the university, and you may be able to study with a faculty member who conducts the school orchestra. There are also conductor training programs and apprenticeship programs, which are announced in the music trade papers.

It was once commonly thought that conducting was unteachable. That attitude has been changing, how­ever, and some institutions have developed formalized programs to teach the art of conducting. The Paris Conservatory is particularly noted for its conducting instruction, and completion of that institution’s course is said to pave the way to opportunities in conducting. The Julliard School is another institution known for its studies in conducting.

Conductors must acquire a multiplicity of skills in order to practice their art. These skills may be divided into three parts: technical, performance, and conducting.

Technical skills deal with conductors’ ability to con­trol orchestral intonation, balance, and color; they must be advanced at sight reading and transposition in order to cope with orchestral scores. Conductors must acquire a comprehensive knowledge of all orchestral instruments and must themselves have mastery of at least one instru­ment, the piano probably being the most helpful. They must acquire skills in composition and music analysis, which presumes accomplished skills in counterpoint, harmony, musical structures, and orchestration. Finally, conductors must understand and be able to adapt musi­cal styling.

Performance skills refer to conductors’ own instru­mental ability. Mastery of one instrument is important, but the more instruments conductors know, the better they will be able to relate to members of the orchestra. It is through knowledge of instruments that conductors develop their interpretive abilities.

Conducting skills involve the ability to use the baton and to control the timing, rhythm, and structure of a musical piece. Conductors must develop these skills at performances and at rehearsals. At rehearsals they must use their power and their intellect to blend the various elements of the orchestra and the composition into a single unified presentation. Conductors must also learn to use their whole bodies, along with the baton, to con­trol the music.

Conductors require not only an extensive knowledge of music but also a strong general background in the arts and humanities. They should have a comprehensive knowledge of musical history as it fits into the general fabric of civilization along with competence in various languages, including French, German, Italian, and Latin. Language skills are particularly helpful in coaching sing­ers. Familiarity with the history of Western civilization, particularly its literature, drama, and art, will also be valuable in the composer’s musical frame of reference.

Other Requirements

Conductors require a high degree of self-discipline and unquestioned integrity in order to fill a difficult and complex leadership role. It is important as well that they learn all the aspects of the business and social functions of an orchestra.

Like musicians and composers, conductors must have talent, a quality that cannot be taught or acquired. They must have supreme self-confidence in their ability to lead and interpret the music of the great masters. They must convince both audience and ensemble that they are in command.

Exploring Music Conductor and Director Career

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 American Symphony Orchestra League located in New York. It holds a national conference and conducting workshops each year.


There are many situations in which music conduc­tors and directors may work. Music teachers in schools often take on conducting as a natural extension of their duties. Conservatories and institutions of higher learn­ing frequently have fine orchestras, choruses, and bands that often choose conductors from the faculty. There are numerous summer festivals that employ conductors, and conductors may also find positions with commu­nity orchestras and choruses, local opera companies, and musical theater groups; even amateur groups sometimes hire outside conductors. For the very exceptional, of course, there is the possibility of conducting with famous orchestras, theaters, and opera companies, as well as the musical groups associated with broadcasting and film studios. Well-known conductors are in demand and travel a great deal, appearing as guest conductors with other orchestras or making personal appearances.

Starting Out

A career in conducting begins with a sound musical edu­cation. Working as an instrumentalist in an orchestral group under a good conductor whose technique can be studied is an important step toward conducting. The piano is an important instrument for conductors to know, because it will not only enable them to score and arrange more easily, it also will be useful in coaching singers, which many conductors do as a sideline, and in rehearsing an orchestra as an assistant conductor. That is not to say, however, that other instrumentalists do not also acquire a good background for conducting.

With a solid foundation in musical education and some experience with an orchestra, young conductors should seek any way possible to acquire experience con­ducting. There are many grants and fellowships you can apply for, and many summer music festivals advertise for conductors. These situations often present the opportu­nity to work or study under a famous conductor who has been engaged to oversee or administer a festival. Such experience is invaluable because it provides opportu­nities to make contacts for various other conducting positions. These may include apprenticeships, jobs with university choirs and orchestras (which may include a faculty position), or opportunities with community orchestras, small opera companies, or amateur groups that seek a professional music director. Experience in these positions can lead to offers with major orchestras, operas, or musical theater companies as an assistant or associate conductor.

Not everyone will want or be able to move into a major role as a conductor of a well-known orchestra. Many, in fact most, will remain in other positions such as those described. Those seeking to further their career as a conductor may want to invest in a personal manager who will find bookings and situations for ambitious young talent. More than likely, entering the conducting field will take more of an investment than most other careers. Music education, applying for grants and fellowships, and attending workshops, summer music camps, and festivals can add up to a considerable expense. Moving into a good conducting job may take time as well, and young people going into the field should not expect to reach the pinnacle of their profession until they are well into their 30s or 40s or even older.


There is no real hierarchy in an orchestra organization that one can climb to the role of conductor. The most likely advancement within an organization would be from the position of assistant or associate conductor or from that of the head first violinist, that is, the concertmaster. Con­ductors generally move from smaller conducting jobs to larger ones. A likely advancement would be from a small community orchestra or youth orchestra (probably a part-time position), to a small city orchestra (full or part time), and from there to a larger city orchestra, a mid-sized opera company, or directorship of a middle-level television or film company. Such advancement presumes that the con­ductor has had sufficient recognition and quality reviews to come to the attention of the larger musical groups.

Conductors who take the leadership of mid-sized city orchestras and opera companies may be in the hands of an agent or manager, who takes care of financial matters, guest bookings, and personal appearances. The agent will also be looking for advancement to more prestigious conduct­ing jobs in the larger cities. At the point that conductors receive national or international recognition, it becomes a question of which major position they will accept as open­ings occur. It is unlikely that a major city orchestra would promote someone within the organization when the conductorship is open. It is more probable that a search committee will conduct an international search to find a big name conductor for the post. Conductors themselves can advance to top-level administrative positions, such as artistic director or executive director.


The range of earnings for music conductors and directors is enormous, and there is variation from one category of conductors to another. For instance, many conductors work only part time and make quite small yearly incomes for their conducting endeavors. Part-time choir directors for churches and temples, for instance, make from $3,500 to $25,000 per year, while full-time directors make from $15,000 to $40,000 per year. Conductors of dance bands make from $300 to $1,200 per week. Opera and choral group conductors make as little as $8,000 per year work­ing part-time at the community level, but salaries range to over $100,000 per year for those with permanent posi­tions with established companies in major cities. The same applies to symphony orchestra conductors who, for instance, make $25,000 to $40,000 per year conducting smaller, regional orchestras, but who can make $500,000 or more a year if they become the resident conductor of an internationally famous orchestra. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2004 the median annual salary for music conductors and directors was $34,800. The lowest paid 10 percent earned $17,820 and the highest paid 10 percent earned $87,890, annually.

Work Environment

The working conditions of conductors range as widely as their earnings. The conductors of small musical groups at the community level may rehearse in a member’s base­ment, a community center, a high school gym, or in a church or temple. Performances may be held in some of those same places. Lighting, heating or cooling, sound equipment, and musical instrument quality may all be less than adequate. On the other hand, conductors of major orchestras in the larger metropolitan centers usually have ideal working conditions, generally having the same out­standing facilities for rehearsal and performance. Many universities, colleges, and conservatories, even some of the smaller ones, also have state-of-the-art facilities.

Music Conductor and Director Career Outlook

The operating cost for an orchestra continues to grow every year, and music organizations are in constant budget-trim­ming modes as have been most other professional business organizations in the last decade. This has tended to affect growth in the orchestra field and, accordingly, the num­ber of conducting jobs. Additionally, the overall number of orchestras in the United States has grown only slightly in the last two decades. The number of orchestras in academia declined slightly while community, youth, and city orches­tras for the most part increased slightly in number. The slight growth pattern of orchestra groups will not nearly accommodate the number of people who graduated from music school during that period and are trying to become conductors. Although the competition for music conductor and director jobs will be keen, according to the U.S. Depart­ment of Labor job opportunities are expected to increase about as fast as the average through 2014.

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