YAKIMA, Wash. -- In science, a conductor is a material that permits a flow of energy. In music, a conductor permits the flow of energy in the form of sound and vibrations, transforming a silent stage of musicians into a living musical organism.
Orchestral and choral conductors bring this transformation about through hand motions, body language and facial expressions, some grandly visible to performers and audience alike and others as subtle as a lifted eyebrow. A common difference between orchestral and choral conductors is the use of the baton. Orchestra conductors typically use batons; choral conductors typically do not.
Prior to the 19th century, orchestras were led by musicians from their seats, most typically the harpsichordist or principal violinist. Their chief responsibilities were to perform with the ensemble, with leading it a secondary role.
As such, they often used violin bows or rolled pieces of paper to augment their gestures and guidance from their seats. At times, 6-foot-long wooden staffs were used to beat time by banging them against the floor (French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully died from gangrene after stabbing himself in the foot while conducting in this way!)
Since the 19th century, the role of the conductor and the conductor’s primary non-body instrument, the baton, have evolved into the form most commonly experienced in an orchestra performance today: The conductor is not a playing member of the orchestra, instead standing in front of the ensemble and using a short, slender stick to lead the musicians.
Seemingly small in stature, the baton enlarges and enhances physical movements, helping the conductor communicate more clearly with the orchestra. In a 2016 study on the effects of conductor baton use on band and choral musicians’ perceptions of conductor expressivity and clarity, while the choral director was perceived to be clearer without a baton, the band director — communicating nonverbally with musicians playing instruments — was perceived to be clearer with a baton.
Baton selection is personal to each conductor who may consider height, arm length and size of hands or fingers in choosing one. Batons are made from a range of woods and also from graphite, metal and composite materials like carbon fibre and fiberglass.
From time to time, YSO Maestro Lawrence Golan exchanges his personal baton for something with a different “voice,” such as a lightsaber when conducting a “Star Wars” piece or a magic wand when conducting “The Magical Music of Harry Potter,” but for the most part it’s a slender, tapered stick that for brief moments at every concert holds the orchestra at-the-ready and the breath of anticipation within each audience member.
• This column was written by Yakima Symphony Orchestra staff. Learn more at www.ysomusic.org.