Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Orchestral Conductor's Baton

The Conductor's Baton

The conductor’s baton is one of the significant tools that conductors employ to add clarity, precision, and varying character to a beat style. Batons can be extremely personal and if used properly can help a conductor achieve his or her desired results more effectively than with the hands alone.

Baton Balance
No matter the baton you prefer, it is best that the baton is properly balanced to give the feeling of weightlessness and unobtrusiveness when used. The proper balance point is at the seam between the shaft and the handle. One should be able to balance the baton on a finger at this fulcrum point. A properly balanced baton should feel like part of your arm.

What kind of Handle?

There are many considerations when choosing a baton. Common handle options are wood, cork or plastic. Most handles are made of wood or cork. Plastic handles are usually the “freebies” typically found at trade shows. These are the most inexpensive type and least desirable because of poor craftsmanship and design. Cork is easy to come by and easy to shape. However, because of it's lightweight, it is difficult to find a properly balanced baton with a cork handle.

The best method for choosing a handle shape is to see what fits the hand the best. Hand sizes and baton grips vary enough that suitable handles shapes and sizes cannot be generally recommended. The typical handle shapes that can be widely found include: hourglass, inverted hourglass, tear shaped, round ball, and football shaped. One size and shape does not fit all. As far as non-functional or cosmetic features in handles, one has the option of different grains, stains, colors, lengths, weights, diameters, and shapes, especially with wooden handles.

A newcomer to batons is the aluminum handle. These are purported as durable and “aesthetically pleasing”.

What kind of shaft?
The most common shaft choices are made of fiberglass or wood. Other options include shafts that are battery lighted or fluorescent. These more luminous varieties are used in darkened theatres for easy viewing by the orchestra and singers on stage.

Because of its durability and extreme flexibility, the best option for student conductors is probably a baton with a fiberglass shaft. Fiberglass batons range in price quite widely, but they can be found rather inexpensively (~$5 US) online. The downside is that they are slightly heavier and are more difficult to balance with a wooden handle. Fiberglass batons are ideal for students because they are less likely to break in a backpack as compared to wooden shafts.

Wooden-shafted batons are preferred by most conductors because of the light-weight and well-balanced design. Additionally, wood-shaft batons are so easy to make, that vendors are plentiful and widespread. Quality, both high and low, is also widespread. Buyers beware. Ultimately, what feels right, is what works best. The more exposure and practice with batons, the more comfortable and discerning one will become.

Lighted and fluorescent batons are used in theatre pits for better visibility for both the instrumentalists in the pit and actors on stage. Lighted batons usually carry battery packs – if the batteries are kept in the handles than that extra weight, no matter how little, will eventually damage the rotator cuff in the shoulder of the conductor. Be careful of any extra weight imposed on the conductor. Damage to muscles and joints may occur very easily with repetition. An alternative to battery-weighted, lighted batons is a baton painted with a fluorescent coating. Although these may seem effective, they may also be more distracting then functional. Use with caution and ask the musicians after rehearsal if it worked for them. After all, it is for them that you use it.

Computer-chipped “smart” batons are making an appearance in an extremely limited fashion. There are computer programs that use these special batons to read a conductor’s gesture and pass the information remotely to a computer either for evaluation or for computer generated musical performance. One Japanese-based company has a computer-chipped baton for gesture recognition and learning assistance. It is designed to detect and transmit the conductor's beat by way of an electronic signal to a computer showing the music.

Choose the right baton for the right ensemble
Choosing the right baton for the right ensemble is a skill that can be learned rather quickly. Essentially, the larger ensembles demand a longer-shafted baton and conversely, smaller ensembles do not require large, visually-demanding batons. A good starting point is a 12" baton length. If it seems too cumbersome for the ensemble size than move to a shorter length. Or, if your ensemble is spread out with antiphonal brass and large orchestra and choir, then a longer more visible baton may be required.

How to hold the baton
The baton serves as an extension of the arm. With that, the baton should essentially extend the length of the arm when held properly. Occasionally, batons may be held with a slight turn from the wrist, thus creating a very open obtuse angle. Try to avoid extreme angles, that is, angles approaching a hard right angle. Extreme angles can lead to a double ictus between the hand and the tip of the baton thus creating an unclear beat style and audible ambiguity from the orchestra.

There are several acceptable grips, but the most common is with the handle of the baton cupped in the right hand with the butt of the handle resting inside the palm. The weight of the shaft rests and balances on the middle finger. The index finger and the thumb are used as left-right/up-down leverage. Two main positions are utilized with this grip, palm down for easy up and down gestures and palm facing the left for easy left and right gestures. No matter the direction of the palm, the baton remains an extension of the arm.

Keep in mind that many conductors do not use batons. Personally, I let the music choose whether or not I use a baton. But, that may be a topic for another post.



Interesting Notes
Image of balanced baton:
Baton collector

Baton prices found on the Internet
$5-$8 on Amazon
$5 for fiberglass
$42 for aluminum from
$75 for Lighted batons
$23 for Fluorescent batons

This blog and it's contents are copyright protected and sole ownership of the author. Do not use without permission for the author. Copyright 2009.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

What is the role of the conductor and why are you standing there??

What is the role of the conductor and why are you here?

This is a typical rudimental and pedagogical question and many young conductors may not have the answer or their answer may not be entirely correct! I once had a professor ask me, when I was on the podium in front of my colleagues who were behind a piano, "Why are you standing there?" At first I thought to myself, "because you TOLD me to!". But, after some ponderings I realized he was asking why was I on the podium leading the orchestra and not someone else! Well, this was a very good question, perhaps odd timing, but nonetheless a good question.

So, what was the correct answer? These days there are really two directions you can take this. However, the answer he was looking for was that the conductor has that position for a reason. That reason is because he/she is the expert. They know the answers to the questions that have not yet been asked. This is accomplished through years of study and preparation, thorough examination of the scores in question, and knowledge of the instruments. This is all very basic information. So, what is the role of the conductor then?

This is where the two directions come into play.
On one hand, the conductor can be a dictator of musical will and fearless leader for all. On the other hand, the conductor can be just another member of the ensemble, musical collaborator, and just happen to be the guy up front.

Both extremes are acceptable, however I find a combination of both are preferred. One can characterize the role of the conductor as a rehearsal leader, group interpreter and discussion leader, traffic cop, cat wrangler, as well as ensemble member, musical collaborator, orchestral musician, and partner.

These are just some key words for discussion and food for thought.

So what was my answer to the professor's question? Well, in my awkward sense of humor I responded to my very dry European professor with a twinkle in my eye, "because I am a DEMI-GOD!". I swear I saw the corners of his mouth rise in a smile. Of course that was just before he shouted, "NO!".


Monday, June 1, 2009

Muppets in Rondo Form?

There are some things in life that are classic. You know, things that are timeless in quality. No matter how much time has passed it is still valued in culture...whether it's a car, a symphony, or in this case a short musical video from the first episode of the Muppets. Mena mena, or however you spell it is simply classic humor. And, I might add in a classic form too. One might suggest that it is presented in a classic (not Classical), but classic rondo form A B A C A D A... The B, C, and D sections are the jazzy parts that change everytime with a repeat of the main idea as A. Check it out. Am I wrong?