The Conductor’s baton

Season 1 Episode 3  [The little stick]

Hello.

Today I want to answer one of the most common questions from our audience: Why conductors need a stick?

Welcome to Our Music, A podcast to unlock your imagination to the possibilities of Classical music. I hope you are having an inspiring week.


A baton, properly used, is an instrument of meaning. Its movement conveys musical ideas to those who create the sound. Despite its striking resemblance to a magic wand, the baton is certainly not imbued with any music-enhancing supernatural properties.
[I know, sorry!]

But, why do conductors use it? What’s the story behind it? The birth of modern orchestras took place when the genre of opera were created during the 1600s. It became soon apparent they needed someone to keep these larger forces together. 

When not leading from the keyboard or their violin, conductors frequently used six-foot-long wooden staffs to beat time, banging them vigorously against the floor. As occupational hazards go, Jean-Baptiste Lully suffered the worst of injuries. In 1687 he accidentally struck himself in the foot during a performance. The wound turned gangrenous and eventually led to his death three months later.

[It seemed a good idea  to ditch the stuff and simply use your hands!] The need for a conductor in an orchestra grew parallel to the increase in human resources and complexity of the music. As orchestras achieved independence from Opera and the number of players needed to play a symphony  scaled up quickly, the figure of the professional conductor was born. 

Many composers took up the baton from time to time, but it was Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Wagner, and Mahler who excelled at it and helped cementing the role and its modern technique. They all used a baton as a convenient way of enlarging and enhancing their physical movements.

Even though there is not a standard practice, nowadays a baton is around 10 to 14 inches long and few grams in weight, although I know of conductors that use really long… or toothpick baton. Some of us opt to not use a baton at all from time to time. 

In general, you want it to rest balanced at the point where it leaves your hand. It also will be beneficial the easier it is perceived by the players. It should be easy to see, easy to hold, subtle enough to avoid distractions. In the end, as a tool, it is there so that we can together achieve an inspiring performance.


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