Top 10 Qualities of an Effective Band or Orchestra Conductor

Mike Lawson • Commentary • November 4, 2018

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We all have had teachers we remember because they had an impact on us in some wonderful way in school.

Perhaps it was a music teacher or conductor who nourished our love of music and was partly responsible for our pursuing a career in music. What teacher today (or at any time) wouldn’t want to foster the intellectual and creative development of his or her students and inspire them to go on to lofty professional careers?

As a school band or orchestra leader you are in a position to cultivate appreciation and love of music among your student musicians and even have the potential to make a big difference in their lives. Students come to band or orchestra to have a stimulating and enjoyable musical experience. As the director you have the responsibility to help make that happen. I might even say that the wholly dedicated and expedient conductor gives more than 100 percent and tries to make the musical experience even better than what the students expected.

So what qualities make for an effective school band or orchestra leader? There can be many, but here are ten:

A conductor should inspire. Student musicians come to band or orchestra looking for a great musical experience. Do you make that happen? Do you energize them? Do you stimulate their fervor for music? Do they come out of rehearsals not just gratified but looking to satiate their thirst for music in other ways? Ramping up students’ passion for music is the mark of an inspiring school conductor.

A conductor should be a role model. A conductor is synonymous with a musical leader, a person who is not just a talented musician but a competent guide in shaping his or her group into becoming the best musical ensemble they can be. Students look at conductors as role models and as a role model a conductor should have qualities that students admire and aspire to. A school conductor should have integrity, competence and passion, be committed to the job, be a good communicator, be respectful, be able to make good decisions, and be knowledgeable and confident.

A conductor should be dynamic. The stereotype of conductors is that they are larger than life (thanks to such legends as Toscanini, Szell, Stokowski, Ormandy, von Karajan, and Bernstein). True, we all come with different personalities and all conductors have their own particular styles that they bring to their groups, but it can be highly motivating to musicians if the conductor is exciting and electrifying. And those are qualities that audiences certainly love. At concerts, as the music is flowing people seem to be more enthused by a conductor who complements the energy of the music, who moves and shows emotion that help bring the music to life.

A conductor should be approachable and available. A school conductor should have a warm and pleasant personality so that students are not intimidated by him or her. Being temperamental or overbearing will put students off. Being courteous and genial are qualities that will galvanize students, and you can never go wrong with a proper sense of humor. If a student needs help or has questions, the conductor should be affable enough so that the student shouldn’t hesitate to come to the conductor. Moreover, everybody has different time schedules, so a school conductor should make his or her hours known to students and be there for them if they need to ask questions, address a problem or situation or come for any other reason.

A conductor should challenge his or her students. Challenging students keeps them from getting bored and encourages intellectual and creative growth. Find compositions that they will love but which will also motivate them to practice and improve their musical skills, and even seek out new experiences that can ameliorate their musicianship.

A conductor should select a good program of music for concerts. What is your repertoire? Are you picking compositions that please you or are they selected with your students and audience in mind? Thought should be given to each and every composition on your concert program so that it serves some purpose, even if it’s just an audience-pleaser. You want to select pieces that can enhance the musical growth of your students but also that stimulate their appreciation of music. Are you rotating the same old compositions? Be daring and find some new pieces that everyone can enjoy.

A conductor should ask students what they’d like to play. Input from the troops never hurts. It makes them happier and makes for a better all-around musical experience.

A conductor should keep up with current popular music. School conductors are often stereotyped as old and stodgy, and while knowledgeable about serious music and music of the past have little knowledge of other types of music students like—current popular music in its myriad forms, which today could include everything from rock and country to dance and hip hop. What do you know about these contemporary genres of music? In today’s age with digital devices and pop music ubiquitous, virtually all students have a pipeline to the contemporary music scene and students will be able to better relate to conductors who know something about it too.

A conductor should plan special events or trips. Even playing in the best bands or orchestras can be a boring experience if there’s only the usual fall, winter or spring concerts. Give students something special to look forward to. Come up with great ideas for terrific events or trips and let everyone have fun in planning it and helping it come to fruition.

A conductor should be knowledgeable and offer musical insights. You’re a teacher, not just a conductor. What can you tell your students about the composers or compositions you play that might spark an interest in learning more about them? What can you tell your students about how to play a passage better or more expressively? You should have a wealth of knowledge about the compositions on your concert program even if you have to do some reading or research on your repertoire.

School band and orchestra conductors are special. They are the core of the school musical experience. They can make it wonderful and memorable or humdrum and forgettable. Have you given though as to how can you make your students’ musical experience the best it can be? Make it an amazing experience for everyone so they may look back upon it fondly. Nurture them, encourage them and excite them and perhaps your impact may be so great that they will one day thank you for having inspired them to pursue a professional music career.

Harvey Rachlin is an award-winning author of thirteen books including The Songwriter’s Handbook and The Songwriter’s and Musician’s Guide to Making Great Demos. His Encyclopedia of the Music Business won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music journalism, was named Outstanding Music Reference Book of the Year by the American Library Association, and was recommended by Academy Award-winning composer Henry Mancini on the 1984 internationally- televised Grammy Awards. He runs the music business program at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.

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