Why does the conductor of an orchestra or band wave around that little stick?
Conductors’ gestures are the primary method to communicate tempo, dynamics and other musical ideas, and that little stick — called a baton — is used to enhance those movements. Think of it as an extension of the arm and hand.
The great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein said, “If [the conductor] uses a baton, the baton itself must be a living thing, charged with a kind of electricity, which makes it an instrument of meaning in its tiniest movement.”
German composer and conductor Louis Spohr is credited with introducing the modern baton in the early 1800s, codifying the basic conducting actions that we see today. The baton is made of lightweight wood or fiberglass, varying in length from 10 inches to a more imposing 26 inches.
At any length, it can sometimes be a hazard: In 1973, Georg Solti stabbed himself in the temple while conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of The Marriage of Figaro in Paris. The injury wasn’t serious, although Solti did bleed profusely onto his score.
That wouldn’t have been a problem for those conductors who prefer not to use a baton. Dmitri Mitropoulos, conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (the forerunner of the Minnesota Orchestra) from 1937-49, was one of several prominent conductors who conducted only with their hands. His association with the New York Philharmonic’s Leopold Stokowski, who also eschewed the baton, might have influenced him.
Conductors of choral ensembles also usually use their hands. But instrumental conductors most often will opt for that little stick.
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