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What a conductor actually does onstage

It’s more than just dancing around.

The role of the music conductor is often shrouded in an air of mystery. That’s because nearly every revered conductor (they are mostly men) over the past few centuries has approached the job with such vastly different styles and philosophies. Leonard Bernstein was known for his masterful approach to rhythm and often danced onstage; Richard Strauss, a German conductor during the early 20th century, barely moved. Carlos Kleiber often resembled a wizard when he waved his baton, while Herbert von Karajan looked like he was crouched over in agony. So here’s the big question: When a conductor takes the stage in front of an orchestra, what are they actually doing?

In the video above, American conductor James Gaffigan explains the ins and outs of leading an orchestra and breaks down how he communicates to different instrumentalists, from the violinist and bass drum players to the French horn player.

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