Traits and Skills of a Music Director


The purpose of this paper, prepared by the League's Conducting Continuum Committee, is to clarify the roles of conductor and music director in American orchestras. It seeks to answer: what does a music director do? and what type of person would make an effective music director? What follows can serve as a guide for the aspiring conductor or serve as a set of criteria for identifying, selecting, and training conductors. The Committee hopes that discussions emanating from what is written here will lead to a better understanding of what is required to become a music director and provide a common vocabulary with which the orchestra field can discuss issues of artistic leadership.


In America, music directors are called upon to play three overlapping roles:

  • Principal Conductor: a performing musician
  • Artistic Director: the artistic head of the institution
  • Community Arts Leader: an advocate, ambassador, and teacher working on behalf of the orchestra in its community

The effective music director will have the ability to perform each of these three roles well; maintaining the proper balance of roles will be critical to his or her success. Being a conductor, and the primacy of musical skills it requires, is the base upon which the other two roles are developedÑthus, this paper begins there before going on to describe the traits and personal qualities that are essential to the artistic director and community arts leader. The focus on conducting skills gives emphasis to the requirement that every music director must be first and foremost a superb conductor.

The conductor's craft may be described as an art of persuasion by which musicians, audiences, and communities come to share a deep connection with the orchestra and its repertoire. Passion, intellect, insight, musical talent, and charisma all come into play. A conductor's authority flows from the respect he or she commands, the power of his or her musical vision, and the skill and facility by which musical ideas are communicated through physical movement as well as verbal instructions.

Evaluating conductors objectively can be difficult:

  • There is no "correct" way to perform a given work of art; honest and vigorous differences of opinion are possible.
  • The orchestra, not the conductor, physically creates the sound. It is not always clear to what extent the conductor is responsible for a good (or bad) performance, though the picture generally becomes clearer over time.
  • The conductor's role is rooted in the aristocratic tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries. Until recently, the person on the podium was seldom questioned and never challenged. Today, the role is changing dramatically.

The traditional image, confusion about how a conductor influences sound, and lack of consensus about artistic interpretations inhibit objective appraisals of artistic performance. This situation increases the likelihood that conductors may be evaluated by superficial criteriaÑhow they "look" on the podium, for example, or on how non-artistic functions are fulfilled.

Expanded demands on the music director as artistic head and community arts leader are rapidly evolving and are too important to be left to chance. The array of responsibilities are complex and call on many resources beyond those learned on the podium or in the practice room. It is important to be specific about those skills and qualities-they comprise the criteria upon which a music director's performance will be measured. Training in these skills will occur in many forms throughout a career. Music directors should seek opportunities to continue learning and developing, while at the same time encouraging feedback at every stage of development.

In considering the following description of traits and skills needed to discharge the music director's three roles, bear in mind that strengths vary from individual to individual in the same way that needs vary from orchestra to orchestra. Some skills are acquired more easily than others, but an effective music director should be accomplished in most of the following eight categories and competent in all of them:


1. Performance Skills

  • Mastery of at least one instrument and experience as a solo, chamber, and orchestral performer are vital to the development of greater musical insight and an understanding of music-making from a player's point of view.
  • Interpretive skills and instincts, developed and honed through the sequential performance experiences as a soloist, chamber musician, orchestral musician, and conductor; and a voracious appetite for hearing performances of all types.
  • Inquisitiveness about what composers may have wished to communicate in their music, and a fundamental ability to relate that intent to musicians and audiences.
  • The capacity to invoke a range of emotional responses, and the skill to create drama, contrast, and well-defined gestures in music, from the smallest detail to the overall shape of a piece.

2. Technical Skills

  • Advanced aural skills to deal with complex problems of orchestral intonation, balance, and color; advanced skills in sight-reading and transposition, especially as applied to the preparation of orchestral scores for performance.
  • Detailed knowledge and understanding of all instruments used in orchestral performance; functional keyboard skills.
  • Practical experience in composition so that there is an awareness of the creative process and its choices, systems, and procedures.
  • Advanced skills in musical analysis based on professional competence in counterpoint, harmony, composition, musical structures, and orchestration. These skills must be integrated to provide the basis of artistic interpretation and the preparation of scores for performance.
  • Demonstrated mastery of various musical styles; an awareness of how to discern the effects of time, place, personality, and relevant performance practice upon the way a work should sound, and an understanding of how it should be played to achieve the intended effect.

3. Conducting skills

  •  Baton technique: Ability to maintain continuity of rhythm, line, structure, and interpretive integrity in the overall performance of a work while evoking and controlling response using gestures at all levels of musical detail.
  •  Rehearsal technique: Ability to recognize, diagnose, and correct musical, interpretive, rhythmic, balance, and intonation problems in an efficient, sequential, and creative manner. Ability to fuse the analytic knowledge of the structure of a work and an artistic conception into a sonic realization in the available rehearsal time. This skill should be evident with all sizes of ensembles, from coaching soloists and chamber music to rehearsals with full orchestral and choral forces.
  •  Podium presence: Awareness of how the conductor's body language enhances the quality of music-making, as well as how it affects the physical and emotional well being of the players.
  •  Ability to communicate effectively with the musicians of the orchestra, both in and out of rehearsal, engendering an environment conducive to a satisfying professional experience and performances of high quality.
  •  Ability to gain respect by leading through an example of creativity, knowledge, and dedication.

4. Extensive and insightful knowledge of music, and of the arts and humanities in general

  • Comprehensive knowledge of the orchestral repertoire, as well as chamber orchestra, opera, ballet, and choral/orchestral repertoire; detailed knowledge of scores forming the basic literature of each historical period of orchestral performance.
  • Comprehensive knowledge of the history of music and its relationship to Western civilization
  • Sufficient language skills to coach singers in French, German, Italian, Latin, Russian, and Spanish (highly desirable); sufficient language skills to conduct rehearsals in modern European languages (desirable); ability to read music source materials in original languages (desirable)
  • Knowledge of the visual arts, particularly of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries and fundamental knowledge of literature and drama, particularly of works that have had a considerable impact on music.

Artistic Director

1. Qualities of personal discipline and integrity required for artistic leadership

  • Ability and willingness to assume a creative leadership role within the complex structure of relationships within the organization.
  • Confidence and integrity to make difficult decisions.
  • Adherence to principles fairness and sensitivity in all matters pertaining to orchestra personnel such as auditions, terminations, and seating, etc.
  • Perspective on publicity and reviews and the ability to distinguish between what are worthwhile and what is not.
  • Ability to advance the needs of the orchestra and community over personal ego needs.

2. Ability to establish an artistic vision for the organization as a whole

  • A passion for the orchestra and its repertoire and an ability to translate that passion into well-coordinated programs and activities that carry out the orchestra's mission.
  • The judgment, imagination, and practical sense to create balanced programs of significance to the ensemble, the occasion, and the community.
  • Knowledge of current solo artists, contemporary music, and performance practices.

3. Administrative skills

  • Functional knowledge of and respect for the orchestra's administrative/business operation, including governance, fund raising, and marketing/public relations.
  • An understanding of musician governance structure and practice and collective bargaining agreements.
  • Ability to work collaboratively with management, boards, volunteers, and members of the orchestra.
  • Thorough grounding in professional ethics

Community Artistic Leader

1. Knowledge of how the orchestra operates as an institution

  • A compelling view of the impact an orchestra can have on its community, and an ability to realize that potential through programming, education, outreach, and other activities.
  • Awareness of the role the orchestra plays in a changing society.
  • Ability to serve as an influential community advocate for music and music education.
  • An aptitude for good public and personal relations.
  • Effective public speaking skills.
  • Ability to act with maturity and discretion in sensitive issues.
  • Awareness of political processes and the development of public policy.
  • Ability to assess the environment in which the orchestra performs and understand the implications of that environment for the orchestras goals and objectives.


The mystique that surrounds the conductor's role sometimes obscures the fact that it is possible for a conductor to be a clever charlatan-to substitute show for substance, terror for talent. Behavior that masks musical and leadership incompetence must not be tolerated. Conducting is a rigorous discipline-both difficult and demanding-and the music director's authority must flow from a genuine mastery of his or her craft.

Many of the qualities needed by a music director are innate. Others are acquired over time. Training does not occur by accident but should be developed purposefully and sequentially. Taken together, these traits and skills are the building blocks by which talent creates art.


  • Christopher Wilkins (chair, Conducting Continuum Committee), music director, San Antonio Symphony
  • Eileen T. Cline, senior fellow, Institute for Policy Studies; dean emerita, Peabody Conservatory of Music, The Johns Hopkins University
  • John Farrer, music director, Bakersfield (CA) and Roswell (NM) Symphony Orchestras
  • Susan Feder, vice president of promotions, G. Schirmer/Associated Music Publishers
  • Randy Fisher, former violist, Colorado Springs Symphony
  • Henry Fogel, former president, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, president and CEO, League of American Orchestras
  • Catherine French, former president and CEO, League of American Orchestras
  • Gary Good, executive director, Omaha Symphony Orchestra
  • Daniel Lewis, professor emeritus, Conducting Studies Department, University of Southern California
  • Gustav Meier, professor emeritus of conducting, University of Michigan
  • Craig Sorgi, violinist, San Antonio Symphony
  • Steven Stucky, new music advisor, Los Angeles Philharmonic
  • David Styers, artistic and management services coordinator, League of American Orchestras
  • Susan B. Tilley, regional arts administrator, Kravis Center, Florida
  • Donald Thulean, vice president for orchestra services, League of American Orchestras
  • Albert K. Webster, consultant; director, American Composers Orchestra
  • Benjamin Zander, conductor and music director, Boston Philharmonic Orchestra

All rights reserved.
© 1997 League of American Orchestras
revised January 2001