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:


Artistic Director

Community Artistic Leader



  • 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

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