The baton seems like a magical conductor’s stick that is waved in the air to create music. While it may seem like magic to some, the baton is the primary tool that conductors use to communicate with the ensembles they lead. While not every conductor uses a baton, and there are certain circumstances when not using a baton is warranted, a baton has long been the preferred tool of maestri.
For a brief overview on the conductor, I’d recommend checking out our article on How To Conduct. Here, we will discuss why and how to use a baton, discuss the different construction philosophies of the baton (how about a lightsaber conductor baton, just for fun), as well as cases for baton storage and transportation.
Why Use A Baton
The use of a baton is not required to lead an orchestra or choir. There are as many different philosophies around the baton as there are conductors, but there are some common understandings as to why batons are used and when they are most useful.
Batons serve as an extension of a conductor's arm. While some conductors, especially choral conductors, prefer to use just their hands, a baton allows for a single point of focus for the members of an ensemble to help keep better time and aid in communicating the conductor's intent more clearly.
The ictus of a conducting pattern, which is the visual demarcated beat in a pattern, is believed to be much more clearly seen from the tip of a baton vs the many points of focus a hand can provide.
Now, many conductors will find using a baton for a small ensemble, say 8-12 players, too much, and will opt to use just their hands. Soft, slow, lyrical music is also a good candidate for a baton-less conducting style. Pit orchestra conductors also may be using just their hands, or even just their head, if they also have to play a keyboard part.
How To Use A Baton
While there are long-standing practices on how to play an instrument, the tradition and practice of baton use is a bit less precise. There are various philosophies about a baton’s use, but I do want to take a moment to share what I was taught.
Holding A Baton
When you go to hold a baton, you place the handle in the area between your thumb and your first two fingers, then wrap your entire hand around the hilt. The thumb and first two fingers provide stability. Some conductors will only use those three fingers, leaving the other two to float about, but that can cause additional distraction.
Waving A Baton
When conducting basic conducting patterns, you have to envision the beat at the tip of the baton. Many young conductors will maintain the beat at the hand or base of the baton, which can create confusion for an ensemble.
Using precise and well-timed wrist movements will help articulate this beat.
The Other Hand
There are conflicting philosophies on where the other hand should be positioned. The two most popular opinions are keeping the non-baton hand in line with the baton hand. However, the most common and widely taught placement is having the non-baton hand in line with the point of the baton. This makes it so that the information being communicated through your hand is coming from the same visual plane as the tip of the baton.
Reading about the types of material for batons can be overwhelming, especially if you are going down the road of a custom baton. However, here are some aspects of baton construction that are important to note:
The current practice dictates that a baton is the length of your forearm. This is not something you will find in buying an “off the shelf” product, but many custom baton makers will ask for this length when crafting your baton.
The center of balance should be right where the handle meets the shaft. This should be where your hand is gripping the baton so that it is not “top heavy,” which can cause some irregularity in conducting patterns or even muscle problems as your arm tries to counter the weight.
Beyond these two factors, there are many different ways for a baton to be made.
Many batons are made of wood. Mollard, one of the leading makers of “off the shelf” batons often uses a lightweight wood construction.
Selmer produces a model made out of fiberglass, which is also a popular material for some custom baton makers. Many believe the fiberglass batons to be more resistant to breaking and can be useful if your conducting style is particularly frantic or if you have a tendency to hit things while conducting.
While wood and fiberglass are two of the most common materials for the shaft, there are many more options for the handle, including cork, wood, and acrylic.
You can even have your conductor baton engraved!
Many conductors will have a couple batons in their arsenal. This might be in case one breaks, or maybe different colors or thicknesses for different situations. Much of that ties into a conductor's personal philosophy. But how does one safely carry around one of these batons safely?
Just like any instrument, batons can be carried around in specially designed cases.
I know as I was growing up through middle and high school bands, attending various band clinics and more, I encountered so many conductors who used the Mollard Baton Tote. This is a very simple solution for carrying multiple batons, it is thin and can fit into a bag easily.
For those that decide to go with a standard Mollard baton, you can get a fitted hardwood case. These also make very nice gifts for a conductor.
Mollard also makes a hardwood case that can fit up to four batons that are 16” or less. However, I’m more of a fan of cases that have notches for the batons to keep them from bumping into each other. As I only carry two batons around with me, I prefer a case like this Donato Hard Case. Nice soft interior with notches to fit two batons. Just be sure to know how long your batons are when shopping for a case.
Before we wrap this up, I wanted to showcase one interesting baton that you can find. Conductors who have to conduct in the dark, such as in pit orchestras, often have a small light shining on them in order for the musicians to be able to see them. However, with development in technology, you can now purchase a “Lite Up” baton which one could use in those dark moments of a performance.
Now, you might say that this is a nerd’s new favorite toy, a lightsaber conductor baton if you will, but only a true master knows how to use a lightsaber for conducting music.
Batons come in all shapes in sizes, used in all sorts of different ways, but all in the service of leading a group of musicians to create a magical experience for an audience. While unable to make music by itself, the baton is a true extension of a conductor's intention, and, in many cases, is a vital communication tool in leading an ensemble towards the same common goal, to create wonderful music.
Lastly, check out this artisan crafting a gorgeous hand-made baton! The woodturning is particularly mesmerizing!