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Sometimes the conductor and the pianist or first violinist are the same person; sometimes they're different people. What are the advantages of each system? (I'm talking about inherent advantages, not advantages in specific instances such as "he happens to be the best person around for each job".)

In case it's not obvious from my question, I am not a musician or conductor, and know no (or pretty much no) music theory. So answers without jargon, to the extent feasible, would be much appreciated.

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"Pros and cons" tends to solicit lists, whereas we prefer well-explained and self-contained answers; hopefully my edit to the title will help solicit the later. Feel free to tweak it. – Matthew Read Sep 20 '11 at 2:08
@MatthewRead, thanks for the edit, no tweaking necessary. I wonder why you switched "first violinist or pianist" to "pianist or first violinist", though. – msh210 Sep 20 '11 at 6:30
@MatthewRead, oh, and also: My wording was deliberately not favoring "separatism" or "two-roles-ism", whereas the new title is asking only when and why the conductor should be separate, not when and why he should not. So I guess some tweaking is necessary after all.... – msh210 Sep 20 '11 at 6:32
Just for clarity: I initially read it as "first {violinist or pianist}" rather than "{first violinist} or pianist" and was confused for a second. I've added "or not" to the title, though I didn't think the previous one was favoring anything :P – Matthew Read Sep 20 '11 at 15:18

In my experience as both ensemble member and conductor I believe that there is considerable benefit to separating the role of the conductor from the other musicians. During rehearsal, a conductor should focus all attention to the ensemble and helping them stay together, balance parts, etc... It takes considerable mental and physical effort to play an instrument or sing in a group (and do it well). For me, my ability to help the ensemble as conductor was greatly diminished when I joined in.

Having stated that, I know a conductor that was extremely good at performing both roles - he was a choral conductor that conducted and accompanied the group from the piano at the same time. One advantage to this approach was that he had control over the accompaniment and could immediately increase volume of a selected part for a struggling section (if the altos were struggling with their part for instance) in rehearsal. In my experience he was an exception to the norm.

In general, the amount of experience and ability shared by the ensemble members is a big factor. Less experienced musicians need more guidance and correction than more experienced ones.

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I used to play first violin for a strathspey and reel orchestra and from that limited perspective:

There is no way I could have conducted in rehearsal or otherwise - always too busy making sure my part was correct!

You need to have the capability and vision to concentrate on the whole orchestra, and that could just be difficult to find in an individual with their own specialisation.

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I have no experience with conducting or being conducted, but there are a few things that seem obvious to me; I might as well throw my hat into the ring.

I see several benefits to having the conductor also be a performer. One is cost. Paying one person is cheaper than paying two, even if you're paying the one extra for their dual role. This assumes everyone's being paid, of course.

I've also seen smaller groups with a conductor, and it seems somewhat odd. The conductor seems like a crutch in a way; 8 or so musicians should be able to play together without needing massive coordination. If there's a clear soloist providing the lead or something, that should be enough.

My final thought is that it allows the player to gain leadership experience. I've seen many school concerts where the conductor is a teacher and several times it seemed like they were just there to get their moment in front of everyone. I'd rather see them step back and provide a student with the opportunity to lead. This would probably be good experience for someone looking to seriously start a rock band and so on :P

The other answers have largely covered the benefits the other way, but I'd like to emphasize another: The conductor notionally has a different skillset from an instrumentalist. The training and knowhow required to lead musicians and look for that special sound and flavor to a piece is not something that can be developed by just playing an instrument, and splitting your time between both is sure to mean that you develop less than you could by just focusing on one of them.

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+1; thank you for your views! Re your last point, development: The two times (AFAIR) I've heard someone conducting and playing were Leonard Bernstein on the piano (conducting (the New York Philharmonic IIRC) and playing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, on audiotape) and Itzhak Perlman on the violin (Vivaldi's Spring, on YouTube). If either man "develop[ed] less than [he] could [have] just focusing on one of them" then I'd love to have been able to hear the results of the finer focus and attendant development. ;-) – msh210 Sep 20 '11 at 16:21
@msh210 Wow, that's impressive. Like mdwhatcott I would assume they are exceptions to the rule :) – Matthew Read Sep 20 '11 at 16:23

It depends on the requirements of the music,

For pieces such as Vivaldi's spring (cited in @msh210's comment) that are closer to chamber music than orchestral music, conductors are not mandatory. School ensembles will have small orchestras playing thoses pieces with a conductor, so that all can be together, professional recording seldomly do because they do not really need it.

For music such as concertos where there is a solist, good ensemble can rely on their ears to play with the solist. Great musicians often play concertos without a conductor, but as for real advantages, I feel it's a bit for the show. Having a conductor is tighter then not.

Now pieces such as Mahler symphonies or contemporary very complicated music won't be played without a conductor. Well I've never seen it, I'd be happy to, but that repertoire tends to have lots of voices, never beginning to play together, necessiting cues.

That is without considering the position of the conductor, which can actually hear the global result of the orchestra and adjust dynamics (how much noise, so to speak) dynamically (no pun intended), which one can not do while playing some complicated solo violin partition and leading his/her section.

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