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What are the guidelines and benefits for using a baton? I would like to know, specifically, whether I would benefit from buying one for the purpose of conducting a choir.

  • Are there rules that dictate that batons only be used for certain purposes (e.g. only for orchestras and bands)?
  • Why is using a baton helpful for the conductor?
  • Is it preferable to use a baton rather than just use your hands?
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    There's the story of a famous conductor who, on misplacing his baton, asked if anyone in the orchestra had one he could use. Most of the violinists went straight to their cases. – Tim Dec 25 '13 at 11:00
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Traditionally, conductors of choirs will not conduct using a baton unless they are leading a full orchestra along with their choir, whereas conductors of orchestras and other large ensembles will use a baton.

Using a baton is an additional skill; in programs of conducting pedagogy I've seen, all students will work with a baton in their first few semesters "just in case" before breaking into separate groups for instrumental vs. choral conducting later on (with the choral folks not using a baton at that point).

Of course, there is no hard and fast rule for this; notable badass Pierre Boulez is known for never using a baton at all, and I know many choral conductors who simply prefer to use a baton. At the end of the day, the technique of conducting is all about providing nonverbal communication with a maximum of efficiency, and in order to do that you need to know both how you can best operate to provide effective musical leadership, and what your ensemble is going to expect based on their experience with you and other conductors.

Now, the "tradition" I mentioned does exist for logical reasons, and these may inform your decision:

  • Choral music is typically more homophonic than instrumental music; the tip of a baton offers a higher "resolution" for the point in time than a human hand, and so is helpful in polyphonic (rhythmically active, in particular) instrumental music. Likewise, some orchestral conductors will opt to lose the baton for a slow and homophonic piece of string orchestra music that will have a "choral" texture.
  • A typical choir is on average closer to the conductor than the more spread-out musicians in an orchestra; a baton makes your movement easier to see from a distance
  • The shape of the hand is a variable that can be "implemented" to communicate with your ensemble -- vowel shapes come to mind. Using a baton puts you at -1 hand.

I'm of the opinion that you don't necessarily have to lose anything by using a baton provided you are sufficiently skilled with it, but that the benefit for most choral conductors in using a baton is far outweighed by the effort required to gain that skill. As such, most choral conductors I know don't use a baton unless they feel other factors require it. Personally, I have conducted both kinds of ensembles, and tend to stick with the traditional lines for the reasons described above and so the ensemble is more comfortable (particularly important for young students).

For your purposes, I would suggest going with what you're comfortable with and using your hands. Even if you've never conducted before, I wouldn't suggest getting in front of an ensemble with a baton unless you've had some training and practice with it.

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There aren't any specific rules, conductors don't need to use a baton or in fact anything, but it makes it easier for the orchestra to see the conductor's movements.

Especially for those musicians further back, it just gives a nice specific timing point.

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I don't know if this topic is still active, but I thought I would reply to the excellent explanation by NReilingh from 2013.

I had the great honor and opportunity to sing under Dr Ernest G. Sullivan, PhD, at Alma College during the 1970's. We performed as an a cappella chorus of about 60 voices and in a madrigal group of 10-12 voices. Dr. Sullivan, who was a vocal music purist who did not prefer to mix voice with orchestral instruments (with the exception of the organ) generally used a baton with the chorus, holding it in his right hand.

At the same time, he used his left hand to do what he called "shaping". I must add that he was completely ambidextrous, having been a trained organist as well as vocal performer. So it was imperative to pay attention to both his baton and his left hand, since they were communicating and directing two separate messages.

He felt that the voice was the most versatile and expressive of all instruments, and used his left hand to direct changes in tone like timbre, pitch, intensity etc. He also had hand signals for embouchure such as vertical, elongated, throat shaping and the like. Also, the left hand provided his guidance on breath control, one of the main factors the he believed separated good choirs from great ones.

However, with the smaller madrigal group he used only his hands, and trained us to do the same. Any one of us could, as necessary, direct the madrigal singers as dictated by the piece, the venue or other factors.

I was never talented enough to be a professional performer, but many of my classmates were. I did learn, however, to trust Dr Sullivan's instruction. I do encourage musicians who aspire to be conductors or directors to learn to use the baton, as well as develop their hand skills, as did Dr. Sullivan.

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the use of the baton is mostly for the performers to see exactly what the conductors trying to say. if tempo changes or a time signature changes. It can also be used to indicate what group of the orchestra should be more prominent sounding at the time.Its why he points it at a section of the Orchestra. IE strings or horns or percussion. Even though that is usually done with the free hand which is also used to increase or decrease the volume of orchestra sections. IE raising the hand up louder or lowering the hand softer. Leonard Bernstein is very proficient as a conductor. and pardon my poor spelling.

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