What’s a conductor’s instrument? The orchestra, or rather, the mind, the score? A stick?

It is not only since Disney’s Fantasia that conductors get compared to magicians, and conducting sticks to magic wands. Ever wondered where conductors get their batons from? One would like to imagine there’s a shop like Mr. Olivander’s Shop for Fine Wands from Harry Potter, only for batons. Give them a flick, or do some imaginary conducting of their favourite piece?

What makes a fine conduting stick?

Conducting sticks were formerly made from ivory, but today are made from wood, fiberglass or carbon fibre, attached to a hilt made from cork or wood.  Most conductors get their sticks from specialized shops – though, unfortunately, less magical ones than Olivander’s. JD has his handcrafted and custom made by Craig Tomlinson, otherwise known as an outstanding Canadian master harpsichord maker. Few people know he also makes fine conducting sticks. No phoenix feather for a core, though!

JD: “I like mine to be well balanced with the balance point right at the handle. At present, I’m mostly using one with an ebony handle. I do prefer rare woods and I like the baton to have a certain weight, so cork won’t do. It may sound funny, but I used to have shoulder problems when using lighter conducting sticks.  I guess a heavier baton forces me to think more about my posture and the way I use my body.”

A bit of stick history

In history, the baton has seen an evolution of shrinkage. In the 17th century, conductors still conducted by beating the rhythm on the floor with a large staff. Famously, Jean-Baptiste Lully, court composer of Louis XIV, died from a sepsis after accidentally smashing his big toe with the staff.

Although smaller conducting sticks have been in use as early as 1594 (by nuns in san Vito lo Capo in Italy), they became the regular equipment of conductors in the 19th-century. Carl Maria von Weber and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy were among the first to regularly conduct with a small conducting stick.

Richard Wagner reportedly favoured a rather heavyly ornamented ivory staff. Some of the great conductors of the 20th century, however, have preferred conducting without a baton – Pierre Boulez  and Kurt Mazur are famous examples.

This summer, the world’s largest exhibition of conducting batons was on display in Stralsund, Germany, including some richly ornamented silver, ivory, and mahogany batons formerly owned by famous conductors.

JD's bag for conducting sticks. Certainly the most peculiar piece of equipment conductors own.

With or without “la baguette”?

Lately, as in the 4th Philharmonic Concert last season,  Jonthan Darlington has taken to conducting some pieces without a stick.

JD: “As for the stick or no stick question: I’d say that contemporary music works better with a stick, but I like conducting romantic pieces without one.”

Superstition and collaborative magic

Is there a favourite, a lucky conducting stick? For the important premieres?

JD: “No. I’m not superstitious about that. If I break one I simply get a new one. Anyways, for the magic to happen, it takes the effort of everyone, the orchestra, the conductor – and the audience. The latter being perhaps the most important part.”