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Conducting: Changes Over the Centuries

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours
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The tools and techniques of conducting have changed a great deal over the centuries. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the people who led musical performances, especially vocal performances, usually simply waved their hands in the air to indicate the shape and speed of melodies – although sometimes they also held a long wooden staff in one hand and marked beats with it. During the Baroque period and into the early Classical period, larger instrumental ensembles were usually led by a harpsichord player, waving a rolled-up piece of paper or parchment, or by the principal violinist of the group, waving his bow. It wasn’t until the 19th century that orchestral conducting became a separate specialty, and that the baton became conductors’ instrument of choice. And here’s a strange fact: in early-19th-century opera performances, the conductor often stood right next to the stage facing the singers, but with his back to the orchestra.

This has been A Minute with Miles – a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.

Miles Hoffman is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players, with whom he regularly tours the United States, and the Virginia I. Norman Distinguished Visiting Professor of Chamber Music at the Schwob School of Music, in Columbus, Georgia. He has appeared as viola soloist with orchestras across the country, and his solo performances on YouTube have received well over 700,000 views.