Leaders of the Band

October 2, 2022

Conductors used to puzzle me. How necessary were they? The instrumentalists or singers knew their parts. The music was right in front of them. Did they need a musical traffic cop too? After all, you never see a play's director on stage cueing the actors during a performance. At that point their work is done! Conductors often seemed to be merely grandstanding, perched at podiums, waving batons in the air, doing their best Leonard Bernstein impersonations. 

I did feel for the poor conductor of the elementary school beginner’s orchestra, which was usually a muddled mess. We dutifully attended every concert, stifling chuckles at the onstage mishaps. There was the time a very small cellist, sawing earnestly away, let go of his bow, sending it flying into the wings. Often the sheet music for “Be-Bop Parade” or “Halloween in Scarytown” was knocked off stands and fluttered to the ground, leaving the players unsure of whether to retrieve the papers immediately, or just sit there and wait until the break between numbers (kinda like timing an entrance in jump rope). 

But later, as the bands and orchestras increased in quality, I must admit that having a good conductor made a difference. Just that commanding, unifying presence improved the results--as long as the young musicians chose to glance up once in a while. My children had several memorable music directors (they must be memorable, because I—who cannot recall last night’s dinner--can remember them.)

Sean Kennedy at Sandy Run Middle School, a busy professional drummer himself, often invited his accomplished musician friends to come talk with, and perform for, the kids (even sit in with them sometimes). When Evan reached high school, he traded his trumpet for jazz piano, and felt very confident playing solos—and we knew many other young people who'd gained similar self-assurance. Being in Mr. Kennedy’s jazz band was VERY cool, and a great chance for some middle schoolers who might have struggled to find their place, to shine. 

By the time Sheridan was playing with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, Joseph Primavera had been leading PYO for nearly 50 years. The maestro was known for being demanding, brusque and intimidating. He would stand outside the downtown rehearsal hall on Saturday mornings as the kids hustled in. Lord help you if you were still running down 15th Street at 9:01 AM! Primavera was a yeller, and didn’t suffer wrong notes gladly; several times his outbursts brought a hapless violist or clarinetist to tears. Decades later, Sheridan speaks of him with admiration for his musicianship (if not his manner).

Rose sang for several years with the Temple University Children’s Choir, and their conductor, Holly Phares, was terrific. Their concerts were excellent. Rose learned a lot, and still thinks of Holly very fondly.

Now that both Sheridan and Ya-Jhu conduct choirs and other ensembles, I’m truly appreciating the magic the conductor creates, weaving a stage full of individuals into a seamless musical unit.

Bravo, music leaders. Long may your batons wave!


    I am an author (of five books, numerous plays, poetry and freelance articles,) a retired director (of Spiritual Formation at a Lutheran church,) and a producer (of five kids).

    I write about my hectic, funny, perfectly imperfect life.

    Please visit my website: or email me at



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