Keeping the Beat: Custom-Made Conducting Batons
June 23, 2023
Written by JEFF GREENWALD
A good conductor can lead an orchestra with almost anything — even a chopstick. Leonard Bernstein was known to conduct a full symphony with just his eyebrows. Why, then, in this age of cheap manufacturing, are handmade, customized batons still in demand?
photo courtesy of Newland Batons
Like many people, I imagined that conducting batons—when I thought about them at all—had been around forever. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven… all must have raised those delicate wands into the air, paused briefly, then ignited their orchestras with a flick of their wrists. Right?
Wrong. Bach likely conducted with his hands, or, like Beethoven, waved a rolled-up piece of sheet music. The first conductor to use anything like a modern baton may have been Jean Baptiste Lully, a 17th-century French Baroque composer. Lully signaled his orchestra’s beat with a long wooden staff, which he thumped on the floor for emphasis. On one occasion he missed the floor, and accidentally stabbed his foot; he died of gangrene several months later.
The conducting baton as we know it today—a delicate white spindle, counterbalanced with a handle of cork or wood—originated in the mid-1960s, an inspiration of Minnesota conductor Charles Olson. “At the time,” states the Custom Batons website, “conductors everywhere were accustomed to using any old stick as a baton.”
Conducting itself dates back to at least 2700 B.C. Ancient Sumerian artworks show rows of singers flanked by “time beaters” who may have clapped to keep the chorus synchronized. It was not until the early 19th century that orchestras and their scores became complicated enough to require a standing leader, herding the many instrumentalists into a cohesive whole.
Today, the international music community requires thousands of batons every year. They’re sold to high schools, universities, symphonies, bandleaders, and music directors from Alaska to Zanzibar.
The biggest seller of batons in the U.S. is Mollard, an Ohio-based company started in 1981. “I made my first baton simply because I needed one for a conducting class in college,” says Bob Mollard, “and I just couldn’t find one that felt good to me.” Mollard’s five-person staff ships upwards of 15,000 batons a year (end to end, that’s about 4 miles of baton). Many professional conductors, though, turn to one of the very few American makers of bespoke batons.
One of these is Chris Blount, owner of Custom Batons and direct understudy of baton pioneer Charles Olson. Blount took over the business in 2006. In a good year, his Minnesota workshop sells about 4,000 hand-tooled batons.
“Primarily,” says Blount, “there are three basic steps in crafting a baton—if you count the balancing.”
The first step is carving the handle. These are almost always made of wood, a cork handle signaling the cheaper, mass-produced batons you might find online for around $10. Custom Batons offers a selection of 11 different woods—from African blackwood to zebrawood—along with their relative weights. (And Blount is continually experimenting with new varieties of wood.)
Blount starts by cutting a ‘blank’ of wood (a rectangular block) to the correct length and width. He drills a center-hole through the length of the blank where the shaft will be installed.
“I then take that blank,” Blount says, “and put it on a metal lathe. This lets me move the cutter bit back and forth with very high precision, and round the wood into a cylindrical shape.” Blount then moves the piece to a wood lathe, using fine chisels to form the handle until it’s just the right shape for the conductor.
“While the handle is still on the lathe, I sand and polish it. Then I insert the shaft, and a brass counterbalance into the end of the handle, to fine-tune the balance point of that baton.” (That flat brass button, I learn, is Blount’s ‘signature.’) He grinds off the extra brass, hand-sands it to blend with the wood, then buffs the handle. While most of his woods don’t require additional finishing, some of the softer woods get a coat of lacquer.
The shaft itself is commonly made of fiberglass. Blount outsources these shafts, then trims them to each client’s preferred length. “Fiberglass has a nice weight,” he says, “that tends to help conductors smooth out their legato motions,” (legato being a string of notes played smoothly, with no gaps between them). Shafts made of graphite (similar to carbon fiber), which is lighter, are also popular.
Custom Batons ships to customers in every state, and in 49 countries. One of their devotees is Kyle Dickson, a Salonen Conducting Fellow with the San Francisco Symphony. Conductors, Dickson reminds me, provide more than the steady, reliable pulse for the orchestra to rely on and reference; they also set the interpretation of the score.
“You want to find a baton that feels natural,” says Dickson. “Personally, I want as little a barrier as possible between me, the music, and the players; something light, that feels like nothing in my hand.”
The way the baton responds… it’s like the feeling you get from using a really nice pen.”
Aside from Custom Batons, there are at least two other bespoke baton makers operating full-time in the U.S.: GL Custom Batons in California, and Newland Custom Batons in Ohio. Tate Newland was a church choir conductor for 19 years, then moved to full-time baton making in 1998.
Newland introduced me to the word ictus, so important in conducting. The ictus is the instant at which the beat occurs, usually indicated by a flick of the conductor’s wrist, and a change in baton direction.
“It’s like a check mark,” says Newland, “that defines the beat. The conductor is making a lot of those check marks. She’s getting passionate about the music—while the baton translates the score, up and down her arm. And the way the baton responds… it’s like the feeling you get from using a really nice pen.”
That fluidity depends on two things: the size of the handle, and the length of the graphite or fiberglass shaft. Molly Turner—a young composer and conductor who recently graduated from Juilliard—spoke about the length factor, and how critical that can be.
“Because it’s an extension of your arm—and your pointer finger—you want your baton to be approximately the length between your inner elbow and the center of your palm. For me, that’s about twelve inches. But I’m a tiny person, and I go shorter. The baton exaggerates any motion you do with your hand—and with me that can be kind of distracting, and a little bit ridiculous. So, my batons are ten to eleven inches long.”
As every conductor has a specific preference, achieving that balance can be challenging. “The shortest baton I’ve ever made was six inches long,” says Tate Newland, “and the longest thirty. A conductor might want a very big handle, with a very short shaft—or a very small handle, with a very long shaft.” In some of these cases, rues Newland, “physics is against us.”
Almost anything can be used to conduct: even chopsticks. One conductor swears by the replica wands from the Harry Potter movies.”
Ultimately, as the Talk Classical forum observes, almost anything can be used to conduct: even chopsticks. One conductor swears by the replica wands from the Harry Potter movies: “They are the best batons I’ve ever tried… especially Voldemort’s wand! It’s amazingly well-balanced and really makes conducting effortless.”
As I was working on this story, Chris Blount shipped me one of his batons to play with. Arriving in a sturdy cardboard tube, it measured 16 inches from zebrawood handle to fiberglass tip and balanced perfectly on my index finger. I wasted no time going through my CDs, finally selecting Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” “Step aside, Leonard Bernstein…” or maybe not. Conducting, once you’ve learned something about the actual art, is trickier than it appears. If the New York Philharmonic really were in my living room, they’d have sounded like a chorus of cats. Still, it’s great fun, and the feel of the baton is clearly part of the enjoyment.
Regardless of a baton’s pedigree, most conductors—including Molly Turner—see them as just one of their signaling tools. “You’re the orchestra’s cheerleader,” she says. “So you’ve got to move.” And move she does; watching a video of Turner conducting Beethoven’s Sixth (Pastorale) Symphony, as you can see in the YouTube clip below, is like watching interpretive dance.
“The baton is usually in the right hand, for rhythmic precision,” Turner says. “While the left hand, the facial expression, the full body, is for everything else. It’s a very individual thing, how you use your body—the parts of your body that aren’t your hand holding a stick and telling the musicians what beat they’re on.”
Unlike the beating staff of the high Baroque, none of the long line of craft conducting “sticks” inspired by Charles Olson are likely to pierce your foot. Alas, poor Jean-Baptiste Lully; if only he had been born a few centuries later.