Does Height Make the Conductor?

The main character of my Perceval novels is Evan Quinn, a conductor.  He’s six feet three inches tall.  As I watched the Minnesota Orchestra rehearsal earlier this week and the concert yesterday, I was thinking a lot about Evan and his height.  Why?  I was watching a tall conductor at work this week. 

During my initial research on conductors and conducting, people I spoke with asked me to describe Evan.  Without exception each time, they told me that Evan could not be tall because conductors are short.  They told me I must change Evan’s appearance and height so that he would be a “real” or “authentic” conductor.  A (short) conductor also brought this up during an interview.  He had expected that Fuertwangler, a tall German conductor, would conduct slower than a short conductor.  In other words, his height determined the action of his hands and his energy.  The short conductor was surprised that Fuertwangler had no problems with fast tempos. 

I was astonished by this belief that height had anything to do with conducting.  Height discrimination in music?  Nonsense.  In defiance, I refused to change Evan.  It is interesting to me how often I have run into this — people wanting me to change a character to match their beliefs.  I wondered if they also wanted to change the real people around them whom they encountered daily.  Unfortunately, tall conductors, i.e. taller that six feet, are rather rare.  I believe Klaus Tennstedt was taller than six feet.  And now Mischa Santora, the conductor whom I was watching this week, is much taller than six feet. 

So, Evan stands tall at six feet three inches and conducts with the energy of a short conductor….    


23 responses to “Does Height Make the Conductor?

  1. Just for the record, Cinda, Mischa is 6’5″…

  2. Thanks, Sam, for the detail! Glad to see you here. I love to have musicians comment, share their experiences and perspectives on conductors and conducting (or their responses to my novels)….

  3. …and he gets comments about it all the time! I will say that I know more “short” conductors than “tall” conductors…

  4. Good grief. I hope the comments were positive! Clearly, there needs to be more “tall” conductors, i.e. over 6 feet…. (smile)

    Glad to see you here, Sarah! Musicians and conductors are always welcome here.

  5. I am aspiring to be a conductor and am 6’5”.

    Working on my Master’s in Boston.

    • Fabulous! Great to hear from you, Matt, and I hope you’ll continue to visit my blog. Do you know of Mischa Santora? He’s music director at the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra. I haven’t heard if he’d gotten a symphony orchestra gig. I wish you all the best in your music endeavors, be prepared for LOTS of comments about your height, and I hope I’ll be hearing (maybe even writing) about your conducting in the future.

  6. I’m also a 6’5″ conductor, working on my master’s in NY, and the kind of stuff we taller conductors have to deal with is crazy. In most cases this necessitates moving the beat-plane lower, but that changes the “natural” angle one’s elbow forms, etc… It’s great to watch how someone like Kleiber deals with this. I think he managed to be successful (physically) through reducing the vertical range and compensating laterally, though this works less well for some kinds of music. I often feel cramped when I’m being concise–but the alternative is putting out the principal cellist’s eye with the baton! Good to know people are interested in this!


    • Hi, Geoff, thanks for your comment! I’m always interested in hearing from conductors, and I believe taller conductors do face issues that others do not. Thanks for writing about the beat plane and how being tall affects you physically on the podium. I wonder sometimes if the violins and principal players, especially those closest to the podium, don’t develop neck strain from having to look up at a higher angle or if they find a way to compensate also. We had a tall fellow here, as I wrote in the post, and I’d worry also about the podium rail behind him — it was really too low to stop him if he had sufficient speed while stepping back and would probably have flipped him. Fortunately, he seemed to be careful about that too.

      Wish you much success and all the best, Geoff, as you complete your master’s and move out into the job market. It’s pretty tough out there! Good luck!


  7. Mravinsky, Klemperer, Furtwangler, a lot of energy and tall conductors, obviously a mistake.

    • The vast majority of conductors are average height to short. Conductors over six feet tend to be rare. I don’t know why. You’ve named probably the three most famous ones, especially Furtwangler whose beat was definitely difficult, but he was a brilliant musician. When I was working on the early drafts of the novel and conducting interviews, a LOT of people in the classical music business, including conductors, told me that having a tall conductor wasn’t plausible. Although one conductor, only ONE, named Furtwangler as an exception. I decided if there was one exception there could be more…then I saw Mischa Santora conduct the MN Orchestra and I knew that I was safe.

  8. I think there is a lot of confusion between “energy” and move your arms “like crazy”, obviously a tall person can not lift his arms above his head, it would look ridiculous, but that does not mean lack of energy, the first time I saw a video of Klemperer directing Mahler I almost weet my pants, I am a conducting student and I´m 6 ft. tall.

    • Yay, another tall conductor! I love it. Where are you studying? Have you seen Mischa Santora conduct? I’ve also heard from another 6-foot-plus conducting student in Boston. One of the things I tell people is that people attend a concert to listen to the music, not watch the conductor, so if the conductor is distracting that’s not a good thing. We just had a conductor (who shall remain nameless) here who jumped off the stage and ran around the hall then back up on stage. Friends who saw him (I didn’t) described him as “clownish.” On the other hand, Santora conducts well, with economy of gesture, clear stick technique, good eye contact. Good luck with your studies!

  9. I saw a video of Mischa, and personally i dont like his style, but he is good.
    I think that conducting is beyond the baton technique, it is an energy that is transmitted to the musicians, Bernstein for instance, i found very very funny to watch his footage, hi jumps, moves his head, sometimes he moves only his shoulders, and he really dominates the orchestra, turning this wild beast into a kitty, I think if we get to technical we misrepresent the meaning of job.

    • Thanks for the comment, Tarres! The young Leonard Bernstein was extremely physical when he conducted. He has said that he’s not really aware of being that physical because he’s so focused on the music and conducting. I saw him in concert in 1974, and he was older, more portly, and much more subdued in his style. There is no doubt that he was a superb conductor. As for Mischa, I’ve seen him conduct many times in concert and witnessed his growth as a conductor. He learned a lot as Associate Conductor at the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vanska. What I’ve learned from watching many, many conductors while researching conductors and conducting for the Perceval novels is that the style is secondary to the ability to communicate with the musicians. That communication needs to be clear. And as I write in this post, height has nothing to do with it! (smile)

  10. Pingback: Top Ten Posts of All Time on Anatomy of Perceval | Anatomy of Perceval Blog

  11. How tall is the conductor rune bergmann from Norway?

    • Sorry, Wren, I have no idea. This is the first time I’ve heard his name. So I went to Google to find out who he is. Looks like he’s a very promising conductor. The photos I saw gave no hint to his height. If you manage to find out, or happen to see him conduct in person, come back and let us know! Thanks.

  12. Interesting discussion. I just watched Leonard Bernstein on YouTube leading the Vienna philharmonic in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia (my all time favorite). It occurred to me suddenly that I bet he was quite short, which would account for his putting out so much energy, making his presence commanding in a way short men often do. And then I realized I have no idea how tall he was. And I can’t seem to find out on Google! Do you happen to know? Any of your readers?

    • When I saw Leonard Bernstein conduct in Vienna in the Musikverein, I was expecting someone at least 6 feet tall if not taller. So it was a shock when he walked onstage and I saw how short he was. The musicians in the Vienna Phil towered over him. I doubt very much he was taller than 5 foot 8 inches. He had a giant presence, however, and incredible charisma. He was also a fine conductor and superb musician. If anyone else has better info on how tall Bernstein was, please feel free to post and cite your source. Thanks.

  13. I’m only 5’11” and at Tanglewood a half century ago he walked by me and only seemed to reach my shoulder. Does anyone know how tall he actually was? A giant, though, in musical terms.

    • lists Leonard Bernstein as being 5′ 7″ tall. I think that’s probably accurate. I’m 5′ 8″ and I would have put him very close to my height when I saw him in Vienna years ago. It really surprised me that he was so short. But my research into conductors and conducting for Perceval’s Secret revealed that most conductors are shorter than average in height.

      • Glenn Spring

        I was very surprised, too. Until that encounter, I had only seen him on TV, and of course that was often from a low camera angle when he was on the podium. Thanks for the info!

      • You’re welcome, Glenn. Thanks for the comment!

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