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Column: Who needs a baton while conducting?

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Photo courtesy of Chris Crawl / Harry McCawley strikes a conducting pose while directing the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic for one of the selections in its annual Christmas show. In the background is violinist Vanessa Edwards.
Photo courtesy of Chris Crawl / Harry McCawley strikes a conducting pose while directing the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic for one of the selections in its annual Christmas show. In the background is violinist Vanessa Edwards.

MY bucket list has been shortened by one. I have now conducted the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic.

I also came close to spearing a cellist with my baton. The cellist should be glad to know that wasn’t on my bucket list.

Conducting the philharmonic is not an everyday kind of thing. The real conductor — David Bowden — takes his job seriously and doesn’t just give up the baton to anyone. Just to show you how rare it is, some of his previous guest conductors included a two-star Air Force general and a university president.

I’m not sure how I got my turn, but back in November David asked if I’d like to lead the orchestra for one selection in its annual Christmas program. I accepted, unfazed by the question posed by one of my granddaughters to her grandmother: “Do they know he has no rhythm?”

David is a meticulous sort of fellow who wants to cover all his bases. Several days after my acceptance, he returned bearing a stick of wood and a compact disc. The stick of wood was actually a baton, fitted with a round object at the end.

“That’s so you don’t let go when you’re flailing your arms around,” he explained, adding for emphasis, “Be sure to hold it tight.”

The CD was a recording of the song “Sleigh Ride,” which the orchestra was to play while I flailed my arms about. David suggested I might want to practice before I got in front of live musicians.

I did practice — once — and out of that single experience adopted a whole new outlook on what orchestra conductors do for a living. It was at home and out of sight of any onlookers. Scenes of an old man flailing his arms about tend to raise concerns.

I was ready to quit halfway through the recorded selection. Two minutes of holding my elbows at shoulder height while flailing my arms about caused a burning sensation in my limbs and a shortness of breath in my lungs.

That’s when I remembered that David is a buff kind of guy. I told him about that at the first and only live rehearsal, and he nodded understandingly and told me, “Actually, orchestra conductors live longer than people in most other professions.”

The rehearsal went well. Somehow or other, I was able to point at a particular section just as they were about to take their turn in leading the music. David gave me a tip, pointing to a fellow in the back who held one of those clapping instruments.

“When you see him raise his clapper, that’s a signal he’s about to play, and you just point to him and he’ll clap.”

Actually, it was the orchestra that gave me confidence. Throughout the rehearsal of my number, I noted that all of the musicians looked downward to their sheet music, not up to me, an obvious signal that they could play without any guidance from me.

I conducted for the matinee and evening performances, and if I do say so myself, the afternoon show went pretty well. In fact, I got into the swing of things to the point that I swayed back and forth while flailing my arms about. My family held their collective hands over their eyes, certain that I would sway myself off the podium and into the orchestra pit.

I returned to the evening show assured of my competency and vowed to include even more hip action. Members of the orchestra appeared to have confidence in my leadership. A few actually looked up at me.

As I got into the swing of things, my confidence grew bolder, even though I pointed to the clapper a second or two after he had clapped. I was halfway through “Sleigh Ride” and really flailing my arms about when it happened.

In one particularly energetic direction, I threw my baton-wielding hand out in the general vicinity of the cellist who was looking straight at me.

I wasn’t holding the baton tight, and it flew out of my hand in her general direction. Somehow it missed.

A lot went through my mind in that brief instant, starting with the question, “What do I do next?”

I looked in horror at the cellist, who had a somewhat confused expression but kept playing. I looked to my right, and the members of the string section were following her lead, although a couple of them had big grins on their faces.

In fact, everybody kept playing, and their music sounded just as good as it did when I was flailing my arms about.

Assured that that would continue, I returned to flailing my arms about, without a baton, but that issue was resolved when the real conductor appeared at my side and loaned me his. I held on extra tight to that one, and somehow or other the orchestra and I finished together.

The crowd applauded, I raised my arms in triumph and the members of the orchestra smiled.

Oh yes, the cellist handed back my flying baton.

I think I’ll have it bronzed.

Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at

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