When it comes to batons, one size does NOT fit all. Length, material, and handle are all a matter of individual preference. Want to know what the professionals look for? Here are ten facts about the tool that quickly fades into the musical landscape shaped by the person commanding it.
1. Lightness is valued. Think about holding a baton for a three- or four-hour opera. Wagner’s complete “Ring” cycle is 15 hours! Many mass-produced batons weigh about an ounce (28.35 grams). A custom-made baton with a birch shaft and a cork handle is one-quarter the weight.
2. Not just any wood will do. Some woods are too heavy. Some, like pine, are too soft. Birch and maple are popular materials for the baton’s shaft. Birch is springy and bends easily. Maple is stiffer, although more susceptible to cracks and breaks. (Fiberglass is much heavier than birch.)
3. Even though it’s light, conductors need a baton that moves uniformly through the air. The place where the baton balances on your finger is its center of gravity. If the center of gravity is not in the sweet spot, a conductor is subtly “fighting” to compensate.
4. A typical length for a baton is between 15 and 16 inches, but they come in all sizes. Bernstein initially wanted a 17-inch baton. He later went to a 16-incher. Choral directors usually opt for batons in the 10-12 inch range.
5. Physics rules. A longer baton feels heavier when you’re waving it around. The longer the baton the higher moment of inertia.
6. Conductors often prefer handles made of cork over wood. Cork absorbs sweat. Imagine holding a baton in the palm of your hand for a full three hours. Think Handel’s Messiah, all three parts. A cork handle is less slippery than a wood one. Wet palms could send a stick flying into the hair of a musician, or audience member. It’s happened.
7. Visibility is key. A baton sprayed white is more visible than a wood one sprayed with lacquer. In an operatic setting, the baton is likely to be painted white. Musicians in the dark orchestra pit and the singers on stage need to be able to see it.
8. Conductors differ on where they want to hold or nest the handle. Some desire a handle that sits in the palm and allows them to grip the baton lightly between the thumb and the index finger. Others use a handle designed to be held between the index finger and the thumb. Some hold their batons in their fists.
9. As any fortune-teller knows, palms vary. Leonard Bernstein nested a teardrop-shaped handle in the palm of his hand. The shape of the handle depends on what feels most comfortable. That’s based on the musculature and shape of the palm.
10. Conductors commonly order four to six at a time, sometimes ten or more. After all, batons do break and whether it’s in Taipei, Paris, Ft. Worth, or Philadelphia, it’s not so easy to get them replaced before the lights dim.
Special thanks to longtime WRTI member and baton maker Mark Horowitz for sharing his expertise on baton making.