In pop culture, there are usually two ways of looking at the conductor’s baton. One way is as the focal point of his or her authority and magic: as Bernstein said, the stick as a “an instrument of meaning in its tiniest moment.” The other way is as a symbol of the conductor’s pretension and uselessness: Seinfeld asking, in the introductory bit to the episode “The Fix Up” (not “The Maestro”), “Do you really need somebody waving a stick in your face to play the violin?”
Last week, I spoke with three American makers of custom batons: Alan Pierce, a former trombonist in the Oregon Symphony; Alan Martin, a percussionist and teacher based in Colorado; and Mike Martinson, who teaches high school band and plays tuba in the Anchorage Symphony. They are the passionate hobbyists whose work offers a window into the profession of conducting.
First of all, I asked each baton maker how he got started, maybe expecting that there was some kind of training or instruction for the craft. Their answers were similar: they all basically just figured it out. Unlike being a conductor, which requires years of music lessons, the barrier to entry for baton makers is fairly low, assuming an aptitude for woodworking.
Pierce made his first baton while on tour with the Metropolitan Opera National Company, an “ambitious but short-lived touring ensemble” that performed the Met’s repertoire throughout the United States. “The conductors, Samuel Krachmalnik and Robert LaMarchina, were having trouble buying batons. The ones they liked, they bought in Europe,” he told me.
He figured he would be able to do about as well: “I looked at them, and I said, gee, I can make one of those. So we stopped in a bus-stop town in Tennessee, or somewhere like that, and bought material that I thought I would need: dowels, sticks, sandpaper, glue, cork, and something to drill a hole with.” He made his first prototypes on the bus between concerts, though they were “kind of rough in the beginning.”
Martin also made his first batons to fill a demand. “There was a company in the Midwest that was making batons. And then stopped making them. We needed something. I was working for a music store in Denver, so I got started,” he said.
He was also able to produce batons without much guidance. “There is no book, and there’s nothing online,” he told me. “I’ve always been a woodworker. …I talked to guys who balance golf clubs. And that allowed me to figure out how to get it done.”
Filling the need for batons means that makers have to deal with a wide variety of conductor’s preferences. They can be as finicky with their batons as they are in rehearsal.
Pierce told me, “I’ve worked for some conductors that are so precise, so demanding. I mean the weight has to be just right. Nine ounces, 11 ounces—they want it to weigh a certain amount.” He had just finished dealing with a client in Korea, who sent back 12 different batons before he was satisfied. “Each baton is handmade…I come as close as I can,” he said.
The back-and-forth with conductors may be one of the more frustrating parts of the job. Martin told me, “I’ve only had one baton returned because the conductor didn’t like it. And he was the one who designed it.” Martinson, the Alaska-based maker, said that he avoids making custom batons when at all possible, due to the difficulties customers have in communicating exactly what they want.
Length is of critical importance. Each baton maker had experience with the extremes: Pierce made a four-foot baton for one Oregon-based performer, and a seven-inch one for another conductor who wanted it to fit in his coat pocket. Martinson also makes a three-foot baton on request, though, he said, it’s not really meant to use—“I have one hanging over the door,” he said.
For some conductors, superstition informs their preferences as much as practicality. Pierce said, “Some conductors that I’ve met think that a baton has to be made of wood. And oftentimes unpainted—they want it just a natural wood color. …Seriously: they think that it’s gonna be better, the music will be better, if they have a natural wood stick with a handle.”
This is in contrast to other conductors who, Martin said, choose acrylic plastic for their handles, which is heavier than wood: “They just want something to be showy,” because it’s so “bright and colorful.” “I don’t understand it, but hey, I make it,” he said.
As a gag, Pierce made a baton out of unbreakable aluminum for one customer, an orchestra librarian who then gave it to a colleague in management who had snapped a baton. “It was quite heavy. …It was very difficult to grind,” he told me.
But perhaps the most exotic handle material I encountered was moose or caribou antler—Martinson is likely the only baton maker to work with it. I asked him how he sourced it. “Moose and caribou drop their antlers every year, they grow the entire rack and then they drop it. And then grow a new one, every single year. So they’re lying all over the place, in Alaska; and wherever deer families live. It’s as simple as a hike in the woods in moose area.” He added, “I don’t use hunted moose antler, if you will. Nobody died for this baton.”
Like one made from aluminum, an antler baton comes with extra challenges, but also its own particular joys. Martinson said, “The dust is a concern, health-wise. I mask very carefully. Since we’re dealing with a mammal, I’m more concerned with the fungus and germs from the dust of doing it. …The result is always fascinating to me: what’s inside—how does it look inside that antler?”
Despite Bernstein’s claim about the baton as an instrument of meaning, and the existence of an entire German book called Der Taktstock consisting of conductors expounding on their batons, the makers I spoke to were of differing opinions about the importance of the tool.
Martinson told me, laughing, “To be honest, when I conduct, I grab whatever baton is near.” Martin said, when he’s performing in orchestra, “I never look at the stick anyway. Because I usually play timpani, and the stick is too small when you’re on the other side of the orchestra. So I always watch the hand or the elbow.”
Pierce, however, made the argument that the baton is an important part of the conductor’s appearance. It “completes the look,” he said. “If you were going to take a train, if you were going to get on an Amtrak and the conductor of the train was dressed in a polo shirt with loafers, you wouldn’t know that he was the conductor. Normally, dressed in the blue uniform and with the hat, they look like the conductor. And I think there is a look that a baton will add to a conductor on the podium.”
Then again, there are also arguments against using one: not least the baton’s capacity for destruction. Pierce, who would often visit dressing rooms to offer his batons, relayed one anecdote to me from a conductor, who was finishing up a concert with “Stars and Stripes Forever”: “In his enthusiasm, he skewered his finger: the baton went through the top of his finger and came out the other side,” he said. “And he pulled the thing out, and he put pressure on it to finish the concert. And his wife asked him why he looked so pale.” The conductor had also once “stabbed himself in the neck.” This conductor told Pierce that he doesn’t use a baton anymore.
None of the makers I spoke with was able to live completely from his baton proceeds. This is mostly due to the amount of demand. Though there are mass market competitors, such as Mollard, whose batons are sold in music stores worldwide, they don’t have the same reputation for quality as custom batons made by hobbyists.
The extra income is mainly a small bonus. “I made one house payment last year with the amount of money I made from batons,” Martin said. Pierce hasn’t “raised [his] prices in 25 years,” he told me. “I just would like to cover my costs and maybe make something to buy a dinner here and there.”
Far more important is the enjoyment of the craft and the sense of personal fulfillment that comes along with it. Pierce recounted that he “was dubbed Baton Doctor by this conductor I met in New York.” He was audibly thrilled to have presented his batons to conductors such as Fabio Luisi, Daniele Gatti, and Riccardo Mutti.
This passion was something that struck me in each of the conversations. It’s an extremely unpretentiousness niche within the music world: talented hobbyists making excellent products with pride and humility. It was hard not to feel that conductors could learn a lot from them.
At the end of my conversation with Martinson, we returned to the subject of the baton handles’ material. He emphasized that he doesn’t practice the craft to satisfy his ego—rather, he enjoys the interaction with the materials he finds in nature. “I didn’t make the wood, I just carved it,” he said. And a conductor doesn’t really make the music either: he simply shapes the sound coming from the orchestra. He said, “It’s not that I make these beautiful batons. I turn them, and then I look at it and think, Wow, that antler, or that cocobolo, or whatever it is, is beautiful. I just bring out the beauty.” ¶