I directed my school’s pep band at a football game last month, filling in for the band director. It was pretty fun, though conducting a pep band is not much like conducting. But there was someone at the game who was doing something that closely resembled the real work of conducting.
It was a football player. He scored a touchdown and was pretty happy about it, and turned to the crowd and pumped his arms up to encourage them to cheer more loudly.
He felt a thing very strongly, and stood in front of a big crowd of people all feeling the same thing; so he used gestures to focus, encourage, and direct the sound they made to express that thing. He was a good conductor: very expressive, very encouraging, very clear. I totally cheered louder when he directed me to — and not by conscious choice, just instinctively.
And I thought, “that kid is doing more conducting today than I am.”
The difference for musical conductors is making sure everybody in the crowd feels the same thing, and understanding the specific ways the sounds express the thing. More nuance and sophistication, but the same principal.