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Arts & Culture

Oscars conductor using baton made by Buffalo's Phil Aguglia

Nick Lippa

History is being made at the Oscars this weekend. The first ever woman conductor, Eimear Noone, will lead the orchestra. Her instrument of choice to lead the group? A baton made by Buffalo’s Phil Aguglia. WBFO’s Nick Lippa visited Aguglia in his workshop where he put on the finishing touches of a baton now on its way to Los Angeles and explained how making a baton for Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra music director JoAnn Falletta played a major role in developing his craft.

In the basement of one Tonawanda home, Phil Aguglia, Kenmore East music teacher and founder of PaGu Batons works at perfecting a custom baton in a place he references as his "batcave."

Aguglia has reached international acclaim for his baton making.

“In the same shop here as you stand, I've had the musical director for the Beirut Symphony and the conductor of the South Korean Metropolitan Opera with his translator and the conductor of the Puerto Rico (Symphony Orchestra) and on and on,” Aguglia said. “You know it's kind of mind-boggling the amount of people that have flown into Buffalo to get fitted for batons.”

When you see the conductor on a stage, it may look like just a stick, but Aguglia said there is much more to it.

“I've always contended the baton is your instrument. If you're a conductor, the baton is your instrument,” he said. “If you're using a baton, it's too short for you, you're going to end up using a lot of forearm to compensate for using a baton. It's too long for you, you’re using a lot of shoulder to compensate. So how do we balance those two? How do we reconcile that so that you're not putting tension in the wrong spot? That's what I'm trying to do.”

Aguglia himself needed shoulder surgery at one point due to the stress from conducting. He said with the right batons and growth as an educator, he hasn’t needed any follow-up surgeries.

“Because if you can find the right balance it should be an extension of your arm, not something you're wielding. It's not a sword,” he said.

There’s a precise science to all of it. The grip and fit of the handle. The length of the stick. The balance point of the baton that gives the perception of being heavy or light, dead or responsive.

“The components of a baton are the handle and the shaft and when you put them together there's a fulcrum. With all things that balance or teeter-totter, you have to have a fulcrum. And where that place is, is what defines pretty much my whole fitting system. Because every conductor has a different take on where the right spot is to balance your baton, where that fulcrum is,” Aguglia said. “Maybe they want to hold it at the fulcrum so that it floats on their finger or maybe they want where their finger is not to be the fulcrum and at the balance point is further forward so that the tip of the stick has its own gravity and therefore can have some more life to it. And now how much of that do you want every component conductors a little bit different?”

Credit Phil Aguglia / WBFO
Baton for Composer/Conductor Eimear Noone, who will be leading the orchestra for the Oscar ceremony this Sunday

So how do you pick up the art of baton making? There are so few baton makers out there, it’s not like you can just pick up the phone and ask somebody else how they make their living.

“There's only a really small number of large scale baton makers in the world that are there able to service the global customer market. I never thought I'd be one of those, especially by myself in a basement,” Aguglia said. “I had to teach myself everything.”

When Aguglia was younger, his father gave him a lathe that he didn’t originally use very much. This introduced him to the many types of wood.

“We got a puppy, get me up at 4:30 in the morning, so I would get up, take the puppy out and then go, I was stuck because I couldn't get into school that early. So I go in the basement and I play with the lathe and what do I want to make? I don't like baseball. So that wasn't really interesting to me,” he said. “And so I had a lot of crude things going and it was interesting to me just the process of turning a piece of wood and seeing how it worked. I had no idea any of these exotic woods existed.”

Aguglia was a home builder for a while. It wasn’t until 2007 he started making batons for his first big-name conductor, JoAnn Falleta.

“What happened was the Buffalo Philharmonic Musicians came to me in 2007 and they said JoAnn's tenth year anniversary is coming up and we heard you're making batons. Would you be interested in making her anniversary baton? And I said, no,” Aguglia said.

“You got to listen,” Aguglia recalls the musicians telling him. “We really think she would love that because she's really into Buffalo and a local baton craftsmen. This would be a great gift for her. We couldn't think of a better way to honor her. And I said, ‘You kidding me? No, I'm making junk pieces here. There's no way that this is something appropriate for her.’ And they didn't stop like they came back several times.”

The persistence of the philharmonic players set Aguglia down a road of baton self-discovery.

“So what I did was I had I went to Rockler Woodworking and Hardware store over on Transit [Road] and I brought what I was making and I said, ‘Hey guys can you help?’ I'm new with this woodturning thing and they laughed at me and said, those are really terrible,” Aguglia laughed. “And I was like, ‘Well, okay, I know that. Tell me why.' And we're talking from an appearance perspective, not from an ergonomics perspective. We're talking just how they were finished. Once you try standing up to about 12,000 grit, try these other finishes. So these guys at Rockler really showed me what to do. And I went back home and I practice and I brought it back and I'm like, now you're on the right track. So then the next step was I needed to make a case for her.”

The case was something Aguglia was comfortable making, but he wanted to do better.

“I was taking wooden dowels that were an inch and a half. They're basically curtain rods. I would take that and hollow it out and turn it into a single baton case. It sounds odd, but I would make it kind of like a clarinet with a cork intendant. And then one baton would fit in there. And I'm like, this is definitely not appropriate for a conductor like JoAnn,” Aguglia said.

So Aguglia and his father took a ride out to the Randolph area in Cattaraugus County spending hours knocking on Amish doors.

“I found this 17-year-old clockmaker son who had these beautiful clocks and jewelry boxes in there that were just the right mix. And so Levi took on the project of making JoAnn's first baton case which then turned into thousands and thousands of cases from there that we've sold,” he said. That first product would then open the door to a whole new world for me and took our business to another level.”

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Top picture is Aguglia on stage with JoAnn Falletta giving her a baton

Eventually, the final product was delivered on stage to Falleta. A couple of months later, Aguglia got a surprise call.

“I was pulling out of a school parking lot and I get a phone call. ‘Hello. Hi, is this Phil? Yes, this is JoAnn Falletta. Well, I better pull this back in a parking lot and park it. How are you?’ Aguglia asked.

“It was a great conversation. She said, ‘I really love your batons. Tell me more about yourself.’ And so I told her the dog story. And she goes, ‘Well, if there's anything I can do to help you, let me know.’ I said how would you like to be a signature artist? She said it sounds like fun. What does that mean? I said, I don't know yet. But you said yes. So I'll figure it out.”

Aguglia surveyed 400 conductors before he came up with a philosophy on how to fit a conductor.

“It was like, I'm going to I'm going to start making these pretty little things. But how do I know what you're going to like? So I was watching people grab them and touch them and go, ‘Hmmm, interesting.’ And one person would say all this is terrific. Another one tries it? Well, it's terrible. Why? What is it? What are our predispositions? And what is it about how it should feel in our hand and how it should float and all that kind of stuff?”

Aguglia said he started doing surveys when he fitted JoAnn Falletta making his first signature baton.

“I did a blind test with her the first day, met with her and took some measurements of her arm and hand,” he said. “Your eyes tell me which one you like the most. And then it branched out from there.”

Finish the final product with a laser engraved design on the baton (done by Peter Staskiewicz), and the customized baton is complete.

Credit PaGu batons

Fast forward 13 years, he has made a baton for Eimear Noone, the first woman ever to conduct the Oscars ceremony.

“In December I get this phone call from this from a woman with a thick Irish accent and it took me a minute to adjust my ears,” Aguglia said. “She spent a good hour giving me her resume and telling me what she does, you know, conductor of Zelda, Warcraft, she does Video Games Live, all these things that she's doing all over the world.”

Noone has also done work for internationally popular games like Overwatch, Hearthstone, and Diablo III to name a few. She is one of the most respected conductors and composers in her field.

“She sent me videos of her in different countries talking about her baton and how precious her baton is and who makes it. I mean who does that? That's wonderful, right? You know, on her signature baton it actually says ‘Wake the winds.’ It's her toss to Windwaker from The Legend of Zelda. And you know she could have just put her own name on it. She didn't, she put ‘Wake the winds’ and she’s a wonderful, wonderful person.”

Aguglia said he’s still learning how to improve his craft in his efforts to aid a conductor's expressive, subtle gestures.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
There's a lot different handles to choose from when selecting a baton

“Some will say well, who's really watching you to begin with? Well, that you do find a lot of people do watch. It's amazing, but my high school kids watch really well. They know when I make a mistake, it's amazing,” Aguglia said. “Maybe at a higher level, they watch less because they feel more. I don't know, but for me to feel expressive and to feel like I'm part of the music-making process, I need to have that.”

The baton is a small, but impactful tool. Aguglia calls it the conductor's instrument, and this year an instrument of his own creation will be played at the Oscars.

Aguglia explains different grips

There’s a lot of factors that go into baton preferences: thumb size, habits, etc.

“So I've defined the anatomy of a baton to have five different grips, balance points as you will.”

  1. Tension free
  2. Basic with the tip weight
  3. Basic fulcrum
  4. Behind the collar
  5. Palm weight

“There's the palm weighted where the handle is very heavy, kind of like holding a kitchen knife, the hand handles a little bit heavier than the blade.”
“And then there's a behind the collar grip, where just about a quarter of an inch behind where the stick meets the shaft. And I designed that for people who like to hold their thumb and index finger on the handle itself. And if they were holding a baton that had the fulcrum, where the sticking the handle meat, well, it gives them tip weight, maybe they don't want to wait, maybe they wanted to float where it where their fingers which can't get that in a store. You have to get that from me.”

“Then there's the basic fulcrum, which is probably the most common balance point where the stick meets the handle. And it depends on what tree of the conducting world you branch off. If you're going to be using that one, that's the basic fulcrum and we have a quarter-inch in front of the handle, it'll be basic tip weight, and then an inch in front of it. I call it tension-free,” Aguglia said.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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