So you want to be a conductor? You’re crazy – stop now, and go on enjoying your life. Psshh, conducting…why would you want to do that?
Oh, you’re still here? Good for you. You must love music as much as life, itself. You’ve probably played under the batons of great conductors and been inspired by their musicianship, imagination, aural acuity and artistic vision. Or perhaps you’ve played under the baton of too many poor conductors – those that waste time, talk too much, are inefficient and uninspiring.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of poor conductors out there. They’re probably trying their best (let’s hope), but they simply lack the basic skills and technique – the fundamentals that are essential to conducting.
The sad truth is, it’s not their fault. Conducting pedagogy is still in its infancy. It’s not codified (except for a few outstanding texts), and ‘good conducting’ appears to be highly subjective. Those that have made it to the podium have likely worked their tails off to get there, but the poor conductors simply don’t know what they don’t know.
I am honored to have been asked by aspiring young conductors, “May I study conducting with you?” Of course I am delighted in students’ interest, and happy to share any insights/wisdom I have gained along my own journey.
No matter the skill level of the student, there are some invariables that any beginning conductor should consider:
- You must be exceptional on your primary instrument. If you have not distinguished yourself as a reputable instrumentalist/vocalist, you’re not ready to lead an ensemble. A caveat to this – all musicians should sing, willingly, to the best of their ability.
- How are your keyboard skills? They can be better, and you must develop them.
- Experience as much music as you can – performing in different styles and genres gives you insight into the full spectrum of music. Each area informs and enriches one another.
- Watch other great conductors at work. YouTube is an amazing resource for this…you can and should watch superb rehearsals and performances of the world’s greatest conductors. Nothing beats the real thing though…get yourself to the concert hall, and see if you can get access to a rehearsal. Bring your score!
- The only way to learn how to conduct is to conduct. Recordings are wonderful, but they teach you nothing about how people respond to your gestures. Get a small ensemble together and record your rehearsals. In the meantime, you can record your own practice and then playback that recording while you sit at the piano and play with what you see…that’s awfully revealing.
If you already know and are engaged in this approach, good for you. Your next step is to seek out the best conducting teacher you can find. They can provide you with guidance on appropriate repertoire, access to an ensemble and real-time feedback, taking you forward on your conducting journey.
Access to teachers:
- There are multiple workshops around the world, but they can be expensive, so choose wisely.
- Summer festivals, such as Tanglewood and Aspen, have been a steadfast pathway to the podium for decades.
- Graduate programs are an outstanding way to gain practical experience as a conductor, short of becoming an assistant conductor/conducting fellow with a professional ensemble.
Graduate programs in conducting are typically funded by the institution, or are accompanied with a substantial scholarship. They afford you an opportunity to study with a teacher who can give you individual guidance and attention, along with an ensemble to work with routinely. The most ideal graduate conducting programs not only allow you to work with student ensembles, but they also have an ensemble solely for conducting students. Obviously, these programs are more competitive, but they are the most ideal.
Competition is a reality with this business, so how can you distinguish yourself?
- Be prepared, be professional, be sincere. Those are words to live by.
- Build your network – keep in touch with people that you’ve worked with/for and consider joining some of the professional associations out there for access to job postings and mentors.
- Seek out opportunities that are aligned with your passions, which may mean saying, “yes” to something even when your plate feels too full.
- Get the best training you can, and stretch beyond what’s comfortable – that’s how you learn.
Once you’re ready to get out there, but you haven’t won the big job yet, consider submitting your materials for some of the conducting competitions out there. They are also a wonderful way to further your career – usually accompanied by a monetary prize, and often multiple performance opportunities.
No matter where you are in your journey, there is one tool that every conductor needs – a good video camera. Here are some great options:
If you have any questions, please never hesitate to get in touch with me – I’ll help as much as I can!