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Considering a Career in Conducting, part 1

Should I be a conductor?

Most of us ask that question of ourselves with some frequency, still! To ask yourself this question at the beginning of your journey is a very good idea. So let’s tackle this from the start.

Any career in music is an arduous one but the path of a conductor can be even less straightforward than a traditional instrumental career. Most instrumental teachers offer guidance with professional decision-making choices and will offer advice to determine your potential as a professional musician. This article is similarly intended to help your thought process when making such a decision with regards to conducting.

I love music, but is conducting the right fit for me?

You need to ask yourself a lot of questions over many years to even begin to answer this question.

  • What draws me to conducting?

  • Do I need to have a career in music, or is music more of a hobby for me?

  • Can I accomplish my goals as a musician any other way?

  • What do I have to offer musically and is conducting the best way for me to offer that?

  • Do I need to be the Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic to be happy?

  • (or) Would I be happy conducting any group, of any size, of any level?

  • Do I like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?

The last question is from a dear friend of mine who promised he would ask that question to any prospective student before he taught them. His reasoning was that in reality, conductors do not get paid very much at the beginning of our careers. Additionally, the salaries may not necessarily get better down the road. These questions are a few that need to be asked before you begin this journey. This is not a comprehensive list, but it is a start!

Do I have what it takes to be a conductor?

For this question, let me offer a non-exhaustive list of questions that will help identify if you possess certain ‘traits’ that people often associate with being a conductor in addition to highlighting some traits you may not have known are important.

  • Do I like reading - a lot?

  • Do I love music theory?

  • Do I love music history?

  • When I listen to music, do I actively listen and have opinions?

  • Do I enjoy being with other people?

  • Am I comfortable with my personal physicality?

  • Am I generally good at public speaking? (if you are not now, you need to be)

  • Do I like to travel?

  • Am I good at languages?

  • Am I good at taking criticism?

  • Am I able to take rejection or fail?

  • How good am I at tolerating stressful situations?

  • Do I gravitate toward leadership rolls in and outside of music?

  • Am I able to tolerate risk?

  • Do I sincerely want a career that is always a challenge and is rarely ‘easy’?

Not every conductor identifies positively with everything above, so you certainly don't need to have the ‘right answer’ (nor any answer) to those questions today. I simply offer them as food for thought as you begin your journey.

When should I start?

There is no rule for this (Spoiler alert! This answer applies to a lot of these questions). Most people start conducting in college and begin their focus on conducting in graduate school. Currently, there are only a couple of colleges that offer an undergraduate degree in conducting (and perhaps that is the right fit for you), but I would offer the same advice I offer to most young people: College is a wonderful place to explore, learn, and grow as a human being - so why limit your options at such a young age? Of course, there are a ton of musicians who have become hugely successful by focussing on and committing to their instrument early. Gustavo Dudamel started conducting when he was 15 as an example., So, what do I know? I can only speak to when people generally begin and why.

Okay, then why in college or later?

What you will hear most teachers say is that the goal is to be the best musician possible before you step in front of a large group of extremely accomplished musicians and ‘tell them what to do’. This is sage advice! You have to have spent at least some time ‘in the musicians’ shoes’ in order to empathize with them and be a good leader. Whether it is the experience you gain mastering your instrument, learning repertoire, playing chamber music, practicing for hours, taking auditions, or simply sitting in an orchestra; all of these experiences make you a better conductor. This answer (college or later) simply comes from the fact that you have more and more hours of these experiences the older you get.

How do I start?

The ‘start’ can come in many, many forms. You could form your own ensemble, take an undergraduate conducting class, ask a composer friend who needs a conductor for a recital of their new piece, be a rehearsal pianist or coach (many times you will be asked to wave your arms to get through some staging rehearsals), or pay for summer workshops (in the U.S. or Europe). These are all great ways to gain experience.. Bottom line is that you have to be creative and committed with both your time and/or money to get experience.

Successful experiences are what you need in order to get the next opportunity, and then the next. It is a difficult career to start and of course we can’t get better simply sitting in front of a score or waving your arms in a vacuum. The podium is our practice room and every minute of practice time is extremely valuable. Any time conductors have in front of musicians is an incredible gift. Their time and talents should be treated accordingly. One way to respect their time is to be as prepared and polished as possible. This will be addressed in our next installment:

Part 2 - You don’t yet know what you don’t know, so let’s go!

What you need to know as you get started and how to find that information.

June 1, 2020


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