Cover Conducting: The Basics
Some may argue that the principal reason to have a cover conductor for any given concert is because the show must go on! That if the primary conductor is unavailable for any number of reasons, the cover is ready to take over at a moment's notice. Sure, yes, of course... that is a very good reason to have one. Admittedly, I have had to step in a few times in rehearsals and concerts. Also, if the orchestra is able to perform the concert with the cover, the organization saves a lot of money that they would have had to pay in ticket refunds. However, I would argue that since the percentage chance of stepping in is so very small, the crux of the job is actually in the ways you can help the conductor and orchestra with the final musical product. Of course we don’t want to forget the fact that you will personally benefit from these experiences as well! In this article I will attempt to give you a better sense of what I believe are the most important basics when it comes to cover conducting in order for you to best prepare for the week and get the most out of it.
How do I get these opportunities?
Different than the way guest conducting opportunities or assistant conductor positions usually materialize (separate, but equally important topics to discuss in the future!), it is my experience that cover conducting opportunities come from working hard at and building good relationships with the people who make these kinds of decisions or recommendations at orchestras. It is also one of the few times where a Music Director can (almost) unilaterally insert you into the rotation of cover conductors. Although it might be surprising for conductors just starting out to hear, this is generally NOT the case with guest conducting opportunities at major orchestras. In most situations, these orchestras and artistic administrators like to make their own choices for non-MD weeks so that the orchestra builds relationships with other conductors who may not be on the Music Director’s radar.
So what do I mean when I say building relationships? I mean putting the time in and showing up! Go to the rehearsals of the orchestras you live near. This is surprisingly easy to do if you simply ask. While you are there, respectfully introduce yourself to the people around you. Please be very careful not to be in the way or bother people, but if you see an opportunity to say a quick hello to an administrator at the orchestra (perhaps through a friend of yours?) or the assistant conductor, go for it! Summer festivals are a lovely way to do this as well since it is a much more relaxed environment for everyone. Trust me when I say that over time your local orchestra will be more and more comfortable with you and engage you in more and more conversations. If you impress them with your respectfulness, demeanor, and intelligent observations, good things will come of it! As far as speaking to the Music Director without an introduction, I think that this is a difficult thing to do and one should tread lightly. At best they say hello and over time begin to recognize you, but at worst you rub them or their ‘handlers’ the wrong way and become persona non grata. The same goes for your presence backstage. Make sure that you have explicit permission to be there as a guest of the administration or a musician, or else you may never find yourself back there again!
I once was a guest conductor at an orchestra where there was a photo of a conductor (who I actually knew) accompanied by their name. When I asked someone why the photo was there, they told me that it was so the guard would not let them backstage. I thought they were joking, but no, it was real... consider yourself warned!
How much does this usually pay?
Not a lot. At first, many of us do this for our local community or smaller professional orchestras for free! As you start becoming hired at bigger orchestras, these weeks can pay as low as $500 a week. Hopefully they will help with expenses if you don’t live in their city, but get used to staying on your friend’s couch if they don’t! As you become more experienced and begin working with bigger orchestras, this can float up to and around $1000 a week plus expenses, but will rarely go much above that. My advice is that whatever the amount or circumstance, take it - as long as you are free that week. The amount is low because they know that it is a great opportunity for you to work with a professional orchestra, conductor, and administration which are all invaluable experiences. Plus, in the beginning it is a wonderful resume item that will get you covering at other orchestras and put you in a better position when it comes to getting an assistant conductor audition.
Before you arrive
Promptly respond to emails and other correspondence. This is your first impression so make it count!
Contact the librarian if they don’t contact you first!
Make sure that you have the exact editions that the conductor is using. I always ask for a copy of the first violin part so that I am sure that my bar numbers match theirs and/or their rehearsal letter/number system matches my score. This is incredibly important when giving quick and efficient feedback to the conductor.
Since I mark my scores up quite a bit and because I like to have the notes I make in the scores after that week is over, I always ask the library for a photocopied score that I can mark up without worry. Of course I also offer to pay them for their time and material costs. When they are able to say yes, it is a great way to memorialize the week while adding to your library!
Make a work/social schedule for the week you are there.
If it is a new city for you, what other orchestras are in that city? What other visiting orchestras or visiting artists are performing in town that week? Do your research before you get there and check them out!
What musicians, conductors, or administrators do you know that live there? Schedule time with them while you are in town! If you don’t know people in the administration personally, you should still ask the artistic administrators and the artistic staff (whoever you were in contact with) for a short meeting or a quick coffee. They will almost certainly say yes or at least chat you up backstage the next time they see you, now that you have reached out and respectfully asked for a small piece of their time.
Score study - how prepared do you really have to be?
Besides confirming that you have all of the correct scores, I am obligated to say the obvious: you have to be prepared to conduct that orchestra in that repertoire starting the first minute of the first rehearsal. Trust me, it has happened to me a few times where I have shown up and the conductor is stuck in traffic. Also trust me when I tell you how grateful I was that I was prepared one of those times, since the conductor was Kurt Masur, the piece was Dvorak 8, and the orchestra was the Orchestre Nacional de France!
Do you have to have the pieces prepared the way you would if you were conducting the whole week? If you are lucky enough to have the time to do so, of course! However, in reality you need to at least be able to conduct and rehearse the first day of rehearsal at an extremely high level with a strong familiarity of the pieces, but not necessarily a firm interpretation. In fact you don’t necessarily want one because you are there to learn as well! Outside of going through your normal score study, marking, and preparation; you should be familiar with multiple ways to conduct ‘problematic’ sections as well as what the range of tempi are for every movement and transition. If you are a purist who never listens to recordings, I implore you to do so when covering so you know what the orchestra is used to - they will appreciate it!
Other questions to ask:
Feel free to ask for the exact rehearsal orders of each rehearsal and for a roster. Who knows, a friend of yours might be a substitute musician that week!
Ask if they would like you to be at other events over the course of the week where you could be helpful or a good surrogate of the conductor or orchestra.
Have they asked you to do the pre-concert lectures?
If there is a soloist, when is the soloist meeting? Most conductors assume that you will be there. Pro tip - these usually happen during a lunch break, so pack a lunch or a snack should you not have enough time to grab lunch during this break!
For the first rehearsal
Make a commuting/parking plan.
It would be ideal to arrive well before others get there in the morning, especially the first day of rehearsal. Allow for delays along the way in order to still get there about 30 minutes before the downbeat so that if things go extremely poorly, you still get there with a good amount of time.
Be completely ready to conduct - whatever that means for you!
Are you wearing clothes you would be okay rehearsing in for two and a half hours? (In terms of comfort and appearance)
Did you have a good night’s sleep?
Did you have the right amount of food and caffeine that morning?
Do you prefer having your contacts in when you rehearse? I do!
One morning at the New York Philharmonic, I was walking down the stairs to the stage with Ivan Fischer and he asked me right then and there to conduct the beginning of the rehearsal so that he could hear the balance in the hall. Again, I was grateful that I had my black polo on, my scores and baton at the ready, my contacts in, and was especially grateful that again, the piece was Dvorak 8!
As you can probably surmise, I usually follow a similar preparation and morning routine as the one I would follow if I was actually conducting that rehearsal. The reason to do this is not only that you may have to conduct, but also so that when you do show up as a guest conductor for the first few times, it doesn’t feel that different or especially important. I believe that this is one of the reasons that I (usually) don’t get nervous with professional orchestras. The only times where I have been a bit nervous is when I haven’t followed my routine, arrived later than I wanted to, or felt slightly underprepared.
Where do you sit? I prefer to sit just under half way back into the hall and just to the (house) left of center so that if the conductor turned their head, they would be able to see you and communicate with you easily.
Ask for a music stand from the stage manager. This frees up your hands to take notes and also puts the conductor more in the periphery of the score you are looking at, should they turn around. Pro tip - don’t grab one from backstage yourself! While you may be thinking that you are saving someone the effort, the stagehands are (rightfully) very particular about where things live backstage and are responsible for the handling of any equipment backstage - whether it be a 9 foot grand or a music stand - so definitely ask first!
What am I writing down for the conductor? I write down everything I hear that is wrong or needs to be rehearsed, so the list can be quite long! I then happily cross items off as the orchestra naturally fixes those areas on their own and/or if the conductor rehearses those items. Do I give the entire list to the conductor? No. I always pick the one to three things that seem most important for each piece to bring up first. For some, that is more than they are looking for. For others, they want to sit down and flip through nearly every page asking many questions. It is in these cases when your very long list is extremely helpful! I usually keep the same list all week so that if asked, you can show that you wrote the issue they are asking about down, but were able to cross it off.
What do I write down for me? Of course I also mark the score with tempi and conducting choices that this particular conductor is making (in 4 @ 120 - KM) with their initials, should I need to conduct. I also love writing down choices they are making when they differ from mine in addition to any fun stories or supremely effective rehearsal techniques.
Be ready to provide instant feedback! Depending on the conductor, they may use you very often or not at all. In both cases, keep the conductor in peripheral view at all times, just in case they want to know if you can hear the flute in the hall at bar 32. Nothing is more frustrating for a conductor on the podium than looking back and only getting the top of your assistant’s head while they are buried in their scores or phone. Also, nothing is more embarrassing for you than being caught on your phone when they turn around!
Be prepared to provide positive feedback! Look, most of the time the conductor is really asking you a leading question where they want you to agree with them. Nothing was scarier than Kurt Masur screaming over his left shoulder YOU MUST BE CRAZY after telling him something he didn’t want to hear. Am I telling you to lie? No, but lean towards agreement in the moment. You have time to augment your answer later in the dressing room.
You are most needed for the concerto. Of course be extremely familiar with everything the soloist does should you need to conduct, but over the entire week the conductor will lean on you most of all during the single concerto rehearsal. Be extremely attentive during this rehearsal and be ready to run up to the stage should the soloist or conductor call for you. Again I recommend choosing your battles carefully as to what you address during the rehearsal vs during the break (the orchestra will appreciate this). So only offer a few spots where there are major issues or general things that will help the overall balance when with the orchestra and then go into greater detail (while still supporting the ego of the soloist!) backstage.
At the break. All conductors are different, so when I don’t know them well, I try not to bust down their door before and after every rehearsal or linger in their dressing room. Instead, I casually check in letting them know I have a few notes if they want, then strategically place myself outside the dressing room so that they know where I am and that I am available whenever they are ready. I also make sure that the orchestra knows where to find me should they have a question or want to look at the score.
What are you wearing? I recommend wearing a dark suit or something equivalent for concerts, but keeping your actual concert clothes in a closet at the hall. While you need access to your concert clothes should something happen, you don’t necessarily want to walk around backstage in uncomfortable clothing that looks like you are ready and hoping to conduct. And yes, I have had musicians make that joke... 'So, you ready to go buddy?' or 'Are you the Maestro tonight?'
Whatever you wear, match the color scheme of the orchestra. This is because you never know when you might get sent onstage before the concert starts. Also, at many concert halls, you can not go on stage after the house is open unless you are wearing black. Why would you need to go on stage? I have had musicians call me over to ask a question, conductors ask me to give notes 5 minutes before the downbeat, and I have had to turn pages for a keyboard player last minute as well. I also have a friend who was the assistant of a major orchestra that had to turn the pages of the score for a musician who left the sole copy of their part at home! Imagine if that assistant was wearing jeans and white sneakers…
Before the concert. I would be available and around! You should at least check in with the conductor and the administration, since you never know what someone might need. Also, it is often an electric atmosphere where people are 'stuck' but usually happy to chat at a time that is less busy than after the concert. Don't waste an easy and appropriate opportunity to connect with members of this organization!
Know the major players. Take a little time to get to know the faces and stories of the people you will see backstage. These days, everyone’s photo and history is online. Doing a little bit of research serves two purposes. First, it might be nice to discover a shared history or mutual friend with someone for when you are making small talk. Second, you want to make sure that you don’t say the wrong thing within earshot of, say, the executive director whom you have not met!
After the concert. Be prepared to give one or two opinions if asked, but also offer a nice compliment to the soloist(s) and conductor. What if you did not care for the conductor? I still recommend that you dig deep and find something nice to say about the evening. It can’t do any harm and can only do good for you and the relationship. At this time, I do have to note that there have been a few instances when I have been a guest backstage, or the conductor that week, and it was noticed (by a number of people) that the assistant or cover was not around before and after services. So my advice is to not be shy or in a rush to go home! Even world famous conductors appreciate the partnership, camaraderie, and feedback that you can offer as their assistant over the course of the week.
While this article doesn’t cover all of the best practices or nuances of being a successful (and reinvited!) cover conductor, I do hope it sheds some light about this important role for those who are new to assisting. Aspects of this article will be taken apart further in future contributions to the Everything Conducting article database, so keep an eye out for that! In the meantime, if you want additional tips on how to be a great cover conductor, you should also check out Episode 4 of our podcast, UpBeat, which can be found on our homepage.