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Recommendations for Conductors from an Orchestral Musician

Titus Underwood is currently the principal oboe of the Nashville Symphony

Orchestras as we know them are currently paused. While this has been a great challenge for organizations to navigate and sustain, this is a perfect time to reflect on what works and what needs improvement. Listed below are recommendations for orchestras to consider while taking advantage of this time for internal improvement. In making modifications, it is my hope that we will then be able to return to an enhanced version of American Orchestras. These eight recommendations will lead to a more collaborative environment for conductors, music directors, orchestral musicians, and those in our community.

Increased meaningful collaborations between conductor and musicians

Orchestral musicians have a clear understanding of the hierarchical structure of the orchestra. In many ways, this helps the efficiency of the organization. However, musicians should have more say in the repertoire that they play. This will result in happier musicians and a happier work environment. Orchestras should be presented as a collective of musicians while celebrating individual strengths and voices. This approach would share the spotlight and show the depth of the organization rather than it being just one voice. Each institution should explore the most efficient ways of implementing bidirectional communication between artistic director and orchestral musicians to achieve a more collaborative product.

A more informed and diverse approach to community projects

Conductors should seek out a complete demographic layout of the city that he, she, or they are conducting in. They should be able to display not only how they keep the institution afloat, but how they meaningfully include their community through outreach. In regards to the audience, accessibility and inclusion are crucial. Music Directors should also be required to conduct a certain percentage of community concerts per season. It is important for them to get a sense of what the community responds to beyond the concert hall’s walls. If presidents of the United States find the time to read in second grade classrooms, music directors can be equally as accessible.

A balance between what they want to conduct and what the community wants to hear

Conductors tend to perform pieces within their wheelhouse. Just as orchestral musicians are judged on their diverse capabilities in different repertoire, conductors should be able to display the same. Although they have the responsibility to be a leading curator of the musical selections, it is important to know what their audience wants and needs. This could be achieved through polls or surveys to determine what the audience would like to hear or a review of a concert following the performance in efforts to gage how it was received. It is important to keep our ears to the ground and connected to the audience experience.

Increased involvement throughout the year

One could argue that inaccessibility of powerful figures/all-stars used to be the way the people respected stars in the past, but now we have Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Audiences want a higher level of engagement and time. Real change happens when the music director is in the community, and that can’t be done if they are only present up to 13 weeks a year. There should be focus on the music director’s involvement on social media platforms and how much they are in the media in general. Audiences want to feel connected to a personality more than just a persona.

Truly Shaping your Orchestra for your City

How does your orchestra look for your particular city? The aesthetics? Does your orchestra reflect the community in which it resides or are we always “bringing them up” to our level? At times it can seem like the focus of an orchestra is geared toward competing with other orchestras rather than leaning into the uniqueness of the cultures of your community. A community chooses to support an orchestra. The intention of the audience is (likely) not to compare the ensemble to other orchestras, but to feel welcomed, included, and inspired. What music is reflected in your community? Leaning into that uniqueness can increase local support. Does another recorded Beethoven symphony do anything for your orchestra’s cultural relevance or is it just another interpretation for the sake of making a recording? The orchestra should grow what’s uniquely theirs, rather than growing by comparison.

Post pandemic and post protest

The pandemic has obviously brought our organizations to a halt in many ways, but we are coming up with very creative ways to get back to the stage safely. A lot of energy and thought has gone into this; however, conductors should address the movement in a very meaningful way post protest as well. We have not seen conductors be central figures in the discussion over the past few months nearly as much as musicians. This feels especially absent given their role as the face of the organization. Their job is to be a leader on multiple fronts. They should read, listen, and converse with individuals who are leaders in these spaces. This will provide them the proper tools to respond to the current movement. Music must be a source of healing during difficult times.

Regular town hall with the Conductor

There should also be an annual town hall where musicians of the orchestra are given the opportunity to ask and make suggestions to the music director. Many musicians in section positions can feel invisible or insignificant at times. This would be done in a mutually respectful way with intentions of understanding and respect to be gained on both sides.

Advocates for growing the canon and making sure these works are reprogrammed

Expanding the canon of music should be an integral part of a music director’s work. Working with living composers and leading workshops for young composers will not only keep the art form alive, but will also help the orchestra’s tools of expression expand. While we applaud commissions, the resulting works also need to be played more than once; and not only be for cataloging purposes. There should be a commitment to finding and commissioning works from local and regional composers. This would cultivate the uniqueness of the region in which the orchestra is placed and could be used as a national/international cultural export of the institution. Committing to playing the new commission twice within a three to five year period would help establish a longevity of the piece and composer.

In conclusion

After being asked to contribute an article for the Everything Conducting website, I wanted to write something that I thought would be useful for conductors to hear at this particular moment but also to prepare for our return and our future. Now is the time for reflection and to make changes to a number of aspects of what we do. Finally, I want to note that these points are not the only ones we need to reimagine, but my hope is that it starts the conversation between musicians, conductors, and the organization to better our art form and our positions in the community.


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