Conducting Professional, Non-professional and Young Musicians: Is There a Difference?

by Mark Heron

Mark Heron is Professor and Head of Conducting at the RNCM as well as one of ConductIT’s main authors. As a conductor, he is noted for dynamic and well-rehearsed performances across an unusually wide repertoire. He works regularly with the College’s orchestras and ensembles, is the Music Director of the Nottingham Philharmonic, and guest conducts with professional orchestras in the UK and internationally.

Here you can read his take on conducting in the non-professional sector:   

Photo © RNCM


A big problem is that the lower the level of the group, the more they require to be “taught” or “coached” as opposed to “conducted”. This, in my opinion, is the most difficult aspect of conducting amateur and student ensembles. Is it possible to combine the role of teacher (“no, 3rd trumpets, the fingering for a G# is 2nd & 3rd valves”) with that of conductor, concerned with communicating through gesture exactly where a certain phrase goes, or just how an accent should be articulated? 

My suggestion is to adopt a Jekyll & Hyde approach. It is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to conduct effectively whilst also teaching or instructing. Therefore, my advice is don’t try. With a professional orchestra, this is unlikely to be a problem. The conductor’s role in that situation is probably 97% conductor and 3% coach. With a group of young musicians who have only been playing for six months, it might be 20% conductor and 80% teacher. Regardless of where you are on that continuum, I think it is important to divide the two roles. Often it may be necessary to explain something verbally: to clap your hands while teaching the rhythm; to translate Italian terminology; to correct a fingering; decide a bowing etc. However, try to keep this separate in your mind from the conducting. When working with an inexperienced group, this may mean that a large part of the rehearsal consists of teaching, perhaps as if coaching a small chamber ensemble, and with a large degree of verbal instruction. However, once the teaching part is done, make a performance of the piece or movement you have been working on where you concentrate on conducting effectively and the musicians can concentrate on responding to your physical gestures.

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