1. Being a Musician First
As a conductor, you need to know a lot about how music is performed. To gain the ability and the right to lead, instruct and aid fellow musicians, you first need to be an accomplished musician yourself. A conductor must understand what constitutes successful practice and performance. Having an intimate understanding of a variety of rehearsal methods and effective strategies for successful performance is key. The conductor needs to understand and must be able to inspire the finer qualities of ensemble playing. The more you know about the art and craft of being a musician, the better it is.
- Play an instrument (or sing) and play it well. Every conductor needs to have a really good general understanding of what it means to be a professional musician. You need to know how to practise an instrument, and what it takes to develop musicians’ skills. You need to know how to play and perform with other musicians, and what it is like to play or sing in an ensemble. You need to be aware of the endless possibilities and the potential of quality in musical performance, whether it be of timbre, dynamics, phrasing, intonation, ensemble playing, or any other element of music-making. You need to understand where and when a musician may need or wish to be guided by a conductor, and when it is better not to intervene. In brief, this simply means that you need to be an advanced performer yourself. So, practise your instrument!
- Can you play the piano? In the past, being an accomplished pianist was considered an important qualification for entry to many of the world’s conducting programmes. In recent decades, this expectation has been replaced by broader skillset expectations. Nowadays advanced piano skills may not be required but there is no doubt that being able to play the piano competently is a useful skill to have, particularly when working with singers.
- Instrument specific methods. A deep understanding of your own instrument is important, but having a broad understanding of all instrumental groups is advantageous. If you conduct an orchestra it is important to equip yourself with the knowledge of how string instruments work given that they are a fundamental component of that ensemble. Similarly, if you conduct a wind band, brass band, or choir you should become familiar with the methods required to play these instrument groups. Most conductors will, at some point, find themselves in a situation whereby they are required to conduct an ensemble of instruments from a variety of instrumental families: An “orchestral conductor” may be required to perform a piece that engages a chorus and a “choral conductor” may be expected to engage an orchestra for a performance of an oratorio. In other words, a broad working knowledge is useful for most of us. If you conduct opera or ballet you may find that you will also need other interdisciplinary knowledge; for example when coaching singers, soloists, or collaborating with direction and staging. You can find some information about specific instrumental groups in Rehearsal Chapter 4 of the Study Room