5. The Long Conducting Journey

Becoming a conductor is a life-long journey. Most conductors continue to develop throughout their entire careers, and we are fortunate in the sense that good conducting is like good wine – it becomes better with age. This is partly because there is so much to learn and to understand, whilst also being that our instruments  (the orchestras, bands, and choirs)  are only available to us when we work or if we take part in organised conducting studies. A few things are needed to get the positive spiral effect of continuous development going, and to keep it going; having a mindset of curiosity and growth toward yourself, your surroundings, your art and your profession.

  • Study conducting from the podium. Obviously, to become a successful conductor you must study music extensively. At some point, you must truly immerse yourself in conducting. Whether you start specialising in conducting at the bachelor level, master level or at a later stage is, of course, up to you and it is impossible to say which way is best. At the point when you choose to start focusing on conducting, it will be crucial for you to have sufficient podium time. There is no good substitute for real conducting opportunities, so you should look for conducting programmes that accommodate this. In addition, there are an abundance of masterclasses and conducting courses available, and many offer decent podium time. They can be a good supplement to studying conducting on a longer programme.

  • Study conducting by observing others. In addition to learning conducting through your own practice, observing others can be very rewarding. The traditional way of doing this is simply to visit and follow rehearsals with good orchestras/ensembles and good conductors. This is an excellent learning strategy, and all conducting students should make a habit of following rehearsals regularly – in addition to going to concerts, of course.

    As a conducting student, you should of course also take advantage of all the input that is given to your peers. So be attentibe and involved, even if you are not the one currently on the podium.

    Finally, these days you will find lots of relevant digital content. The majority will probably be concert performances. That’s clearly worth consuming. And do research for rehearsal content as well.

  • Find your match among teachers. Studying conducting is a very personal journey, and you should look for a teacher that fits your profile and your personal style. For most conducting students, the norm will be that you encounter several different teachers throughout your learning journey. This is a good opportunity to search for your match. It may not be the same as everyone else’s preference.

  • Be curious. You should have a mindset of growth and learning, something which will fuel your continuous development throughout both your studies and your career. Be conscious of your own persona, and how your conducting and leadership affect your musicians and the artistic output. Be attentive and approachable to your surroundings and try to understand the people you meet and work with. You should constantly revalidate and renew your own artistic approach by looking for new dimensions or layers in the music, whether it be in well-known repertoire or through working with new music. Having a growth-oriented mindset is a key indicator of success. In short, be curious.

  • Take advantage of the opportunities, and maybe create your own? Opportunities will arise, and your focus needs to be on making the most of them. Be ready. The famous story of how Leonard Bernstein made his last-minute debut with the New York Philharmonic is a classic example: On the morning of 14 November 1943 the 25-year-old pianist, composer, and conducting student Leonard Bernstein receives a phone call from the NY Phil:

    “Bruno Walter has the flu. Can you conduct the concert tonight?” There was no time for rehearsal. The onyl preparation was for Bernstein and Water to meet and talk through the score of the main feature Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote. The rest is history. After his debut in Carnegie Hall, which was also broadcast on radio, Bernstein became and remained a real star conductor. HE was clearly ready when his big chance came.

    Another good piece of advice is to create your own opportunities. Why wait for the big break? Why not start up your own project or even an ensemble? Many conductors have benefited greatly from being entrepreneurs.

  • Conducting competitions. For young conductors, having a good result in a competition can help kick start their career. Being a winner, runner-up or finalist in a competition may be what makes your name stand out. Some competitions even have professional engagements as part of the prize pool. Clearly, doing well in the most reputable competitions will matter more than lesser-known ones. But a good result, in any competition, will be positive. Some conducting students worry that a less than great result can spoil their reputation. However, generally speaking,  the winners and finalists will be noticed, while it is probable that few will take notice of who was knocked out early.

  • Network. Take care of and build your professional and personal networks. Having connections in the business will clearly contribute to creating career opportunities for yourself. So, building networks and alliances is generally important. This is a long-term effort. Invest in your networking by being reliable, approachable, and professional. Engage with others through collaboration and offer your support and involvement when needed. Also, being a conductor is in some ways a lonely profession and having a more personal network of friends and trusted colleagues with whom you can share and discuss all aspects of our profession, will be an asset for most.

  • Promote yourself. Everyone needs to be promoted. If you do not have an agent who is working on your behalf, this will be something you will have to do yourself. You will need a website, you should probably be active on social media and you will need to approach potential employers. Having quality recordings of yourself – audio and video – and favourable reviews will be an asset. There is absolutely no shame in promoting yourself and do remember that everyone else is probably promoting themselves. Employers are used to being approached by conductors, and they do expect this. It is simply a normal part of the business. 

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