Virtual Discussion Panel
:: Baton down the hatches
:: 10/9/07 - 10/19/07

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Robert Levine's Statement (Click to Hide)

Robert Levine  

Robert Levine

Senior Editor

I'd like to change direction a bit for Day 3. Here in Milwaukee we've seen lots of assistant-type conductors over the past couple of years (as we've been through a search process twice in three years). I've found myself very discouraged by the general level amongst young conductors, even those with positions with major orchestras. If, as I believe, this field suffers from a serious conductor deficit, how do we solve it?

Conducting is a unique kind of performance art in several ways. But often overlooked is how hard it is to even begin the learning process. If someone wants to learn how to play viola (and yes, some people actually do), they find an instrument, find a teacher, and go at it. If one wants to learn to conduct, things are much much harder. It's as if the only aircraft for training pilots were 747s. Not many pilots would get trained that way. And the handful that would get 747 time would be those with chutzpah, money, sharp elbows, good political connections, or some combination therein - not necessarily those with any talent for flying.

So how do we, as an industry, identify conducting talent, train such talent, and then develop it in the field?

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William Buchman's Statement (Click to Hide)

William Buchman  

William Buchman

Assistant Principal Bassoon, Chicago Symphony

The system I'm aware of for training conductors is not so dissimilar from that for training serious orchestra musicians. It involves study at a conservatory (including individual instruction and work with a lab orchestra), at summer music festivals and at the head of volunteer and semi-professional groups. The rungs on this ladder can eventually lead to
conducting positions at schools and at smaller orchestras, with some of the luckiest and most talented conductors landing in apprenticeships with larger groups, and eventually in leadership positions.

Obviously, a conductor can't "practice" as freely or as regularly as an instrumentalist, since his "instrument" is a group of musicians with lives of their own. This implies that established orchestras of all sizes and
artistic levels should have an obligation to devote some of their services to the training of young conductors. Certainly one way to do this is the system of apprentice (or assistant) conductorships that exist at orchestras
of all levels. In such positions they can learn by observing the week-after- week reality of professional life and can see what works w ell and what doesn't. Regrettably, my orchestra hasn't had such a position on its staff for a number of years. I suppose it's an economic issue: the orchestra will only finance an apprenticeship if it gets a direct benefit from the investment, and since the number of services an apprentice can be used for is often rather limited, it's probably a money-losing roposition.

This may signal the need for an organization like the League of American Orchestras to establish a conductor apprenticeship program similar to its existing program for orchestra managers. It could finance apprentice
conducting positions around the country through which young conductors would rotate, gaining experience with many different kinds of groups. Orchestras could designate a limited number of services for them, either lab orchestra sessions or actual concerts. I'm thinking that, in these situations, musicians might even lower some of their typical hostility towards conductors, since they would have the freedom to offer constructive criticism. This might eventually help to reverse the growing dearth of conducting talent we complain about more and more.

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Don Ehrlich's Statement (Click to Hide)

Don Ehrlich  

Don Ehrlich

Retired Asst. Principal Violist, San Francisco Symphony

Today's question is about hiring assistant conductors.

I worry about the role of the assistant conductor. My experience here is this:

Early in my career in San Francisco we had to hire a couple of assistant conductors. Auditions were held, where the candidates got to conduct us; the best one was hired. In each case I felt that the candidate hired did in fact have some obvious talent. One in particular I remember having a wonderful sense of tempo/meter.

Then, after they were hired, they got to sit around a lot and listen and wait for an opportunity to actually conduct. They got to hear and observe us and the conductors, they learned a lot of music (because they have to be prepared to step in at a moment's notice).

I think that this waiting is a terrible thing. When they actually got up on the podium, it was my sense that several of them deteriorated. They got nervous. The one with great tempo, for example, managed not to be able to maintain the tempo, after a couple of years of waiting.

This changed when the Symphony established the Youth Orchestra, and the Assistant Conductor was put in charge of it. With the YO he was at least able to get up onto a podium and conduct a real orchestra weekly. At this point, I was able to see the conductors show improvement.

A conductor has to conduct.

More recently, in our orchestra, because the job grew to where one person couldn't really do both jobs (Assistant and Youth Orchestra), they hired two conductors. Unfortunately, I retired before I could assess how this would play out.

So far, though, I haven't said anything about how to hire an assistant conductor.

What we have done is, a search was made somehow (I was not aware how), and several candidates were given the chance to conduct the San Francisco Symphony. (I liked the candidate who said that conducting us was like driving a Ferrarri.)

Then, those in the know and with power (meaning the Music Director and whomever he chose, but certainly not me) would pow-wow and decide whom to hire.

Frankly, I don't know any other way of dealing with this. I hope my colleagues on this Forum have better ideas, since I don't.

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Gaylon Patterson's Statement (Click to Hide)

Gaylon Patterson  

Gaylon Patterson

Violinist, Memphis Symphony Orchestra

I've had the pleasure of playing in the "guinea pig" orchestras for a couple of conducting competitions in recent years. I've been very impressed by the level of artistry in the upper strata of these groups of aspiring conductors, but simultaneously a bit surprised and disappointed by the inexperience and/or mediocrity I've seen in the same competitions. I've wondered for a long time what the musical education system could do better to locate and develop conducting talent.

Most music schools currently offer no undergraduate conducting major at all. Many of the schools that do teach conducting courses at the undergraduate level do it as a part of a music education degree, which has a very different focus from the performance-directed training that most orchestral musicians have. If we don't start training conductors until graduate school, that's not a lot of time to learn a pretty complicated set of skills before a budding conductor is pitched into the marketplace. With the exception of the League's Conducting Fellowship program, there aren't a lot of opportunities for early professional development in the field (at least, as far as I know). So essentially, if you want to be a conductor, you get about two years of master's-level training, and then you have to go look for a job, with little real knowledge of how to do the job, aside from basic baton technique and score-reading.

A conductor with no experience as an instrumental performer has a whole other set of challenges, though. The sheer amount of practice time needed to build the level of virtuosity that's required to win an orchestral audition these days is daunting. If instrumental expertise is as valuable as I think it is, how would an undergraduate have time to effectively pursue conducting skills in addition? I don't know the solution to the problem, but I do believe that most new conductors in the job market don't have enough experience and enough podium time under their belts to be very effective, and an earlier start in the academic progression might help.

My own orchestra recently recast its assistant conductor position as a kind of short-term post-graduate training position (with a close mentoring relationship with the music director), as opposed to a long-term staff conducting position where the full range of job skills is (perhaps unrealistically) expected to be already in place. We're still very much in the experimental phase of this model, but I'm optimistic about the potential of such an employment step to develop already formidable talent with a year or two of practical experience, not just on the podium, but in the bewildering array of off-stage duties that a 21st-century music director faces.

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General Comments on This Discussion (Click to Hide)

Great posts, all.

I have another to add. If you are new, don't diss your predecessor. It could be that the players actually felt favorably toward that person. Let your work and integrity speak for themselves. That's what we players have to do.

And echoes to the comments about good technique. We just finished a week with a previous conductor who is so clear we were able to really make music, without the stress of worrying about tempo changes, going with the flow of changing from subdivisions to large beat patterns, etc. What a joy!
CindyB on October 9, 2019 at 3:18 PM
Wow, this is an interesting discussion!

It seems as though many conductors missed the first day of conducting school- "One is Down."

What I would like from conductors is a simple, clear downbeat in every bar. Do whatever you want the rest of the time, just show me "1".
marktuba on October 12, 2019 at 1:24 PM
One more quality that inspires an orchestra to give its best: TRUST.

A recent young conductor trusted us enough NOT to rehearse an encore with us (there was very little time left in the one rehearsal he was given for an entire program). Result: a fiery performance and gratitude from the orchestra for the confidence he showed in himself, and the trust in our ability to respond to him.
Molly on October 14, 2019 at 8:31 PM
If you are a conductor who has never played a wind instrument, LEARN HOW TO BREATHE with your upbeats; audibly and purposefully. Doesn't have to be vulgarly loud, but giving a token, shallow intake of air or even none at all leaves wind players gasping.
chausse.1 on October 25, 2019 at 5:51 PM

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