Copyright © Markand Thakar, 1998
Commentary for National Public Radio, Performance Today
First Aired, September 17, 1998

So You Want to Be a Conductor?

Unemployed? Looking for a career? And you're thinking about orchestral conducting? [MUSIC] Hey -- why not? It's a great life --you'll be the center of attention, you'll command respect, you'll have control--well, at least the illusion of control -- and then there's the instant sex appeal. No practicing required, and you'll earn a very nice salary with minimal expenses (a string instrument can cost in the millions, a piano tens of thousands, but you can pick up a really nice baton for -- oh -- about 4.95). Oh yeah, and not only that, but of all the professions you could choose, conducting has longest life expectancy! Can't beat it.

Of course there aren't too many of these jobs, and an awful lot of people have the same idea. So you're going to need all the help you can get. It would be nice if you were rich -- you could finance your career like Sir Thomas Beecham and Serge Koussevitsky. Good looks are valuable (see Bernstein, Leonard and Muti, Riccardo).

But even if your powerball ticket just came in and you find modelling for all those GQ covers incredibly tiresome, well you're still going to have to do something positive up there on the podium. So you might decide to get some training.

Let's assume that you have some basic skills -- you can move your arms up and down, you can negotiate your way through an orchestral score, and you have some familiarity with the repertoire and instruments. You're ready to study conducting. Now what? Well, you might start out by attending one of the numerous seminars offered around the world. For anywhere from 3 days to two weeks you'll spend around 20 minutes a day conducting an orchestra under supervision of a master teacher. This will cost you from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.

Or, you could try a summer program, like in Aspen or Tanglewood. You'll spend the summer in classes discussing repertoire and conducting issues. You'll conduct some, occasionally an orchestra but often two pianos. This is fun...
[OPENING OF BEETHOVEN 5 PLAYED ON A PIANO (12-15 seconds)] For this you will pay several thousand dollars in tuition and living expenses.

If you are really committed (and perhaps you should be), you can attend a school. All the major US conservatories offer graduate study in orchestral conducting. You'll probably have to start at the graduate level -- very few schools offer an undergraduate conducting major; subscribing to the theory that you ought to learn at least a little bit before you try to tell other people what to do.

To get into a graduate program you'll conduct an orchestra at your audition, and you'll probably undergo tests in music theory...
[Voice 1: spell a Neapolitan Sixth Chord in D-flat major]

music history...
[Voice 1: who composed this and when?]

and ear training...
[Voice 1: identify this chord (CHORD PLAYED ON PIANO) write down this four-part progression (PROGRESSION PLAYED ON PIANO) sing this melody back to me (MELODY PLAYED ON PIANO)]

as well as a conducting audition. Once enrolled you'll probably get weekly private lessons and 20 minutes or so every week to conduct a student orchestra.

Graduate degree in hand, you're ready to make that cushy living. Or are you? After all there is a long list of requisites -- personality, for example. You need to be a leader-type. You need to make tough decisions, and take responsibility for them. You need to have the utmost confidence to face 80 to 100 musicians who dislike you just in principle, and often would like to see you dead or worse.
[Voice 2: You think we could see a beat there?]
[Voice 3: What's the tempo going to be -- this one, or the one you started with?]

You need the charm to engage the interest of the community, and then the patience to withstand the throngs who know more about your job than you, and are happy to share their knowledge.
[Voice 4: Maestro, don't you think we've had enough Brahms this season?]

You need to be humorous from the stage, attractive on TV, and articulate on the radio. Oh, and dressing well is a must. Unfortunately, we can't train you for any of these.

On the podium, your job is even harder. You need superb ears, able to assimilate and identify complex and diverse sounds. We can't train you for that either. Useful also is conducting technique -- the ability to synchronize physical gestures with a complex array of sounds in a musically meaningful way. This we will talk to you about at great length. But the most important asset you can have -- possibly the only asset of real importance -- is a consummate understanding of how tones come into being to yield the sublime, transcendent, magical state of musical beauty. We can tell you that this exists, we can show you where to look for it in yourself, but once again, you're on your own, kid.

Of all the skills and traits that will prove valuable, the one that we can train you in -- physical gestures -- is the least necessary (ever wonder why so many great conductors seemed physically awkward -- it's because they were!)

So, best of luck to you. Oh, and write if you get work.


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