In the movie Steve Jobs, the character of Jobs (Michael Fassbender) compares his role at Apple to that of a conductor. “Musicians play their instruments”, he says, “I play the orchestra”. Now whilst this idea of ‘playing an orchestra’ is what makes conducting so exhilarating, it also presents the greatest dif culty i.e. practising. Whereas violinists can take their instrument and music into a practice room and rehearse from dawn til dusk (most) budding conductors don’t have an orchestra at their disposal. Sure, experience can be garnered working with amateur orchestras but, unless the orchestra is very generous, the young conductor is not going to have the opportunity to try something a few different ways until they get it right. It would be like a trainee surgeon saying to their patient, I hope you don’t mind but I thought I’d try a few different sutures, you know, so I know what’s best for next time…
Enter the role of the conducting workshop. Varying in length from anything from a day to three weeks, these workshops are the young conductor’s training ground. And, having taken part in a few over the past year, I can also say that they serve another purpose. They are the opportunity for the musicians without a section to mix with their comrades. Especially for those of us in the very early stages of our training, it is a relief to swap stories, to realise that we’ve all gone through the same experiences, made the same mistakes. But besides the support network it’s also incredibly jovial – the permitted place to let run our youthful enthusiasm, to discuss concerts and our favoured conductors, score preparation and how many times we’ve been caught singing parts aloud on public transport.
Australia being just so far away from the happenings in the Northern Hemisphere, I was lucky enough to build two workshops into my overseas vacation. The rst was as an observer at the conducting masterclass at the RNCM in Manchester. Whilst there is nothing to beat ‘podium time’ (the time you actually wave your arms in front of an orchestra) attending as an observer certainly takes the pressure off. Suddenly you can absorb all that the tutor is saying without the impeding fear of your turn being around the corner. Every tutor has a different approach. Some wish students to try a speci c technique or to consider the music in a different way. Others are able to mould the individual style of the students in front of them. For me it was a great privilege to meet Australian conductor (and previous fellow at the RNCM) Matthew Wood. With his astute observation he was able to pick up on the speci c nuances of each conductor. And then with a physique almost designed for conductor tuition, he used his long arms to move the conductor’s, almost like a puppet, in the way he thought more effective, allowing them, and us, to witness the change. It is when you can hear the difference, when you realise that even the shape of the hands can convey a different message, that you are assured that a conductor is not just a metronome.
‘Playing’ the ballet
At the second workshop, I was fortunate enough to be a participant. I wish to be a ballet conductor and so learning of a ballet- conducting workshop at the Royal Opera House in London I literally changed my ticket to ensure I could be in town. And it was worth every penny. Our tutor was the very experienced Andrea Quinn who spoke with such infectious passion that even the more mundane aspects of ballet conducting seemed extremely exciting. It is its own unique language and skills set and so we had a lot to learn before we could try our hand at it. To know the music inside out is just the baseline. A ballet conductor then needs to know how this ts with the choreography, for example when to leave time for a dancer to land and when to keep the tempo steady to allow the movement to flow.
On the 1st day we had a chance to iron out any technical aws with the ballet pianist (and even the most experienced amongst us realised it was a steep learning curve) and on the second day the dancers arrived. It’s privilege enough to have a private viewing of two professional dancers performing pas de deux. It takes it to a whole new level when you have 10 minutes to conduct them! Nerves disappear when you have so much to focus on and it’s only when you sit back down that you realise, today, I played the ballet.