A Career in Instrumental Conducting: 7 Key Issues

Are you thinking about a career in instrumental conducting? We talked with several professional conductors to provide this list of 7 key issues you should be thinking about.

by Amy Mertz

1. What to major in as an undergraduate?

This is an important question for pre-college students, because conducting is not offered at the undergraduate level. Raphael Jiménez, associate professor of conducting and director of orchestras at Oberlin College Conservatory, recommends a strong performance background. “You should definitely be a strong performer and get as much performing experience as possible; so an undergraduate degree in performance is recommended. If you have a strong interest in conducting as an undergraduate, you should take courses in orchestration and composition.” Music education was also recommended by several professional conductors, since familiarity with every instrument and time in front of an ensemble is built into most music education programs.

2. What about summer music programs in conducting?

Though there are not many programs for high school students, those students at the college level have myriad options. There are high profile and highly selective festivals like those at Aspen and Tanglewood. They take only a few students a year, and are focused on working with and being mentored by the most prolific conductors in the world. However, there are also more accessible options for students of all ability levels throughout the year. According to Diane Wittry, director of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra and author of “Beyond the Baton,” organizations such as the Conductor’s Guild and the League of American Orchestras, and websites like Musical Chairs post workshops that run throughout the year, often on weekends. All of these programs can be expensive, but she urges students to remember that “This is an investment in yourself and your career.”

3. What are conducting programs looking for in prospective students?

While there is no “magic bullet” answer to this question, Bradley Ethington, professor of music and director of bands at the Syracuse University Setnor School of Music explains, “Graduate conducting programs are looking for solid fundamental conducting skills and emerging advanced physical skills associated with the conductor’s art. A thorough knowledge of music theory and history, score analysis, rehearsal techniques, and the core repertoire in one’s field are prerequisites. Outstanding musicianship and academic excellence are essential.” In short: study hard, practice often, and in your pursuit of the physical technique do not neglect the related disciplines. Dennis Glocke, director of concert bands and conducting at Penn State School of Music says that a “willingness to learn” is also crucial, as are experiences that would help students succeed as teaching assistants.

4. Advice for finding the “right fit” conducting program

Franz Krager is a professor of conducting and director of orchestras at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music. He believes that the right teacher is the “most important single factor” in finding the best graduate conducting program. He suggests traveling to take a lesson with teachers to get a feel for their style. Other conductors also recommend researching the kinds of conducting opportunities for graduate students at different schools, and making sure they are aligned with your future goals.

5. Is it a good idea to go right on to graduate school?

A video recording of both rehearsal and performance followed by a live audition is often part of an instrumental conducting application. Some students are fortunate enough to attend programs and work with professors that allow them to develop such a portfolio at the undergraduate level. Some do not have those opportunities.

Raphael Jiménez says, “The most important thing is to accumulate as much conducting experience as possible. If you need to take a year or two to do so, then you should do it.”

Diane Wittry believes that graduate school timing is very much an individual decision. She explains that many people “don’t know what they don’t know” when they go straight on to their master’s degree from an undergraduate program. Students who take some time to gain experience separate from their college education often return more serious and studious. Yet at the same time, if the next step after their undergraduate degree is not going to help them develop as a musician, going straight on can keep the momentum going and be beneficial.

6. Tips for students interested in a career in instrumental conducting

  • Find as many opportunities as possible to get on the podium. You need to feel comfortable there.
  • If you don’t find the opportunities you want, create them. Build an ensemble and book some performances.
  • Attend as wide a variety of concerts as you can and as often as possible. Watch conductors and performers at every level and learn everything you can about high-level music making.
  • If you do not already play the piano, start taking lessons.
  • Learn the repertoire of your particular field of study (orchestral, wind band, etc.)
  • Be a well-rounded individual. Read books; learn about art; study philosophy, science, and history. Everything you learn provides a better context for your understanding and performance of a work.
  • Do not be discouraged by the level you’re at –– every type of ensemble needs great conductors.
  • Understand that a conducting career is about people as much as it is about the music.
  • Be flexible, versatile, and willing to take on different roles. Conductors often hold multiple jobs concurrently.
  • Be persistent. To succeed, you must want to conduct more than anything else.

7. How to make yourself more hireable as a conductor

Experience and hard work are essential. Diane Wittry emphasizes that you should make whatever job you get the best you can. With an excellent product, people will notice you.

Bradley Ethington encourages students to remember the fundamental rule: Practice! “Conducting is a physical skill, as well as an art that requires practice, study, thought and dedication.”

Raphael Jiménez’s advice is succinct, but incredibly important: “Be good. Be reliable. Be nice.”

“Go where the job is,” says Dennis Glocke, and Franz Krager reminds students that it is not just about the “art” of conducting: a conductor needs to also be a fundraiser, public speaker, and promoter –– and a visible, likable presence.


Amy Mertz is assistant director for marketing and communications for military and veteran enrollment at Syracuse University. Previously, she worked in admissions and community programs at the Syracuse University Setnor School of Music. She guided both undergraduate and graduate applicants through the admissions process, and also directed the Setnor Community Music Division.

Photo Credit: Syracuse University Setnor School of Music

Comments

    • There are several career directions you can go in as a conductor, and the necessary training and experience needed relates to the area of conducting you’re interested in pursuing. In general, to our knowledge, there is no single path to a career in conducting. You’ll see conductors with teaching degree backgrounds (helpful for understanding instruments other than one’s own plus pedagogical training) in addition to advanced performance degrees where they gain more technical proficiency plus more experience performing collaboratively in ensembles and orchestras. An advanced degree in conducting offers opportunities for mentoring from an experienced conductor with pedagogical training, language skills and (hopefully) communication and group dynamic skills training. And opportunities along the way to put all of this training into practice are essential.

  1. William Savola

    Conduct the music – State of mind, body posture and body language, must be relevant to the music score. Meaningful visual communication earns the respect of musicians and audience. Avoid lecturing. “Conduct the music.” Let mind, mood, eyes and breath, indicate tempo and control attacks and releases. Adjust balance and keep the melody to the fore. The conductor who conducts “the music” influences by empathy the very breathing of a chorus and the orchestra’s winds section. Experienced string players will adjust bowing and percussionists will select appropriate mallets to reflect a well defined mood and spirit. Attentive musicians follow by empathy. Audience will equate meaningful gesture to an unique performance and a memorable event. William Savola ref: YouTube.com/user/williamsavola

  2. Thanks for this important information. I agree strongly with Franz Krager. I add – learn several languages and explore the analysis of gesture begun by Hideo Saito.

  3. Mike

    Great piece! A great conductor must ‘play’ the music with the orchestra as one voice. For up and comers it is important to practice constantly, and I recommend in front of a mirror in order to develop and perfect your technique. Also, watch and emulate the Masters at every opportunity. There is no substitute for having command of the score. My best to all who pursue this path!

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