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6 Things You Should Know About... Conducting

Conductors. The slightly crazy looking folk who stand at the front of an orchestra and wave a baton around in flamboyant fashion, somehow keeping 50+ musicians on the same page whilst they work furiously to provide the perfect soundtrack to their dance; a visual illustration of the music we are hearing. That's how it may look to the outside world, but is there more to conducting than just being the 'man in the middle with the white stick'? And how on earth do those musicians know what they mean?

1. Conductors don't have to be older*, male or, indeed, crazy**

(* no offence intended to our conducting community out there)

(** though it might help)

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, courtesy of

A look at BBC Music's 'Top 20 Conductors of All Time' list incites an outdated stereotype: all those listed are men, aged in their photographs and typically with arms thrust dramatically in the air. Ask many young musicians to paint a picture of who they see as a conductor, and they are likely to illustrate in a similar way (though rest assured, we haven't collected extensive market research on this).

However, the shortlist for this week's Halle International Conductors Competition (Manchester, 12-14 March) proves this theory very wrong: all shortlisted finalists are under 40, and almost half of them are female. Domingo Hindoyan, the current conductor-in-chief of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, has just turned 43; his predecessor - Vasily Petrenko - took up the post aged just 30, and at the tender age of 46 is now the MD of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. And just to prove it's not all about the men, some of the leading orchestras in the world are conducted by women: Marin Alsop (RSNO, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra), Alice Farnham (Welsh National Opera, English National Ballet), and Susanna Malkki (Helsinki Philharmonic) are just a few shining examples.

2. Conducting is not just about 'keeping the beat'

Jan Modelski, courtesy of Carlo Cerutti

The broad expectation of a conductor is to keep the ensemble together, playing in time with one another; surely then, all the aforementioned arm flinging/dancing around is entirely unnecessary? Wrong. Although it is helpful for musicians to have a focal point to remind them of where the downbeat is, or indeed a referee in cases of sectional tempo disputes, the job of a conductor is also to communicate the vision for the piece of music: the shape of it, the emotions it should invoke - in a nutshell, the story it should tell. It's important for a conductor to 'feel' the music, and they express this response to their musicians in the form of their movements and facial expressions.

3. It's quite a workout

Andris Nelsons, courtesy of

Especially if you're conducting Mahler's 3rd Symphony (which typically lasts over 90 minutes!). The amount of physical exertion required to communicate the energy and emotion of such pieces - especially those of a speedier nature - and the stamina required to keep this up for however long the piece lasts mean that conductors must be pretty fit, right? We'll let you be the judge of that. It's also the reason why you'll see most of them mopping their brows in a quieter moment - a combination of the movement, formal wear (for male conductors, sometimes including a jacket) and stage lighting make for an environment akin to a hot yoga studio. Some conductors even come prepared with their very own towel!

4. You don't have to know how to play every instrument in the ensemble

Leonard Bernstein, courtesy of

Nor do you have to be an exceptional instrumentalist or vocalist. Conductors just need to have a good understanding of what makes each of the instruments you are conducting 'tick'. This might include bowing techniques for strings, articulation for woodwind and brass, or grooves for drum kits. It could mean the difference between your ensembles sounding like a well oiled machine, or one that's lost its (wheel) bearings.

5. Conductors are not just for orchestras

Jean-Sebastian Vallee, courtesy of

There are a whole bunch of other ensembles who need a musical arbitrator, too: wind ensembles, brass bands and choirs, to name just a few. Musical directors are needed for pit orchestras at the theatre, and bandleaders typically organise big bands and jazz ensembles.

6. You don't have to study at a fancy music conservatoire

Tom Meara, current Modelski Music conducting trainee, courtesy of Carlo Cerutti

Although many world famous musical leaders have studied at well known conservatoires, qualifications won't necessarily open doors by themselves in the world of conducting. Particularly on the continent, many of the greatest conductors historically learned their trade from the ground up - by working in opera houses and theatres, assisting the musical directors and grabbing at opportunities to rehearse even the smallest of groups; with the correct personality, good musical understanding and desire to learn, potential conductors can create a name for themselves by doing exactly the same in today's world.

Community music is a great place to start - and make a name for yourself. Here at Modelski Music, we offer prospective conductors the opportunity to develop their conducting skills not only through theoretical learning, but also physical practise with live orchestras and small ensembles. Our trainees have ranged in age from school students to adult; some have gone on to study further or start their own ensembles. Each and every one of them has at least gained a deeper understanding of music as a whole, from a vastly different perspective to that as a player. Find out more about our training here, or to enquire about a training position send us a message.

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