An Experience To Be Missed?

by Edna Landau

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

The following question comes from an individual whom I had the joy and privilege of representing in the early days of his career. My first exposure to his conducting was with the Haddonfield (New Jersey) Symphony. While I could predict even then that he would go on to great things, the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic and the directorship of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School were still far-away dreams. I am honored that he has chosen to write to “Ask Edna.”

Dear Edna:

I have enjoyed reading your advice column on

I have a question that I have often been asked by young conductors, and I have a feeling that your insight, experience and thoughtful approach may shed very useful light for many people early in their conducting careers.

Experience in front of orchestras is obviously crucially important for any conductor —is there a level of orchestra below which one should not go just in order to get experience? That is to say, to put it bluntly, when does the experience of conducting a not very accomplished orchestra become worse than not having a chance to conduct at all?  —Alan Gilbert

Dear Alan:

Thanks so much for writing in to my blog. I’m glad you have enjoyed reading it.

I have thought a great deal about your question and I don’t think there is one all-encompassing answer. It depends on the conductor and the stage in his or her career that we are considering.
Conductors obviously differ in one major way from other performing artists: they cannot practice and perfect their craft without a group of musicians in front of them. For some, this process begins at school. The quality of school orchestras can be quite high, sometimes affording the conductor a chance to try things out at a level that may be more advanced than what they would encounter in the field. At the same time, a school environment is somewhat compromised, since fellow students have a predisposition to go the extra mile and to give their very best for one of their own. Some aspiring conductors start their careers without even the benefit of a school orchestra with whom to work. Obviously, for those conductors, working with almost any orchestra is better than not working at all.

There are certain basics of conducting that any young conductor must master and part of that process is trial and error. A certain amount of experience with lower-level orchestras at the start of a career would seem beneficial, if only to gauge the efficacy of certain gestures and to try out different rehearsal techniques. Of course, there can come a point in a rehearsal when a player is consistently late with an entrance and it may be unclear to the conductor whether this is the player’s fault or his own. Even if the conductor is sure it isn’t his or her fault, succeeding in getting the desired outcome will serve him well in future orchestral encounters. Accepting these engagements is also very important because any young conductor has a formidable amount of repertoire to learn and trying it out in less exposed situations is virtually a “must.”

In my experience, it is a relatively small number of conductors who move quickly up the ladder by virtue of word of mouth or who begin their careers working with a fairly high level orchestra. Some might create their own orchestra and gain experience that way. Many others will only attract attention after having demonstrated that they have had significant conducting experience. Their resume will be their primary sales tool and it will need to show some heft. There are conductors who might be able to demonstrate that they have had experience in conducting educational and outreach concerts which could weigh in their favor as they apply for higher positions. I believe that the best approach during the early years is never to lose sight of the higher rungs of the ladder and to do everything possible to reach them, but also, to plant one’s feet firmly on the lower steps, taking in every opportunity to learn along the way.

As conductors advance in their career, the type of experience they need to gain changes. A higher level orchestra will afford them a greater opportunity to explore interpretive nuances and a broader range of color. They will use their rehearsal time differently and make adjustments in how they address the players. If they don’t get the results they are seeking, it may become clearer that they need to re-examine their own technique. During this particular growth period, it would probably be beneficial to limit the number of lower level orchestra engagements, perhaps making exceptions for orchestras who gave them a chance early in their career or who are interested in special projects that are meaningful to the conductor but not yet an option with a more prominent ensemble.

I discussed your question with conductor Jeffrey Kahane, who focused on the human side of it. He said that “working with an amateur orchestra reminds us that amateur music-making is important to our artistic culture.” I believe this takes on heightened significance in a time when we are struggling to build audiences for classical music. He also said that working with a community orchestra, for example, “might not significantly help your career or technique but it will reinforce who you are as a musician and your purpose as a musician.” Anyone who has attended concerts by such orchestras has witnessed the tremendous dedication of the players and their love for music-making, which may not be their primary occupation. Audiences are unfailingly inspired by this and conductors would do well to carry a little of it along with them, wherever their career path may lead.

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011

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