How To Become a Conductor
What Exactly Does a Conductor Do?
A Conductor leads an orchestra, opera, or other musical ensemble through visible gestures, setting the tempo and shaping the group’s interpretations and sound. Conductors often also serve as Music Directors for the ensemble, although sometimes these are separate positions. (In the capacity of Music Director, he or she will select the music for performance.) The Conductor then studies the musical score to determine how it should best be interpreted.
“If it’s a concert week, I’ll spend my morning in rehearsals, my afternoons planning meetings, planning educational programs and talking to donors,” says Joseph Young, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Assistant Conductor and Youth Orchestra Music Director. “It’s like an independent study,” he says of his day-to-day duties. Conductors “spend most of our time studying scores, getting to know the music and falling in love with the music before rehearsals.”
There are several different types of Conductors, including Conductors of pops groups, youth orchestras, university ensembles and symphonies, Guest Conductors, Conductors-In-Residence, etc. Assistant Conductors work closely with the Music Director. Conductors also partner with the Executive Director to plan and work with the orchestra, and the Artistic Administrator to “help plan the season and what’s happening onstage.” Conductors also work with the Musicians, Stage Manager and Stage Hands, who help design the stage for what the orchestra needs.
The path to advancement as a Conductor will vary according to the ensemble with which he or she is employed. Different ensembles use different titles and have different hierarchies. In general, the path to advancement would be from Assistant Conductor to Associate Conductor. From there on, he or she could step into the more prestigious role of Conductor, Music Director or Artistic Director, although some organizations do not use all of these titles/positions. The Executive Director is the overall head of the organization; this person could have a background as a Conductor or they could have a background in artistic administration.
Additionally, Conductors can advance through employment with well-known orchestras. Some Conductors are freelance, so getting a salaried position with a regional orchestra could be a step up towards eventually getting a gig with a more famous group.
Education & Training
“There’s no one set path for Orchestra Conductors,” says Young. “Somebody who’s a Pianist can decide they want to be a Conductor and be successful.” Young himself started his career by teaching high school music for three years after earning a degree in music education. After getting some practical experience, the next step was to start taking conducting workshops “where Conductors can work with master Conductors and full orchestras and get career advice.”
A bachelor’s degree (BA) is essential, although a master’s (MA) is usually preferred. Young says his degree in music education “gave me a little bit more knowledge of how the other instruments work and it gave me an opportunity to work with kids, because a lot of the stuff I did early in my career was with kids.” Apart from a music education degree, he also recommends performance degrees and the experience they can offer. “You have to play one instrument very well,” to be a Conductor, because if you’re talking to some of the world’s most talented musicians, you have to be sure you can explain what you need and know what you’re talking about. “Go to orchestra rehearsals,” he recommends.
He advises aspiring Conductors to enroll in a “grad school program where you’re studying with a teacher to learn your craft” and to learn languages to have “a working knowledge of a language” used in music, such as German, Italian, etc. “I was an Assistant Conductor on an opera in Czech so I had to figure out how those words work,” he says. Language skills help the Conductor understand the spirit of the piece, and what’s required of the Musicians.
What skills do you need to be a Conductor?
A Conductor “has to be someone who is able to manage their time very well. It’s not a 9 to 5 schedule,” Young says. He or she has to be able to “play an instrument well before stepping on the podium to give advice to advanced players.”
An aspiring Conductor also has to “understand group dynamics and group psychology” because “you’re working with a lot of different types of people with different personalities.” As such, conducting workshop experience is one of the most important experiences to an aspiring Conductor.
“Our instrument is the orchestra,” he says, so like any musician, a Conductor needs performance experience. The best way for an aspiring Conductor to get experience is to just start conducting friends or small ensembles. “During my undergrad, I got a lot of friends together and offered them pizza and I taped myself, which got me into a conducting workshop.” Young says, “getting in front of people is very important” to build conducting skills.
“First of all,” says Young, a Conductor needs to “love the music and is passionate about the music.” He adds that he or she must “not be afraid to be extroverted” because a Conductor has to “go outside of their comfort zone a lot.”
A Conductor’s work schedule is “all day,” says Young. Even when he’s not on stage with the orchestra and has gone home for the day, he’s “looking at a score in my office or apartment. I’m still working. I have to get things done.”
When at the concert hall, Conductors work with Musicians, Stage Hands, the Stage Manager, the Music Director, Artistic Director and Executive Director of the ensemble to refine the performance. “You are looked at as the professional face,” he says. “It’s a very public job where you are in the public [eye] a lot. It can be a very social, community-related job where you are a community figure and looked up to. The other side is the introspective, lonely part of the job where you’re alone with the music.”
“Take it slow. Everyone wants to find the good job or career very fast, but it’s a process. Some people give up very soon if they find it’s not going the way they want it to. People need to know there’s no one way towards being a Conductor” and that there are different types of Conductor positions, Young says. “Be open to all kinds of Conductor” jobs, including pops, university, youth orchestras, symphonies, and Assistant Conductor jobs. Take workshops, find a mentor, and start applying for open positions.
How Much Does a Conductor make?
“Pay varies with the person. With having the title, there’s more security,” Young says, meaning that, as an Assistant Conductor of an orchestra, he is salaried but if he works overseas or with other groups, it’s project-to-project payments as a freelancer. For part-time freelance Conductors, the average yearly income is considerably lower than the income of a star Conductor at a top orchestra, which can top 1.5 million yearly. “With being freelance, it matters if you have a Manager or not” when it comes to negotiating salary.
Unions, Groups & Associations
- “For very young people in high school, pretend. Put a CD on, pour your heart out and pretend” you’re conducting.
- “Videotape yourself so you can see how you’re conducting and how you can fix it.”
- “Go to as many rehearsals as you can.”
- “Ask people for advice.”
- “Listen to as much orchestral music as you can, so you are falling in love with the music.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Pick up a score” and listen to the piece while following the score. “That’s the language we have to start learning.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“That they are all about the image of the Conductor, instead of the music. A Conductor historically has been looked at as a star and they get infatuated with that instead of falling in love with the music.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Joseph Young is the Music Director of the Berkeley Symphony. He has previously served as the Assistant Conductor and Youth Orchestra Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He has also worked with the Phoenix Symphony, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Tucson Symphony, Charleston Symphony Orchestra, Buffalo Philharmonic, Delaware Symphony Orchestra and Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto Casa da Música. Considered one of America’s most promising young conductors, Young was featured in the League of American Orchestras’ prestigious Bruno Walter National Conductor Preview, was the first recipient of the Sir Georg Solti Foundation Career Grant for young conductors and the first recipient of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra-Peabody Conducting Fellowship, and was one of five recipients of the League of American Orchestras’ highly regarded American Conducting Fellowship.