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What DOES a Conductor do?

World-renowned Maestro and President of the Conductors Guild Julius P. Williams shares advice for young Conductors and Composers, talks about what a Conductor does, how to prepare for a career as an Orchestra Conductor, and his own career path as a prominent Orchestra Conductor on the global stage.

What does a Conductor do? We’ll take a look at:

  • Job duties of a Conductor
  • A day on the job for a Conductor
  • How young musicians should prepare for a career as a Conductor
  • The challenges and rewards of being an Orchestra Conductor
  • Finding work as a Conductor
  • Crossing over from classical to other musical styles

Julius P. Williams has conducted over a dozen prominent American orchestras, as well as the Connecticut Opera, Oberlin Opera Theater and the Oberlin Opera, the Armor Artist Chamber Orchestra and the Kalistos Chamber Orchestra in Boston. He was Music Director of the Washington Symphony from 1998-2003.

He was also Artistic Director of the Music Festival of Costa del Sol, in Spain, and Artistic Director of the School of Choral Studies and Principal Conductor of the School of Orchestra Studies of New York State Summer School of the Arts at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in New York.

He has also served as Assistant Conductor to the late Maestro Lucas Foss with The Brooklyn Philharmonic and with The American Symphony in New York.

He is currently Music Director and Conductor of Trilogy Opera Company, President of the Conductors Guild, Composer with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Residence Composer Project, and Professor of Composition and Artistic Director of the Berklee Contemporary Symphony at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Additionally, He has served as Cover Conductor for both the Boston Pops Orchestra (BSO) and the Rhode Island Philharmonic.

In Europe, Maestro Williams has performed and recorded with the Prague Radio Symphony, the Moscow Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, the Principal Military Orchestra of the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation, the Dvorak Symphony Orchestra, the Volvodanksa Symphony of Serbia, the Dubrovnik Symphony of Croatia, the Brno State Philharmonic, and the Bohuslav-Martinu Philharmonic Orchestras.

A prolific Composer, Maestro Williams has created innumerable works for virtually every genre of contemporary classical performance, including opera, ballet, orchestra, chamber ensemble, chorus and solo voice, dance, musical theatre, and film.

His music has been performed by countless symphony orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, Detroit, Dallas, and St. Louis Symphonies. His recordings are on the Albany, Centaur, Roven, and Naxos record labels. His profile was featured on the nationally broadcast CBS Sunday Morning.

(The following interview with Julius P. Williams was conducted by Tom Stein. Note: Answers have been edited for clarity and length.)

Job Duties of a Conductor

How did you become a Conductor?

Julius: In high school, I played piano and sang in chorus and in the orchestra. I noticed that the Music Directors were powerful people who always seemed to be in control of everything.

Some of my mentors were Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, an African American Composer and Director who wrote for many TV shows and for orchestras in Europe, and also his Teacher Dean Dixon.

They and others observed me at the piano and noticed my skill and my musical abilities. At the age of 14 or 15, I was invited to observe Mr. Dickson conducting a Symphony of a New World at Lincoln Center. Sitting in the audience, I saw him up there in leather pants, swaying and moving as he controlled the orchestra. I knew at that moment I would devote my life to conducting orchestras.

Later, our all-city high school group performed around New York City at high profile events for many dignitaries, heads of state, and celebrities. I met people like Leonard Bernstein and other well-known Soloists and Directors. My life was consumed by music in this incredible musical atmosphere and living that musical life was really exciting.

Later, I took over the music for a very famous church in New York, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, which raised my profile further. From there I went to the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, where I was a Conductor Fellow for four years and wrote an opera for the festival. At Aspen, I got to meet all the major Conductors and Soloists from major symphonies around the world.

I became the Assistant Conductor for the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony, and the Dallas Symphony in Texas. I had a major breakthrough when I was featured on CBS Sunday Morning in 1988, and people all over America came to know me as the first African-American Conductor to direct major orchestras.

Meanwhile, I managed to earn a Bachelor of Music from the Lehman School at the City University of New York, and a Masters and D.M.A. (Doctor of Musical Arts) from the Hartt Conservatory in Connecticut. Since I was a Composer, too, this led to me receiving commissions to write pieces to premiere for major symphonies all over.

What does a Conductor do?

Julius: Let me say, first of all, that composing and conducting are two very different things, and there are very few people like myself who do both. Every Composer needs to conduct, but that doesn’t make them a Conductor.

Because I’ve studied both conducting and composition, I can compartmentalize the two, and they are two completely different things.

I try not to conduct my own music. I wrote it and I know what it should sound like, but I prefer to have someone else conduct it before I do. Only after I’ve heard a number of different Conductors run my piece will I feel like I want to conduct it myself.

A good Conductor needs to figure out how to interpret the score. They also need to understand the ensemble. Every ensemble has weaknesses and strengths and the Conductor must figure out how to make the music sound good. The Conductor is playing the music using the orchestra as his instrument; he plays the music without making a sound.

A Conductor must keep the tempo, but can also change the tempo; he can speed it up or slow it down in sections, using body movements. The Conductor conveys all this music to the orchestra with just these body movements. Besides tempo and groove (or feel) of the music, the Conductor must also convey the dynamics and articulations to the musicians.

It’s important for a Conductor to know history. For example, Beethoven’s concertos in A were originally performed in G sharp, because the instruments were tempered differently from today’s. There are many details to know about a period of music or a Composer besides just the notes in the score, and these details have bearing on how a piece should be conducted.

Also, a Conductor should be a Psychologist and be able to manage conflict. When you have 100 people on a stage and they all think they are stars, there can be some big egos to deal with. Different kinds of orchestras have different standards and will not react the same way to a Conductor’s methods.

For example, I can’t approach a community orchestra the same way I can approach a professional ensemble like the Boston Orchestra; it just wouldn’t work. So a Conductor needs to be good at sizing up the ensemble quickly because most ensembles only give you 7-8 minutes before they make up their minds whether they will give you their best or not.

You have only 7-8 minutes to impress them. Some players will test you to see if you know the music really well. If they sense any weakness they will take over the music and stop responding to you. They might even change the parts just to see if they can get it past you.

It also makes a difference if it’s an opening night or a matinee, so as Conductor you have to take a lot of things into consideration as you figure out how to make the group sound good.

A Day on the Job for a Conductor

Could you describe a typical working day?

Julius: I wake up and the first thing I do is think about the day ahead and what scores I will need. I make sure to gather all my scores together and figure out what I will be conducting. I might also need to get music to some people so I figure out how to best do that.

Usually, I have business matters to tend to for future engagements, phone calls, emails, logistics, and I have students to teach, too.

Usually, I’m back home by midnight and I need to study my scores for upcoming pieces for an hour or so. Then I will sit down to compose music. I’m up until about 3:30 am writing. I don’t get a lot of sleep. I don’t use an instrument to compose, but I might sit at the piano to check something I’ve written.

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How Young Musicians Should Prepare for a Career as a Conductor

What should a young person do to prepare for a career as a Conductor? Can you talk about the techniques or technical skills required?

Julius: “First of all, you must play an instrument at a high level, and you should also learn to play the piano. Know all your music theory and harmony cold, and build up your ‘ear’ with sight-singing exercises. For conducting technique, learn how to use your body – making sound with your hands and eyes. What you give is what the musicians play.

Do all you can to cultivate your personal energy and power, so that players will want to play for you. It’s important to have a persona, a personality, I guess you could call it talent or charisma. You have to give the musicians something to follow, and you do that all with your hand and body movements and facial expressions.

What schools would you recommend (besides Berklee) and what should students consider when looking for a program of study?

Julius: There’s Juilliard, Eastman, New England Conservatory, and Oberlin. I conducted at Oberlin last year. There are also many state schools, like the University of Michigan and the University of Texas.

I would recommend looking into some camps and festivals, too, for summer programs and workshops: Tanglewood, Aspen, Interlochen Center for the Arts. Also, the Conductors Guild offers workshops all over the country. There are also many programs in Europe.

Wherever you choose to go, what’s really important is that you get some videos of yourself conducting real orchestras and repertoire, because future employers will want to see that. You might even need a video to get into some schools for conducting.

Depending on the program, the focus can be different, for example, Baroque, Romantic, even New Music. You should absorb all these different styles and plan on learning to conduct at least one hundred pieces. That could take you a few years.

Finding Work as a Conductor

How does a Conductor find work when starting out?

Julius: Look to conduct small ensembles, make friends with other Conductors, and offer to guest conduct or become an Assistant Conductor. Study with a good Teacher who will let you be their Assistant and make sure to get good videos of yourself conducting. You need good video to apply for any jobs out there.

The Challenges and Rewards of Being an Orchestra Conductor

What are some positives and negatives of the job?

Julius: The positives are you get to make good music and direct wonderful concerts. Conductors are afforded a lot of power, control, and prestige. They also get paid the most compared to the other musicians, except maybe some Soloists.

The biggest negative is that you will get blamed for everything that goes wrong. Often you will get blamed for things that you have no control over, for example, if the recording comes out bad. Since you are in charge, there is accountability for everything that could possibly go wrong. Even if you had nothing to do with it, it will be perceived as being your fault when things don’t go so well.

What are the biggest problems Conductors face today?

Julius:Conductors can face difficulties from the way orchestras are organized and managed. Sometimes there are different views from Orchestra Managers and executives and it can be hard to know who is really in charge, and what they want.

There’s an Executive Director, a Music Director, a board, and the relationships with management can get complicated and difficult.

Fundraising can also be a problem. There’s always pressure to raise money from various sources and the Conductor is the face of the organization. There can be a lot of interviews for publicity, and the pressure is on the Conductor to sell the program to the public.

Keith Lockhart, the Conductor of the Boston Pops, told me once that he feels like a ‘stepchild in his own house. He has to spend a lot of time meeting donors, board members, auditioning players, taking care of administrative duties, serving on committees, dealing with personnel and management issues.

We all have to do that and it can be very challenging and there are a lot of stresses.

Are there special challenges for people of color, women, and other underrepresented constituencies?

Julius: I recently was appointed President of the Conductors Guild. I am the first African-American President and it reminds me of when I first came on the scene I faced a lot of racist attitudes, which was not easy. Most orchestras (and audiences) were 100% white and I got some pushback.

People doubted I had what it takes to do this job, and it was on me to prove them wrong and show them I was up to the task. It wasn’t quite so bad in Europe, they seemed to assume that if I was there I knew my stuff. But I still had a lot of challenges.

Even when I came to Berklee there were no African-American faculty members in the composition and conducting area. I was the first. Of course, there were African-American faculty members in the Performance and Ensemble departments, but it almost seemed like other faculty and administrators assumed somehow I knew less.

Of course, there is racism, sexism, even ageism in the music industry and in education still, but things are getting better here. We are also now seeing many younger female Conductors who are really great.

Crossing Over from Classical to other Musical Styles

Your own conducting and composing career crosses over many styles from classical, jazz, and pop, to other contemporary styles. Does this help or hurt your professional career opportunities?

Julius: In the beginning it hurt my opportunities. I was told I couldn’t do jazz, pop, gospel, or choral because I’d be seen as a jack-of-all-trades who couldn’t be a serious orchestra Conductor. The orchestra and recording contracts I was signed to stipulated that I could only do classical concerts.

To me, it was all just work and I needed to earn money to survive, so when I needed money I would change my name. It’s not an issue, now that I’ve established myself as a capable Orchestra Conductor.

Robert Shaw was a Choral Conductor who became the Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony. Andre Previn could do it all: play piano, write and conduct movie scores, arrange songs, and conduct symphonies. Things are better for me now, but it wasn’t always like this. But there aren’t many people who can really do it all.

If there were one thing you could tell your students and only one thing, what would it be?

Julius: You have to be determined that you’re going to do this. You have to love that you are going to do this. Don’t you give up, no matter what anyone tells you. Keep the dream and cherish it.

The Conductors Guild

The Conductors Guild is a membership and service organization for symphony, band, wind ensemble, ballet, chorus, and opera Conductors.

It has been a not for profit organization for nearly 40 years and provides resources, academic journal publications, mentoring and consulting, and most importantly, hosts Conductor training workshops, and Conductor symposia throughout the years.

The Conductors Guild is founded on the principles that music is a higher art — one we maintain and continue to grow — through training and discussion of the masterworks, and introduction of new works by some of the world’s leading new Composers. The Conductors Guild offers Conductors the ability to connect and be connected, network with leaders in the conducting field, and learn from experts.

The Guild is open to any Conductor; band, orchestra, choral, student Conductors, institutions, libraries, or individuals interested in supporting the art and profession of conducting.

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