Like any worthwhile pursuit, if you aspire to become a conductor there are certain steps that must be taken to achieve that goal. Many music students dream of leading a group of highly trained musicians using their own unique interpretations, but realizing that aim requires discipline. Since there are a number of marketable skills required for becoming a professional conductor, you need to plan wisely. These career path steps can help you outline what you need to learn, and how to arrange it.
Learn to play an instrument very well.
To be able to inspire the best performances from a group of musicians, you need the ability to communicate with players on their own level and understand their language. In a 2013 interview with the BBC, Esa-Pekka Salonen, the principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, explained that if you don’t know what it means to play an instrument well, “you will not be in a moral, mental or ethical position to demand the same thing from an orchestra.” Regardless of the instrument you choose, you must become extremely proficient on it.
To become a conductor, you must have a love of music and its possibilities. Salonen recommends that, “You have to love the music more than you love yourself in a way.” Being a conductor is about presenting music in a way that you interpret and essentially your orchestra is your instrument. Like musicians who are able to channel their feelings into their playing, an aspiring conductor needs to love music so much that they can effectively communicate their ideas to the group.
Get an education.
Conductors need, at the minimum, a bachelor’s degree in arts (BA), although many professional positions require a master’s (MA). Fortunately, there are a variety of music majors and minors to choose from, including conducting, in a number of universities. Professional salaries range from $15,000 to $274,000 per year, but the level of education and experience you have will dictate your earnings.
In addition, there are other aspects involved in a conducting career. Because you will be working with people, you need to know how to effectively communicate and inspire. Necessary skills include:
- Group Dynamics and Group Psychology—Having the ability to understand the personalities of the various individuals in an ensemble, in order to create positive interaction.
- Leadership Skills—Knowing how to inspire your performers and bring out the best in each one.
- Strong Grasp of Music language—Be familiar, if not conversant, in various languages such as Italian, German, and French, so that you can interpret notations.
Although an education is essential, like most jobs, experience also ranks very high as a marketable feature. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for college internships, you can get experience on your own if you know where to look. Productive ideas include:
- Going to rehearsals. Esa-Pekka Salonen explains that “the best education for someone who wants to become a conductor is to sit in rehearsals.” You’ll see what makes a performance and observe how conductors make it happen.
- Listening to classical music. As much as possible, explore all types of music, but familiarizing yourself with classical pieces (performed by different orchestras) will help you develop your own ideas about how the music should be performed.
- Pretend to conduct an orchestra using CDs or videos, and work in front of a mirror so that you can see what you need to correct or improve.
Obviously, you’ll want to enroll in classes that teach conducting during college, but there are other avenues that you can also explore. The Conductor’s Guild and the League of American Orchestras both offer a number of resources to help guide your path, including mentoring and training information, workshops, and other tools.
Be flexible and open to all sorts of opportunities.
Understand that you probably won’t land your dream job right off the bat. Like most musicians, you’ll need to pay some dues first. However, if you’re flexible about it, you can gain beneficial experience. Be open to all sorts of opportunities. For example, apply for university and youth orchestra work (even if it’s in a support position), Assistant Conductor openings, and even unpaid jobs like arranging for volunteer concerts for your community. These type of jobs provide continuing (crucial) experience so that you’ll be ready when the perfect job comes along.
You can also get your musical friends together and create small ensembles for practice. Informal gatherings offer great practice for everyone, especially those who want to become professional musicians.
Aspiring to become a skilled conductor requires education, diligence, and fortitude. Students who plan to pursue this career can also get a head start on their journey by speaking with their music teacher or guidance counselor about current options, ideas, and the best schools to attend.