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How to Get Along with a Challenging Music Director

If you’re pursuing a life as a string musician, you’ll inevitably find yourself in an orchestra or music group with a challenging music director. As a consolation, we can report that some of the world’s greatest conductors of all time were considered irritable and difficult to work with.

This list includes Sir Thomas Beecham (London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic orchestras and the Liverpool Philharmonic and Hallé orchestras), Gustav Mahler (Royal Municipal Theatre in Olmütz, Czech National Theater, the Vienna Court Opera, and many others), and the more recently deceased British Conductor, Frank Shipway, all of whom were considered a challenge.

Utilize Tips for Working Under a Challenging Boss

If you’re in the position of playing under a challenging music director, the following tips for dealing with a demanding boss are equally applicable to your scenario.

Weigh the greatness against the challenge(s)

While there are exceptions, most challenging or difficult music directors, teachers, and conductors, are also considered “one of the greats.” If this is the case, keep that in mind. Yes, their scorn, disdain, and patronizing behavior may seem intolerable at times, and it may cause you to consider throwing in your bow.  However, if their talent and know-how are such that working with them enhances your musicianship, if they push you beyond what you thought possible, or their reputation is a notable addition to your resume – it’s probably worth making the relationship work.

That being said, if you feel your music director’s behavior is physically or verbally abusive, or that it is along the bullying or harassment spectrum, you should report your experience to his/her manager or employer.

Identify your director’s motivation or story

Is there any indication as to why s/he is so challenging? The more you learn about someone the more compassion you can cultivate.

On the one hand, the individual may just be grumpy or impatient by nature. On the other, a little investigation on your part could reveal an underlying cause such as a recent divorce or unhappy marriage, medical or health issues, an aging parent, etc. If something like that is the case, you may reach a better, internal understanding – and their moodiness or reactionary nature may be more temporary than permanent.

Try courageous communication

Courageous communication is not easy, but it can have surprisingly beneficial results. Following the tenets of muse.com’s post on how to have tricky conversations with a boss, make sure:

  • You are prepared. This isn’t a heat-of-the-moment conversation. Rather, it’s an opportunity to think long and hard, perhaps making a list for yourself of the points you want to make. Schedule an appointment so the conversation is official and so you have enough time to maturely explain your feelings and observations. Enlist the help of family and friends to practice “saying your peace,” and to run through various scenarios of how the conversation may go.
  • The conversation begins with positives. Begin the conversation with how much you love your instrument, how honored you are to be in the class/group/etc., and how important it is to become the best musician you can be. These are all things s/he can relate to, and it sets a more positive stage for your communication.
  • Have evidence. If you’re going to bring up your challenge getting along with the director, teacher, or conductor, have concrete examples to support your case. Otherwise, you may get nervous on the spot and be unable to recall specific memories – which undermines your case.
  • Keep your cool. Do whatever breathing and calming rituals you need to before, and throughout the conversation, so you never lose your cool. Responding in anger or in a reactionary way won’t help your case. If you get too emotional or heated to continue, stop, and explain that you’ll need to reschedule for another time because you want the conversation to be productive.

Don’t expect to have a Hollywood moment. While there is a chance your conversation will be entirely fruitful and result in notable changes, there’s also a chance your commendable efforts won’t change a thing. In that case, take solace in the fact that you tried, and that you honestly shared how you felt.

Respect the rules of the group, but maintain your boundaries

As part of an orchestra or group, you must respect the rules. You don’t get to stop practicing or refuse to comply with reasonable expectations just because you aren’t fond of the director. However, you must maintain healthy boundaries, letting the individual know when they have spoken or acted in a way that is disrespectful to you as a human being and student.

The more you learn to look past the director’s challenges, honor the positives, and maintain healthy communication and boundaries, the more likely you are to eventually get along (or at least tolerate) even the most challenging of music directors.

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