Beyond the Baton Conducting Workshop
 

 

Book Review: by Sasha Mäkilä, October 2007


Beyond the Baton (What Every Conductor Needs to Know)
by Diane Wittry

I promised to review this new and interesting book a long time ago, but only now I could find time to flip through it again. It is written by my American colleague Diane Witty, and it really made me understand better the way the American orchestras work. It has also a lot of commonsensical tips that are valid wherever you happen to be working, and that's why I think every school with a conducting program should have it in their shelf.

I will go through the work chapter by chapter, summarizing the things that I found important or interesting. This time I will touch the three first chapters, which are:

1 - Preparing for Success
2 - Path to the Podium
3 - Your First Job

Chapter 1
- Preparing for Success

Formal Musical Training
Most of us conductors go through some kind of training, including study of an instrument, then later on majoring in conducting and participating in master classes. Wittry emphasizes the importance of your main teacher, because his reputation can basically make you or break you. Some are lucky to have teachers who get them a manager or keep their side in a competition jury, or in extreme cases even use their influence to help you land a chief conductor job. For the rest of us it is important to have good teaching and regular access to a real orchestra.

Wittry recommends a lot of books about subjects all conductors should be aware of, like composition, orchestration, music history and languages. I agree everywhere else except when it comes to her book recommendations about conducting technique. Unfortunately some of the more interesting books are in Russian and still awaiting to be translated into other languages...

Character Development
For a conductor who uses his whole personality as a tool it is naturally very important to work "on oneself". Wittry's list of virtues of the conductor includes positivity, integrity, humility, discipline and persistence (the list could as well be about a presidential candidate!). She also writes a couple of words about presenting oneself. This is something that most of us start to think of too late. Most young conductors feel it is enough to do your artistic work well and just "be yourself". Not so! When you notice that your less talented colleague gets the work by the sole virtue of him knowing how to dress and how to talk to the right people, it might be time to think again!

Choosing the Path
There are basically two ways to become a symphony orchestra conductor - either becoming an assistant conductor of a professional orchestra, or working your way from a semi-professional orchestra upwards. Now I would like to write a bit about how this applies to my native Finland.

Unfortunately in Finland there is no such thing as an assistant conductor. Oh yes, all the orchestras employ only one conductor and thus there is no way for young conductors to gain experience before landing somehow a chief conductor job! Some have been lucky enough to get a position of a principal guest conductor first, which gives them some security and continuity with the same orchestra but without all the responsibilities of a permanent conductor.

On the other hand we have only a couple of orchestras which are not professional but are able to play the main symphonic repertoire, and they are the student orchestras of the biggest universities. That means there are not too many choices left for a young conductor. I suspect the same applies to most small countries with a limited amount of orchestras and universities.

What is there to do, then? I think we have to accept the international nature of the work, learn our languages and start looking for work abroad. The competition will be tough but at least you can work on your career on two fronts instead of limiting yourself within geological and linguistic borders!

One of the ways to the profession Wittry mentions is founding your own orchestra. This possibility, with all of its challenges, should not be overlooked. In Finland we have an example set by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra which was founded in 70's by Juha Kangas, who is now very much in demand as a conductor throughout Scandinavia and Baltic region. More recently we have seen Avanti! and Helsinki Festival Orchestra which both were brainchildren of their founder-conductors.

In the closing thoughts of this chapter Wittry wants us to reject the idea that only conducting the biggest and best orchestras in the world can be counted as success. There are thousands of orchestras in the world, all in dire need of a good professional conductor. I wholeheartedly agree! Conducting is just such an addictive profession (or hobby?) that it is as difficult for the orchestras to get rid of a bad conductor as it is to find a good one.

Chapter 2

Path to the Podium
In this chapter there are brief interviews of Leonard Slatkin, Robert Spano and JoAnn Falletta about their studies, career development and so on.

Slatkin's way to the top has been quite traditional, including unbelievable 9 years (!) as an assistant conductor of the St Louis Symphony. Today I doubt anyone would have the patience of Slatkin - on the contrary I was told by one established conductor not to spend more than two years in an assistantship position to avoid being labeled as an assistant conductor! Slatkin's main advice to a young conductor is: Be prepared and don't turn your nose up at any kind of conducting work!

Robert Spano took his first jobs in universities and later got an assistantship position with Boston Symphony Orchestra. He emphasizes the role of a good manager in finding you new opportunities and recommending you to right people. Unfortunately he does not tell how he got a manager in the first place!

JoAnn Falletta's first music directorship was practically volunteer work with a community orchestra, and she has been able to work her way up all the way to high-class professional orchestras. For her it was important to go slow and learn in the process. She advices young conductors to be patient and prepared for disappointments; it is better to take on the big jobs when you can honestly say you're ready for them.

Chapter 3 - Your First Job

Getting the Job
The main teaching of this chapter is: In the beginning of your career you should apply for every possible job! To be informed about these jobs (in US) there are certain organizations you should be member of. Unfortunately in Europe it is not so simple to get information. The Musical Chairs website has some job announcements now and then, but other than that only the opera theatre positions in Germany are well documented.

Filling conducting positions is actually not so different from orchestra musicians' auditions - most often the well-known local guy gets the job. So your first priority is to become well-known (and maybe local too)!

Wittry gives in this chapter some good advice about how to write your resume and application letter, and how to prepare the accompanying materials. I personally think it is a pity that a good-looking publicity photo might be the reason for considering one application and rejecting another, but that's the world we're living in! The only additional advice I would give to conducting students is: Learn to edit your own videos and design your own web pages - you will save a lot of money while waiting for your breakthrough!

Negotiating the Contract
First rule which so many of us (including myself) had to learn in the tough way is: Never start the job without a written agreement. Only people like Carlos Kleiber can disregard this principle! A young conductor should always have a written contract - even if you are employed by someone you trust.

For the negotiation process Wittry gives you a handful of useful questions to ask yourself beforehand, and she also gives a lot of details about different contracts for community orchestras and regional orchestras. In addition there are a couple of thoughtful words about managers. Sometimes a manager really is not necessary - especially the kind that just takes you a monthly payment for the pleasure of having your name in her list.

First Year - Dos and Don'ts
During you first year in the job you should just try to meet as many people as possible connected to your work - the managing board, the musicians, staff etc. The first year is not the time to introduce big changes - just try to make the best out of what you got. Do not reaudition the orchestra - if there are problematic players, deal with them individually (or, like Franz Welser-Most put it, "It's never easy telling people it's time for them to go, but you don't have to be nasty about it. You take them aside, ask them to work on their intonation. They get the message.").

Getting Organized
Everyone would like to be organized, but as we know it is just SO difficult! Wittry gives some advice as to how to prioritize your tasks and how to schedule your weeks and days so you would have at least a little bit of time for yourself too - and of course, to the score study. A music director of an American orchestra has so many extramusical duties that delegating them successfully becomes really an indicator of your overall success!

Next time when I have time to sit down and summarize the findings in this book, I will look deeper into the chapters "Artistic Leadership", "Artistic Programming" and "The People Factor". I especially liked the chapter about programming, since at least in the schools I studied conducting at there was no teaching in this subject at all. I am sure it would be interesting to many others as well!

I will now lead you through the following three chapters, which in my opinion contain the most valuable part of the book:

Chapter 4 - Artistic Leadership

Understanding Leadership
In this chapter Wittry is basically saying, that the "good old times" when a conductor was feared by the orchestra and was able to fire a musician he did not like on the spot are over, and now the other kind of leader is in demand. The kind who commands respect and trust and wins the orchestra over with his expertise and knowledge.

To me this seems to be the trend at least in the West. I have encountered slightly different attitudes in Eastern Europe, and I must say that both have their good sides! I know some conductors who really miss the old times for the sake of discipline and preparedness of the musicians, and some seemingly refuse to notice the change of the millennium...

Steps to Becoming a Successful Leader
So, after learning that we cannot model our own career after our idols (sigh!), we need to acquire new leadership skills to effectively manage a modern arts organization. Wittry states, that to be a successful leader you need only two things: 1) knowledge of what followers want or need, and 2) spirit of excitement and commitment that energizes people.

Players of the orchestra are humans like you, of course, and they have their individual needs and worries besides playing their instrument. Try to get to know them - it is your orchestra after all! Try to give them the means to work on the highest possible level, only after that you can hold them accountable if that is not the case.

The organization should also commit to a common set of values and set itself goals that are "just out of reach" so that it will need to stretch past its comfort zone. Wittry writes at length about setting goals, coping with change, teamwork etc. usual "business organization stuff" (which I might have passed by just referring to a couple of other sources).

Thoughts about Artistic Vision
The chapter finishes with thoughts from maestros Slatkin, Spano and Falletta. For Slatkin vision is the main thing why the orchestra hires a conductor. He must be able to see where the orchestra will be ten years from now. Slatkin also encourages you to constant self-evaluation to remind you what is needed to achieve your (or your orchestra's) goals. Robert Spano emphasizes teamwork within the orchestra administration and admits that there might be a lot of music that (from the "visionary" point of view) needs to be done but which he himself is not keen to conduct. Maestra Falletta emphasizes gradual change over revolutions in shaping the orchestra's future.

Chapter 5 - Artistic Programming

Subscription Concert Programming
For me this chapter was the "main course" of the book - the guidelines were easy to grasp and made me wonder why in most Finnish orchestras the seasonal programming seems to be totally random - at most built around worn-out ideas, like "let's perform all Sibelius symphonies this year"!

Wittry writes, that in order to have the passion in the music making needed to inspire the orchestra, you must first look into your personal strengths in repertoire. The next thing is to be realistic with the orchestra. What kind of repertoire the orchestra needs to develop in stylistic as well as technical sense? How much rehearsal time do you have? And you need to ask also are your programs marketable and interesting to the audience.

Knowing your audience is vital in building good programs. You have the regular subscriber, a single ticket buyer, a student, a family etc. etc. One of your goals is also to look for new concert goers, to reach out to a bigger audience.

The tool Wittry uses in the actual process of the concert programming is categorizing the music according to its intensity, atmosphere, style, length and basic form, and then toying with these alternatives. I know some people dislike simplifying things like this, but I personally find this a brilliant idea to make the overall picture of the whole concert season more understandable. More so, in a context of American orchestras where you need to convince non-musicians to support your concert plans this approach will make your task easier.

You need to take a look at the orchestra's program history, survey the soloists you can use, identify composer anniversaries and other important events and take a look at the new interesting music too, to have maximum information before the actual programming. After that you can decide the "cornerstone" (symphony, concerto, theme) around which you build the whole program. With the categorizing you made before in mind you can now thing what is the overall impact of your concert. Will it start small and end with a big and brilliant symphony, or will you balance a romantic concerto with several smaller baroque works, for example?

Thematic Programming, Pops Programming, Educational and Family Programs
Wittry lists a lot of resources for all special kind of programs and gives good guidelines for preparing Pops and Family concerts. Family concerts especially should be carefully planned, because you actually are cultivating the next generation of your audience! Give the kids a chance to see the instruments up close. Talk to the audience! Keep the concert short and be sure not to bore the listeners!

The Overall Concert Experience
An orchestra concert is not only about music. To give the audience the best possible experience you need to consider many things: the lighting, the outwards appearance of the musicians, the chemistry between audience and performers, the looks of the hall itself. To make the experience richer you can experiment with special lighting, using narrators, actors or dancers, combining music with multimedia etc. The audience does not come only for the music, but is there for the total experience.

Chapter 6 - The People Factor

Working with People
As a music director, you are the boss of a hundred or so people, including musicians, administrative workers and technical staff. Wittry has a lot of commonsense tips to make this part of the job easier - it is again about basic "business skills"! You need to be able to motivate the musicians and the governing board as well - and terminate a musician's contract if needed.

Implementing the Artistic Plann
This chapter for me was the second most important. It gives you examples of the overall season planning, including when to sign contracts with guests and when to have the season program ready for printing, as well as explaining the duties of administrative personnel (librarian, personnel manager, marketing staff etc.) and how to work with them.

There is a lot of good information about rehearsal planning as well. Young conductors often know their scores but don't think of stage set-up before they walk to the rehearsal and see that nothing is set up (Happened to me once! There is no "standard set-up", really!). You of course should make a rehearsal schedule and be aware of the durations of the movements as well as the preferences of the soloist. A nice idea I did not yet try is a "tempo sheet" for the musicians, which would also include rare musical terms and handling of divisi in strings.

The Music Director's Role with the Board, Union and Orchestra Relations
These chapters contain a lot of US-specific information about the different types of orchestra governance and different union rules and principles. I would say, just be aware of the practices in your own country - and if you go to work abroad be quick to learn the new rules!

Rehearsal Techniques
I think rehearsing an orchestra really would need a book of its own. In this chapter there are a some nice tips for rehearsal work, but some of the recommendations sound counter-effective to me. Maybe the problems of American orchestras are just totally different from European ones? The main points are anyway clear: Keep the talking to the minimum, stick to your rehearsal schedules - that's what the musicians appreciate the most!

Developing Your Network
Appreciate your contacts and never burn your bridges! Wittry's notion that the music industry is small (in US!) is all the more valid in small European countries. So you would be wise to stay in terms even when there are conflicts or when you make the decision to move forward.

One consolation (in my opinion) is, that conducting as a profession is international and not restricted by national borders. If the market in your local area is saturated, you can and should try your hand elsewhere. In many countries an unknown foreigner is harder currency than an unknown native!

 

 

 

 

Beyond the Baton - What every conductor needs to know

 
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