by Jesse Rosen
Bridging the Gap: Young conductors struggle to gain the full set of skills they need. Are orchestra residencies the answer?
In a scenario played out a few times each season at any major American
orchestra, open positions within the ensemble are filled with significant effort
and care, but little fanfare. Imagine a vacancy for, say, the principal trombone
chair: Some 150 trombonists submit tapes; the audition committee narrows the
pool to 30, and then chooses six finalists. Each finalist knows he or she must
play a near-perfect audition--and does.
As the committee and music director deliberate over the final choice, they
agonize over the candidates, any one of whom would bring distinctive
musicianship to the job. One played a heavenly "Rhenish" excerpt; another
offered a positively erotic rendition of the Boléro solo; while yet a
third unleashed a sound so big and dark the committee was pinned to the backs of
their seats. One played with some vibrato, one played a Conn instrument, another
a King. Whose sound would blend best with the orchestra's distinguished brass
section? Who would make the best leader of the trombones? Whose style is most
consistent with that of the whole orchestra? Tough questions for the committee,
but no one doubts that the full requirements of the position will be exceeded by
any finalist they choose. Eventually they agree on the recent graduate from a
Now let's imagine that later in the season, the same orchestra prepares for
another looming vacancy. Its associate conductor will leave in a few months, and
a replacement is needed to take charge of education and family concerts, while
covering rehearsals and concerts for the music director and guest conductors. As
with the trombone opening, 150 applicants contact the orchestra. The artistic
administrator reviews their applications with increasing frustration; in most
cases, the conductors' credentials simply don't fit the job. Consulting with
colleagues, she confirms that only five on her list merit further consideration,
but she learns of another five beyond the applicant pool that she should
consider. These ten conductors are invited to submit videos, which helps to
narrow the field to four who will audition and be interviewed in person.
Two weeks later, after all four finalists have visited, no one at the
orchestra is happy with the results. One conductor showed talent significant
enough to suggest he might grow into the job, but seemed hopelessly ill-equipped
to work productively with the education department. Another showed great
ingenuity with regard to education, but failed to catch the incorrect
transposition the music director deliberately inserted in the horn parts. A
third made no mistakes, but failed to bring any of the audition repertoire to
life. And the last was so overwhelmed by the quality of the orchestra, she could
barely find anything to rehearse. No one is hired.
Assuming these two imaginary scenarios are typical--and my experience as an
orchestral player, an orchestra manager, and an observer of young conductors
leads me to believe that they are--what do they tell us? There is, if anything,
an oversupply of gifted, skilled instrumentalists who are fully equipped to step
into positions at major orchestras. Why can't the same be said of aspiring
Perhaps the needed combination of conducting talent and skill really is as
plentiful among conductors of the postgraduate level as it is among
instrumentalists. If so, one would have to conclude that orchestras have not
developed a conductor audition procedure that allows this potential to reveal
itself. Or maybe they're simply not inviting the right people to audition. It's
also possible that the selection committee's expectations are unrealistic, or
unfocused. Certainly orchestras have room for improvement in all of these areas.
But the prevailing observation about conductorsÑthat there are simply not
enough good ones to meet the contemporary demand-is all too well supported by
other ominous developments. Despite hundreds of applicants, training programs
struggle to identify sufficient numbers of conductors with superior talent and
potential; last summer, Tanglewood's prestigious program admitted only one
conductor. The American Symphony Orchestra League's National Conductor Preview,
designed to showcase eight conductors every two years, has accepted only six
conductors in each of its last two rounds. And a recent flurry of discussion on
the League's e-mail forum for artistic administrators indicated that in seeking
associate conductors, too many orchestras have had exactly the audition
experience we imagined earlier. Why? I suspect the explanation lies on the
supply side-specifically, in the nature of the training that is available to
today's developing conductors.
In the course of overseeing the American Symphony Orchestra League's services
to conductors, I have observed hundreds of aspirants who are completing their
academic careers and attempting to enter the profession. In their communication
with the orchestra, these entry-level conductors often seem uncertain whether to
command, inquire, cajole, partner, or plead. Knowing how to pace the rehearsal
and which problems will fix themselves (versus which must be specifically
addressed) are major challenges for them. Few have mastered the podium's
inherent multi-tasking responsibility: preparing the musicians for what's ahead
while engaging with what's happening in the moment. (Weak aural skills are often
at the root of this problem.)
Off the podium, these young conductors show little understanding of the
orchestra organization and the music director's role within it, or the need for
such administrative and artistic skills as season planning, youth concert
programming, and orchestral personnel relations. Most important, far too few
possess the ability to inspire an orchestra with expressive, personal, and
informed music making.
To contrast these observations with the job description of a music director
is a discouraging exercise. In 1996, the American Symphony Orchestra League
published a skills inventory to assist orchestras in their conductor searches.
The Traits and
Skills of a Music Director was developed with input from leading conductors,
teachers, musicians, and administrators. It details the profession's
extraordinary musical requirements: knowledge of a large repertoire, musical
style, history and performance practice, and highly developed analytical and
aural faculties. The conductor must also acquire the ability to communicate
ideas through baton and rehearsal techniques that unite and inspire musicians in
a shared musical conception.
As if this were not enough, when a conductor functions as a music director,
he or she must set the orchestra's artistic agenda, promoting imaginative and
balanced programming, developing the taste and knowledge of the audience, and
stretching the abilities of the ensemble. The conductor must be able to express
the orchestra's aspirations to diverse constituencies, spearhead educational
initiatives, and, through oversight of the orchestra personnel, ensure the
continued artistic growth of the orchestra.
Given the density of a music director's job description, it's hardly
surprising that upon completion of their graduate degrees, conductors are rarely
prepared to assume such a leadership position-or even a staff assignment-with a
professional orchestra. Their situation is similar to that of entry-level solo
artists who, frequently, are also not ready for a full-fledged concert career
when they leave the conservatory. Two very effective organizations, Concert
Artists Guild and Young Concert Artists, have recognized this need, providing
"transitional" management services and a guided and graduated entry into concert
life. Interestingly, neither agency includes conductors on its distinguished
roster of promising young artists.
Max Rudolf, America's pre-eminent conducting pedagogue, addressed the issue
of conductor training in 1972 with an apt analogy: "Just as a surgeon, after
having completed basic medical training, needs internship (practical experience
in general medicine) and residency (developing surgical skill), a young
conductor must join a professional organization (hospital) in order to practice
his craft under competent supervision before he is let off the leash (although
conducting is less dangerous than surgery)."
Rudolf proposed residencies and internships for conductors for the same
reasons budding surgeons need them: because the skills required are remarkably
varied and complex, because higher education provides limited opportunities to
conduct a professional orchestra, and because the method of preparing concerts
in an academic environment bears little resemblance to the professional world.
Rudolf's idea became the basis for what would become the Exxon/Arts Endowment
Conductors program. Launched by the now-defunct Affiliate Artists in 1973, the
so-called "Exxon program"--funded by the Exxon Corporation and the National
Endowment for the Arts--offered grounding in all aspects of the profession
through residencies at orchestras across the country. Over the program's
seventeen years (for seven of which I directed it), 35 conductors were selected
through national auditions and active scouting to fill three-year appointments
with major orchestras. They led education, pops, family, and run-out concerts,
as well as occasional subscription programs. Host music directors-including
David Zinman, Leonard Slatkin, Christoph von Dohnányi, Carlo Maria Giulini, Edo
de Waart, and Mstislav Rostropovich-served as mentors. "Exxon conductors" were
also introduced to the organizational life of their host orchestras and often
received coaching in presentation and communication skills.
It has been nearly ten years since the Exxon program ceased operations, a
casualty of Affiliate Artists' demise. What was its impact? One can point to
some of its alumni: Hugh Wolff, Myung-Whun Chung, Andrew Litton, Alasdair Neale,
and Raymond Harvey. Arguably the program helped identify these and other
talented conductors, prepared them for their first professional positions, and
distinguished them from an otherwise large and undifferentiated talent pool. The
need for such a program in today's environment seems self-evident. It is less
clear, however, that the Exxon model is the right model for today.
One effort of the Exxon program that made good sense, but which was not
implemented as fully as would have been ideal, was initiating its conductors
into operatic as well as orchestral work. The near-total separation in the
United States between orchestral and operatic conductor training is both
artificial and detrimental to the development of new talent. Historically-though
primarily in Europe-the opera house has been the logical place to nurture
conductors of both opera and orchestral music. (Practically every important
symphonic conductor in the first half of the 20th century was reared,
artistically speaking, in a European opera house.) The opportunity to coach
singers, to learn interpretive traditions from répétiteurs, to coordinate the
sounds coming from the stage and the pit, and to work directly and consistently
under major conductors who become mentors-all these contribute to a rich,
demanding, and all-encompassing experience for developing artistic leaders.
The Exxon program was able to organize two opera-related residencies: The
Houston Symphony and Houston Grand Opera jointly hosted the promising young
conductor C. William Harwood before his untimely death in 1984; and the San
Francisco Opera hosted conductor David Agler, who has since made his career
primarily in opera rather than with orchestras. But for the most part, training
in an opera house remains unavailable for American conductors pursuing
orchestral careers, since opera houses are fewer here and most aren't organized
to operate continually on the European repertory model. That there is no
intrinsic structure for nurturing conductors in American opera houses makes it
imperative to compensate for its absence.
One of the most extraordinary resources for coaching conductors, never really
tapped by the Exxon program, is the orchestra itself. The National Symphony
Orchestra's National Conducting Institute has made the musicians of the
orchestra integral to its curriculum, with extraordinary results. For each
year's Institute, five players are designated mentors to a class of ten
conductors for three weeks. In the program's final week, four conductors
rehearse and perform with the NSO. During those rehearsals, the mentor musicians
freely interrupt to offer suggestions and observations to the conductors. During
breaks, the mentors, joined by other musicians, surround the conductors,
offering further advice. Later, the mentors join Leonard Slatkin and the
participants for a review of the rehearsal video.
The rate at which the conductors improve over these few days is remarkable.
Credit clearly belongs to the NCI's positively charged learning environment, in
which the rehearsals are almost like master classes given by the orchestra.
Every suggestion is delivered in a collegial, encouraging way: "You're doing
great; now here's something that will make it even better." The support flowing
from the orchestra is palpable. The NCI has provided a wake-up call to the
enormous, mostly untapped potential that orchestral musicians might bring to
The Exxon program also attempted to equip conductors with the functional
skills required to work effectively with an orchestra: programming, education,
communications, musician relations, public relations. The program's
characteristic on-the-job training mode was effective in these areas, as far as
it went; certainly Exxon alumni knew more about a large orchestra organization
from the inside than did other aspiring conductors, and this gave them a head
start in their first jobs. But like much on-the-job training, it was not
sufficient to address certain skills that are increasingly important today.
In recent years, the American Symphony Orchestra League's Orchestra
Leadership Academy has introduced the industry to a body of knowledge, practice,
and training in leadership development. Orchestra managers, trustees, and
musicians have worked side-by-side in seminars on collaboration, core values,
and conflict resolution. As orchestras focus increasingly on setting direction
and involving all stakeholders, conductors have been notably absent from the
process. This reflects the orchestra's historical structure in which,
ironically, the key artistic stakeholder operates completely outside the
boundaries of organizational activity.
The League has been testing a curriculum that brings conductors into the
fold, introducing them to the leadership skills and responsibilities associated
with music directorship. The goal is not to make managers out of conductors, nor
to make them easier to get along with, but to invest them fully in the music
director's institutional role. With this commitment in place, they can bring
greater ingenuity to setting and realizing artistic direction for an orchestra.
Our curriculum has been incorporated in two larger programs: the National
Symphony's NCI, mentioned above, and the Aspen Music Festival's American Academy
of Conducting. In both these settings, the League produces a five-day seminar.
Through highly interactive exercises, participating conductors learn about
teamwork, collaboration, decision-making, feedback, and communication. To
develop proficiency in programming and season planning, we also use simulations
in which an imaginary orchestra faces a real-world set of dilemmas which the
participants must address from the standpoint of its music director.
The perceived relevance of this material generally increases in direct
proportion to the participant's level of experience. Students and recent
graduates, as well as European-trained conductors, seem baffled when they are
asked to consider such practical issues as the structure of an orchestra's
educational program or strategies for presenting their projected season
repertoire to the board of directors. By contrast, those who have experience as
music directors or staff conductors express relief and some surprise that
guidance is available for these critical aspects of their work.
For young staff conductors, these discussions reveal an artistic paradox that
was also an unresolved problem of the Exxon program's resident conductors: While
they indeed receive ample conducting opportunities, their jobs offer little
chance to work on core repertoire. Like today's assistant and associate
conductors, Exxon conductors were generally assigned single-rehearsal events:
parks concerts, children's programs, pops concerts, run-outs. Their engagement
with core repertoire was generally limited to observing others-not a bad way to
learn, but also not sufficient. (Imagine if a surgery resident never got the
chance to perform an operation!) Any contemporary residency program would have
to offer more chances to rehearse and perform standard works.
Similarly, many of today's aspiring conductors begin their careers working
with student or amateur orchestras. They develop invaluable skills, but the
teaching-and-telling aspect of their day-to-day work may dominate to such an
extent that it denies them the chance to develop technically, and thus limits
their professional growth.
What would a conductor residency program for today look like?
For starters, it might borrow a recent lesson from the League's longstanding
residency program for administrators, the Orchestra Management Fellowship
Program, which has begun augmenting on-the-job experience with a dedicated
curriculum of coursework and learning opportunities. For example, participating
conductors might gather, away from their host orchestras, for a series of master
classes taught by leading conductors, each with a specific core-repertoire
affinity or a depth of operatic experience, or even a specialty (such as large
choral-orchestral works) that a young conductor wouldn't otherwise have the
chance to explore. They might take seminars in leadership training and
programming to support and deepen their on-the-job experience.
It's also time we expanded the definition of a mentor. Music directors of
host orchestras aren't the only mentors that resident conductors need. As the
NCI has shown, musician mentors can be extremely valuable guides to a developing
conductor. While, on occasion, such relationships naturally evolved in the
context of the Exxon program, a formalization of this role could introduce a
powerful new learning resource.
Reviving a conductor residency program with these and other innovative
elements could go a considerable ways toward addressing the undersupply of
conductors who are ready to assume full professional responsibility. However, at
least one nagging dilemma remains: If the pool of talent emerging from academic
institutions is lacking in superior talent, then one can anticipate only
incremental improvement through post-academic efforts like residency programs.
I have come to wonder about the "raw" conducting talent that may lie
unrecognized in our colleges, conservatories, and universities. The level of
orchestral playing in the U.S. has been in steady ascent, and orchestras may
pick from among dozens of qualified candidates for their openings. Prodigiously
gifted instrumental soloists seem to emerge in a steady stream from top schools
to enter the concert circuit. The disparity between talent pools of
instrumentalists and conductors prompts me to wonder if the requisite conducting
talent may in fact be electing to pursue instrumental rather than conducting
Admittedly, conducting requires an unusually broad and complex set of skills
that is relatively rare. But what if gifted college and conservatory
instrumentalists were more actively introduced to conducting as a career option?
While it most certainly does not follow that a gifted instrumentalist will
necessarily be a gifted conductor, our field probably needs to identify and
recruit those with exceptional gifts and aptitude at an earlier stage.
A well-designed program of conductor residencies might even serve this goal,
if it were broad and effective enough to fill in the training gap that lies
between an aspiring conductor and a fully qualified one. Ideally, it would have
a strong enough identity and presence to make success as a conductor seem more
plausible to the finest young musicians in our colleges and conservatories.
Both developments-improved talent identification and more effective honing of
partially formed talent-can only brighten the future landscape. I picture the
orchestra we visited earlier, ten years from now: Of 150 qualified candidates
for the associate conductor position, the pool is narrowed to 30 superb young
artists. After careful deliberation, ten are invited to audition. One leads a
scintillating Till Eulenspiegel that has the orchestra singing their
hearts out; another has a répétiteur's sensitivity in supporting soloists; yet a
third brings such poetry to the "Eroica" slow movement that the hard-bitten
principal cellist is close to tears...
It could happen.
A former trombonist who headed the Exxon/Arts Endowment conductors' program
for seven years, Jesse Rosen is vice president and chief program officer of the
American Symphony Orchestra League.