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A music conductor is the person that leads an orchestra, chorus, opera company, ballet or other musical group. The conductor sets the pace of the music so that all the performers can follow the same rhythm. He or she needs to understand all aspects of the music, including tempo, musical pitch and the overall balance of harmonies.
Conductors are needed for a large range of musical situations, including, for example, professional and amateur orchestras and choruses, and cathedral and church choirs. Some work on stage musicals or recorded soundtracks for film and TV, and others work in mainstream or specialist music schools and colleges.
Conductors must be flexible about working hours, as daytime, evening and weekend work are all usually required. They may spend a lot of time travelling in the UK and abroad.
Most conductors earn around £1,000 per concert, but fees vary enormously between £50 and £3,500 per concert. The most acclaimed conductors may earn much more.
A conductor should have:
- excellent musical knowledge and ability
- good communication, people and leadership skills
- confidence working with and motivating a wide range of people, many of whom are highly experienced musicians
- command of a second main European language in addition to English
- an interest in music and the history of music.
Accomplished musical ability is vital and competition for conductor jobs is very strong. Many vacancies and opportunities are not advertised, so it is essential to make good contacts with other people in the music industry.
Due to competition, most conductors have a degree in music studied either at a university or a specialist music college, followed by a postgraduate qualification. Applicants to these courses may have to undertake an audition and will usually need to have studied a musical instrument, often the piano, to at least grade 7 or 8.
Most conductors spend their entire professional career developing their craft. They are continually studying musical theory and the history of music, as well as practical aspects of conducting. Much of this study is driven by personal motivation and interest, and is not part of any formal training. Practising conductors are listed on the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) register of performers and composers.
The ultimate goal for most is to become a principal conductor, but this requires a strong portfolio of recognised work. Progression is dependent on constantly widening experience and establishing a strong reputation.
What is the work like?
A music conductor is the person that leads an orchestra, chorus, opera company, ballet company or other musical group. The conductor sets the pace of the music so that all the performers can follow the same rhythm. He or she needs to understand all aspects of the music, including tempo, musical pitch and the overall balance of harmonies.
Conductors are needed for a large range of musical situations, including:
- large professional orchestras and choruses
- amateur orchestras and choirs
- cathedrals and large churches
- musical theatre productions
- operatic and ballet companies
- recorded music, particularly soundtracks for film and TV
- educational, in dedicated music colleges and mainstream schools and colleges.
This might mean taking overall control of a production, or working under an artistic director of an opera, play or musical. Conductors often combine conducting with other duties, including performing and teaching. But typically, the conductor will have overall responsibility for:
- planning musical programmes and selecting pieces of music to perform
- interpreting the musical score and developing ideas to transform a piece of music into the finished performance
- training musicians on their specific parts and balancing instruments and voices
- running rehearsals and providing constant feedback
- directing musicians and performers during each performance, providing timings and cues.
Conductors often specialise in a particular musical genre, such as the work of contemporary composers or early music.
Hours and environment
There are no set working hours for conductors. As well as taking part in rehearsals and performances, many combine conducting with teaching and training performers. Evening and weekend working is common.
There can be a lot of travel required, within the UK and abroad, as conductors will accompany their musical group on performance tours or competitions. This may require staying away from home for lengthy periods. Highly acclaimed conductors receive engagement bookings many months, sometimes years, in advance.
Conductors will often spend many hours at home preparing for performances by studying scores and exploring new works.
Conductors may work in a variety of environments, from indoor concert halls, theatres and recording studios, churches and cathedrals, to outdoor venues such as parks and the gardens of stately homes. They can also work in schools and other educational settings.
Salary and other benefits
There is no formal salary structure for conductors and annual income depends on the number and type of performances given. Payment can range from receiving travel expenses only, up to huge fees for top international conductors. Established professional conductors usually have an agent who negotiates fees on their behalf with concert promoters and orchestra managers.
- A conductor starting out can earn around £360 per concert.
- Most conductors earn around £1,000 per concert, but fees vary enormously between £50 and £3,500 per concert.
- The most acclaimed conductors may earn even greater sums.
Skills and personal qualities
Music conductors should:
- be accomplished musicians and performers themselves, playing an array of instruments, almost certainly including the piano
- have excellent musical knowledge
- have very good people and communication skills
- have an authoritative presence, with excellent leadership ability
- have good persuasion skills
- have the ability to work flexibly and travel to different projects
- be confident working with a wide range of people, many of whom are highly experienced musicians
- have a command of a second (preferably more) main European language (usually German, French and/or Italian), in addition to English.
It is important to have an interest in:
- music and the history of music
- creative and performing arts in general.
Conductors can work for large professional and amateur orchestras and choirs, in cathedrals and churches, for musical shows in the theatre, on TV and film productions and for music colleges. Permanent jobs for conductors are very limited, and most work on a freelance basis.
Accomplished musical ability is vital and competition for conductor jobs is very strong. Many vacancies and opportunities are not advertised, so it is essential to network and make good contacts with other people in the music industry.
The majority of conductors train first in an instrument, usually the piano. Many then work for a while as répétiteurs or as assistants to conductors. This involves providing musical accompaniment through rehearsals, and coaching the singers, whilst also observing the established conductor at work. Entrants, even for these posts, would usually work on a voluntary basis initially, to demonstrate their capabilities.
Orchestra vacancies worldwide are advertised on www.orchestraljobs.com.
The Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) website has lots of useful information about careers with music.
Due to competition, most conductors have a degree plus a postgraduate qualification in music. These qualifications are offered at both university and specialist music colleges. Entry requirements for a degree course vary, but generally are a minimum of five GCSEs (A*-C) and two A levels, or equivalent qualifications. Applicants to music courses may have to undertake an audition and will usually need to have studied a musical instrument, often the piano, to at least grade 7 or 8. Candidates should check exact entry requirements with individual institutions.
After studying a degree course, most aspiring conductors go on to complete a postgraduate course in conducting at a music college, perhaps abroad at one of the European or American academies. Here it may be possible to work as a deputy or assistant conductor to get the experience and contacts necessary to carve out a successful career. Some of the music colleges also offer summer schools, seminars and short courses, which can provide valuable experience and training.
Trainee posts and professional scholarships may be offered by organisations, such as the BBC and the Royal Opera House in London. These students will have usually achieved a high level of conducting skill through their postgraduate work and studies.
Most conductors spend their entire professional career developing their craft. They are continually studying musical theory and the history of music, as well as practical aspects of conducting. Much of this study is driven by personal motivation and interest, and is not part of any formal training.
The Association of British Choral Directors and Young Choirs organise regular seminars.
Practising conductors are listed on the ISM register of performers and composers.
The ultimate goal for most is to become a principal conductor, but this requires a strong portfolio of recognised work. Entering competitions can be a way of getting skills noticed by the right people.
Progression for a conductor is dependent on constantly widening their experience, stretching themselves personally and establishing a strong reputation.
Association of British Choral Directors. Website: www.abcd.org.uk
Association of British Orchestras, 20 Rupert Street, London W1D 6DF. 020 7287 0333. Website: www.abo.org.uk
Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), 10 Stratford Place, London W1C 1AA. 020 7629 4413. Website: www.ism.org
The International Artist Managers' Association (IAMA), 23 Garrick Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9BN. 020 7379 7336. Website: www.iamaworld.com
Musicians' Union, 60-62 Clapham Road, London SW9 OJJ. 020 7582 5566. Website: www.musiciansunion.org.uk
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