Why can’t conductors conduct?

My orchestra recently did a holiday concert in a neighboring community.
Such concerts aren’t one of the joys of orchestra life, and I’m a long
way from being in the Christmas spirit this year anyway. But this one
was made far worse by the fact that the conductor simply wasn’t up to
the job. So how does a full-time professional American orchestra end up
with a guest conductor who can’t conduct? We don’t hire violinists who
can’t play.

OK; I exaggerate a bit. Some conductors can conduct. But there don’t appear to be nearly enough to go around; far too many don’t seem to be able to get an orchestra from point A to point B without lots of problems. I spent the entire concert thinking about why (except for during that nasty lick in Swan Lake that requires a little more reach from my fourth finger than I have post-fracture). I came to the following conclusions:

  1. There is no filtering process for conductors similar to that for instrumentalists:
  2. There seem to be no good teachers;
  3. Conductors never get to practice;
  4. Once out in the world, they can’t learn from colleagues in the way that instrumentalists can.

1. A young person who wants to play the violin finds a teacher, rents a violin, and is off to the races. A young person who wants to become a conductor does… what? There aren’t any teachers and it’s awfully expensive to rent an orchestra. So people who become conductors tend to be 1) self-taught; and 2) the kind of people who have the chutzpah to ask 20 or 30 of their closest friends to donate lots of their time to be their practice orchestra. Advancement for the student violinist is all about their ability to play the violin. It doesn’t appear that the same is true of the student conductors. I have often wondered how many young musicians have conducting talent – but no desire to jump through the hoops necessary to find an orchestra to practice on.

2. There are lots of people who think they teach conducting. I know of only two whose students consistently conduct well, though – Hideo Saito and Pierre Monteux. And they’re both dead.

3. I doubt that conducting is as hard as playing the violin; very few things are as hard as playing the violin. Even talented students don’t become competent professional violinists without thousands upon thousands of hours of practice and hundreds upon hundreds of one-on-one lessons. But how many hours of practice do student conductors get? How much one-on-one instruction with an instrument to work with at the same time? Even if conducting is an order of magnitude easier than playing the violin (which I doubt), wouldn’t that imply the need for at least hundreds of hours of practice? How many student conductors get that kind of time in front of an orchestra?

4. Most instrumentalists spend a great deal of time working with other musicians in an atmosphere of relative collegiality and equality. Most of what I’ve learned about music I’ve learned from other people; chamber music colleagues, orchestral colleagues, and even some conductors. Who do conductors learn from when they’re out in the real world? Not the musicians who work for them, I can assure you. That’s as much the musicians’ fault as the conductors’, if not more – but it’s a fact nonetheless.

What’s going to happen to our industry if the next generation of conductors is anything like the current average level of assistant conductors in our industry?


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