Career Conducting


In common with quite a few others, I’ve felt my identity being challenged in the past year. Or at least, my professional identity.

Once I had amassed enough regular work conducting choirs to feel that I could call myself a ‘professional conductor’ without exaggeration, it brought a sense of certainty to my life that had sometimes been lacking. It gave me a bit of drive and purpose, too, something which I had only intermittently possessed since mislaying it at about the age of 15.

Having a defined career identity as a musician gives you a nice easy answer to the perennial dinner-party question – ‘what do you do?’ It’s something people have heard of, and you’ll probably get an ‘ooh’ and a nod of approval (followed perhaps by surprise that people are paid to do that, and, if you’re lucky, rounded off with a chorus of ‘how nice to do something that you love’).

It also gives you excuses. Spent the morning in bed? Well, I’m a professional conductor and need to rest/decompress/have artistic epiphanies. Bought yourself an expensive shirt? Well, I’m a professional conductor and need to look the part. Plus it might be tax-deductible.

When that’s taken away, you have to come up with real answers to some of those questions, and it leaves you feeling more than a little raw. We all have blips, of course – I used to find they most often came in the summer, when I was less likely to be working. In the enforced downtime I’d take to doing something else, a new hobby, pastime, or interest, and the thought would creep up: maybe you should do this instead. Maybe you’re not a conductor really.

If this makes being a musician sound like a priestly vocation, maybe that’s not too far-fetched. The discernment process is long, perhaps life-long, and there’s no assurance of ever achieving the longed-for certainty that one is doing what one is called to do. I remember being surprised when seeking advice from a respected mid-career conductor about what to do next. He had just been appointed to a major job in a different country. How do you know whether you’re doing the right thing, or making the right move? His response: you never know.

If my summer blips were mild (and invariably swiftly erased by the excitement of the new term in September), the ongoing pandemic was not – indeed, is not. Between March and November 2020 I conducted at exactly one event, and there haven’t exactly been a great number since. Was I still a conductor? My identity gently unravelled as weeks of not conducting turned into months. My thoughts increasingly turned to what else I could ‘be’, throwing up all manner of alternately far-fetched or depressing answers. Once you set so much store by an identity – proudly displaying it on a Twitter bio or answering that dinner-party question, perhaps with eyes lowered in false modesty – the thought of losing it becomes even harder to countenance.

When I was younger, I became irritated with a friend who advertised herself as a ‘professional soprano’, even though I knew almost all the singing she did was unpaid. For me, ‘professional’ meant ‘making most of your money from’, not just doing something to a ‘professional standard’, whatever that means. Successfully replacing a drainpipe a couple of times wouldn’t make me a professional plumber. But by claiming that identity she had made a path for herself – it gave her the self-belief to go further, which she duly did.

The ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ distinction (one I’m not especially sold on and which I’ve written about before) has been highlighted in recent weeks by the UK government’s decision to treat the two categories so differently. At the time of writing, professional singers may sing indoors in any number, whilst non-professionals are restricted to 6 singers. Suddenly, calling yourself a ‘professional’ not only gives you an identity, it permits you to actually do the thing at all. In response, we have observed the notion of ‘professionalism’ being wildly stretched by people desperate to be allowed to sing again, and I’m not sure I can blame them. One choral society inventively claimed their unpaid singers would be exempt by virtue of performing ‘in a professional environment’.

There’s a fragility to the ‘professional’ identity of a musician which the last year has exposed. Even here in the mid-lane, we’re probably only a few cancelled gigs or lost jobs away from a disaster which will compel us to leave the profession entirely. No wonder I agonised over that identity – if it is so brittle that it can crack, is it worth having?

Conductors are prone to imposter syndrome, even if they’re good at hiding it. It takes an unusually well-upholstered ego to regularly go up in front of large groups of people and to know with complete certainty that you should be the one up there on the podium leading them. (I try to remember the words of a teacher: when you are on the podium, you are the best conductor in the room.)

I remember my initial trepidation on beginning one of my first jobs, with the Cathedral Singers in Oxford (which I still direct). By dint of its demographic, this is a choir with, I am fairly certain, the highest proportion of PhDs per capita of any choir in the country. The thought briefly flashed across my mind – who am I to lead these people? – before I realised that I was in fact the expert when it came to what I was doing there: directing an ensemble.

For now, I think my identity is intact. But I suppose I wouldn’t want it to become too set, too ‘professional’, and leave no room for the other things in life. We all contain multitudes, after all.