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.

Career Technology

Delighted to announce

Here’s a piece of virtue-signalling: I haven’t been on social media during Lent. I’m not a great one for Lenten disciplines – my self-control reserves are usually depleted after a week or so – but this one’s been surprisingly easy. I’ve not found myself with cravings to push red notification buttons until they turn blue, and I’ve functioned fairly normally despite the dopamine imbalance this has surely caused. It’s made me think, though, about the occasionally tortured relationship musicians have with social media, and I’m going to try and unpack it a little.

Delighted to announce

Among some fellow musicians, it’s become a hated cliché to use this formula to introduce one’s latest career success on social media. It’s not only the business-like omission of the first-person pronoun that riles them; it’s the brazen trumpeting of success in a world where we are conditioned to expect humility.

I don’t mind it quite as much as some, and that’s partly because I don’t think there’s a whole lot of choice. If your social media account is a career tool, like your website, then it’s essentially a networking tool with a side order of friendship and pictures of people’s pets. Accordingly, you have to use it to broadcast your successes, and generate the sense that your career is in motion. And it’s probably preferable to be upfront about it – ‘delighted to announce’ – then to try and signal modesty with ‘It seems this has happened, whaaaat’ or ‘somehow I seem to have done [x]’ or the ubiquitous ‘So I did a thing >> [link]’.

It’s widely understood that social media invites comparison. Reading of someone’s success invites you to consider, on some level, how you match up. This leads either towards self-justification – well, they’re doing a different thing to me, they have different goals, etc – or self-hatred – why I can’t I have [x], why can’t I be [y].

If we concede that we’re going to have to broadcast what we’re doing to our network, then honesty might be the best policy. This must be what social-media thinkpeople call ‘authenticity’, without ever managing to define what it actually means in this context. What is an ‘authentic’ way to talk about one’s work? ‘Delighted to announce’ is probably true on most levels. People who are in your corner will probably share your delight. People who aren’t will have a mix of reactions, as described above. Humble-brags don’t really benefit anybody, though I confess they’ve been my awkward go-to on the increasingly rare occasions I have anything to brag about (see, there I go again!).

Peers and rivals

One thing I’ve noticed about not being on social media has been the feeling of a more even keel, emotionally-speaking. I’ve greatly reduced my exposure to things I’d get angry about, or things I’d be happy about, or pictures of cats I’d go ‘aww’ about.

I remember reading an update on social media from a former pupil who had been accepted onto a prestigious course. For a moment, the gall rose – years ago, I had applied for this very course and not got in! It took a moment for perspective to reassert itself – we were in very different positions with different goals and skills.

At the same time, though, those things can be great motivators. I remember an article or podcast which, taking the idea of ‘keeping your enemies close’, advised supporting your rival as much as you can. Celebrate their successes, try and help them be as good as they can be – with the logic being that, in doing so, you’ll be forced to raise your own game, out of natural competitiveness. I don’t think it implies that celebrating your rival is in any way disingenuous; after all, they receive the reassuring feeling of support, and you get a bit of drive to better yourself.

It’s easy to see how this could go too far. Depending on one’s personality, it might be inadvisable to fill a Twitter feed with people one considers to be rivals, and face the constant urge to hustle in response. To do so would be to ignore the other truth of progression in fields such as music: so much of it revolves around luck. Being in the right place at the right time, or making a chance connection – while you can do certain things to maximise your chances for such serendipity, at the end of the day, it’s still luck.

That’s not to denigrate anyone’s hard work – you still have to be in a position to take advantage of that luck, after all – but basing a comparison of yourself with someone else without understanding the hidden advantages could be needlessly demoralising. We all have such advantages – personal, financial, natural – but it would be unreasonable to suggest people preface everything they write with such a caveat.

Content streams

I justified a fair amount of my time browsing social media as keeping my finger on the pulse of my little musical world. After all, I wouldn’t want to miss out on whispers about jobs, or snippets of information that could help me. On reflection, that was probably 5% of it, with another 5% being updates from my friends, and the other 90% being things I didn’t really care about, flash-in-the-pan scandals and arguments that ultimately had no bearing on me – entertainment, albeit of a peculiar kind.

We feel there must be a cost to not participating in the social media free-for-all. At the one or two ‘social media for musicians’-style seminars I’ve attended over the years (not that you’d know it from my irregular output), that’s been the message. Everyone’s on it, so you have to be too. Make it consistent, focus on two or three ‘streams’ of ‘content’ and put them out there on a regular basis. So you went for a run by the river? Post a picture of it with the caption ‘thinking about my Beethoven concert next week’.

How do people really respond to that sort of thing? I think perhaps we suspend our disbelief because we know they’re playing the game, and we’ve sort of agreed between us that it is a game, and it needs to be played. If I opt out, is what I gain in mystery outweighed by what I miss out on by not being part of ‘the scene’? When I think about who I respect in my circle, it’s not the people very obviously playing the game very hard. It’s the people quietly getting on with it. Or at least I assume they’re getting on with it – maybe they’re just lurking, reading everyone else’s nonsense.

Career Creativity Music

Why do I want ‘work artefacts’?

I sometimes wonder if the reason it’s difficult for freelance live performers to motivate themselves lies in the lack of a tangible product of the work. A sculptor can point to their work with a certain satisfaction and say: there, I did that, that was the direct result of my work. An author can look over a day’s worth of pages and feel that something has been accomplished. But the product of the live performer is intangible: a rehearsal, a performance, a moment shared (or none of the above, as is more likely at the time of writing).

Perhaps that’s why I’ve always enjoyed the process of recording CDs. Not only do you get the intense focus of working on something with other people and making it as perfect as possible – that true feeling of team effort – but at the end of it all you have a product, an artefact. You can send it to people, as if to prove that what you do is real work after all, because it had a physical product.

While there are may things I would do differently a second time around, making my first CD as a conductor in 2019 was a fascinating and rewarding process for many of the above reasons. Add to those the post-production process – going over and over tracks, track order, booklet layout, album art, &c – and you had the feeling of polishing something until the final product gleamed. (I would be remiss not to acknowledge the patient expertise of Convivium Records who guided me through it.)

However, that process is very much the exception in my life and career as they’re currently configured. There are rehearsals and services in their hundreds (2020 excepted), concerts and workshops and recitals – but they’re over in a flash, leaving only a memory. Of course, that’s what makes them precious – the thrill of the live, the electricity in the air, the limitless potential of what might happen. But I do occasionally struggle with the lack of some kind of longer-lasting artifact, one that can prove to me that all those things weren’t just a dream but something I did.


In doing so, I am probably succumbing to a little workism. If you’re unfamiliar with the coinage, start with this article in The Atlantic. Workism is the idea that we define ourselves solely or principally by our work, by producing things endlessly, keeping our economies chugging along and our money-machines going brrr. In the article, Derek Thompson writes:

In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings—from necessity to status to meaning.

He goes on to point out just how damaging this view can be. If you don’t succeed in work, your whole being becomes suspect. My desire for some tangible outputs to show for my work probably stems from a desire to join the class of people with that sense of meaningful work.

But, to quote Admiral Ackbar, it’s a trap. After all, the goal of human society shouldn’t be 100% employment, but 100% unemployment, with humanity doing what it wants, and the machines doing all the things we don’t want. It’s another reason I’m uncomfortable with the economic justifications for creative work – creativity is a human good.

That doesn’t help me with my dilemma – where is my artifact? Take today, for example. The ‘work’ content of my day consists of the following: learning some music; programming music for some upcoming services; thinking about the structure of next season’s programmes; processing some invoices; preparing for and then leading an online session for a choir. At the end of the day, although plenty of work will have been done, I won’t be able to admire it hanging on a wall, or observe it like a half-finished sculpture in the middle of my workshop.

In having this problem, I find myself somewhat surprisingly aligned with the information-economy workers of my millennial generation. Thompson again:

Blue-collar jobs produce tangible products, like coal, steel rods, and houses. The output of white-collar work—algorithms, consulting projects, programmatic advertising campaigns—is more shapeless and often quite invisible.

My output may not be as economically useful as a programmatic advertising campaign, but it’s just as invisible most of the time. Thompson argues that one result of this is that we feel the need to prove our accomplishments by preening our images on social media and making what we have done in a given day seem meaningful.

‘You are what you do’

‘Career as life meaning’ might be a relative newcomer to the workforce at large, but we in the so-called ‘creative’ professions have been haunted by it for much longer. We’re constantly told that what we do is meaningful, and, if caught complaining, will invariably be rebuked with something along the lines of ‘yes, but you get to do what you love/follow your passion/etc’.

Our careers have been expected to be our life meaning for a long time, probably since the 19th century elevated artists to the lofty plane of suffering genius, and persuaded people that being creative wasn’t a career but a calling. Artists succeed, we are told from a young age, because of their burning and unquenchable passion. But we didn’t undergo some Pokémon-like evolution from the travelling court musicians of the Renaissance into beings with a higher calling; we are still crafts-people, and if for some reason I’m not so ‘driven’ as to stay up all night thinking about Brahms, it doesn’t make me a lesser musician.

Combine this already damaging view of art and artists with contemporary millennial workism and you’ve got a toxic, if not lethal, combination. TwoSet Violin are perhaps the most successful classical music YouTube channel in the world, and their message strongly parallels hustle culture: practice, practice, practice. You can even get a hoodie with it on. I’m not about to say they haven’t done a great deal for classical music’s reputation with young people – and we all know we need to practise – but the fact that they might have worked themselves into the ground doing it doesn’t fill one with confidence.

In their haste to prove that artistic work is just as much work as anything else is, some turn to workism. ‘Today’s office’, as a caption on a picture of a beautiful concert venue, is ubiquitous among musicians on social media, and I think the intent is to make the reader recognise that art can be work too, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the privilege of occasionally working in beautiful spaces. However, it also feels a bit like workism – not only is this work, it seems to say, but it’s meaningful. I’ve almost certainly done this myself over the years. Who doesn’t want to prove that they’re a useful, productive member of society?

I think the pendulum might be slowly swinging away from workism. Personally, I’ve begun to stop idolising workaholic musicians and instead contemplate the people I respect for being curious, creative and chilled-out. The social-media grift-porn is wearing thin. There’s a better and healthier way.

Back to those work artifacts. Perhaps it’s a realisation of the need for some kind of product to show for my day that I’ve tried to use my non-work time to produce something more tangible. No sculptures, mind, but at least one or two drawings, and, if I finish it, the very blog you’re reading now.