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.

Creativity Technology

A new creative arms race?

Cultural commentators seem largely to fall into one of two camps at the moment. The first camp sees an opportunity to ‘build back better’. From the desolate rubble of 2020’s creative landscape, a new, fairer, more diverse, less stuffy artistic realm can be built, they say. We should frame our current situation as an opportunity, an environmental course correction with long-lasting benefits to be had, if we can just seize them.

The second camp is less optimistic, and rather more focussed on preserving the viability of creative institutions and the livelihoods of those who contribute to them. After all, what good is a fairer and more accessible world of the arts if there are no artists left to fashion it?

‘Normality is futility’

This week, the Guardian published an editorial outlining its view on the way forward for classical music. Their conclusion places them among the optimists:

It may mean reversing every assumption they know, it may mean that orchestras become communities of musicians who operate in small groups, as opposed to the massed ranks that they were employed to be – but the path of becoming radically local, community-centred organisations, who perform in places other than grand concert halls lies open. So does the acceleration of connecting with audiences digitally.

It makes it sound so easy – notwithstanding the fact that many organisations have been pouring their energy into these avenues since well before the pandemic. (The CBSO has arguably been doing this for decades.) Having decried Boris Johnson’s ’empty optimism and intelligence-insulting boosterism’ earlier in the article, the authors have then made some suggestions which are significantly easier to write about than they are to put into practice: be radically local, while at the same time connecting to a monied digital audience.

The way to connect with audiences digitally may remain ‘open’, but it’s not as if orchestras and ensembles haven’t been aggressively pursuing this direction for a while now. The current problem doesn’t seem to be that there isn’t enough digital content – it’s that by and large people won’t pay for it, and that other ways to monetise are hard to come by.

Arts entrepreneur David Taylor’s provocatively titled blog ‘Of course orchestras can make money online‘ offers a dissenting view – monetisation comes at the end of a sometimes-lengthy process of audience-generation via an organisation or brand providing ‘value’ to its audience, free of charge:

1 – Generate attention with content that provides value to an audience

2 – Use that attention and value to build strong connections and meaningful relationships

3 – Monetise those strong connections and meaningful relationships through multiple income streams and advocacy that also provide value.

This approach works well in many of the fields Taylor cites, including YouTubers and online lifestyle gurus. But for an orchestra, putting so much online for free in order to provide ‘value’ might prove an insurmountable loss-leader.

A creative arms-race

It’s a compelling vision of the future, especially if, like me, you avidly consume the value offered up for free by certain online lifestyle gurus. But one wonders: if there is a creative arms-race into this techno-utopian future, there will be a great number of organisations that simply can’t keep up.

Of course, seeing organisations doing something new, creative, different, and perhaps lucrative, will inspire others to have a go themselves. But the adjustment to a new funding model will leave many behind, whether because their brand simply isn’t suited to the fast-moving world of online media, or because they can’t afford the expertise of a social media brand manager on top of the salaries of a few dozen hungry musicians.

It’s notable that one of the most-watched classical music live-streams of recent weeks was that given by ORA Singers from the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, which has now racked up a very solid 15000 views on YouTube. Significantly, it was free to watch, though it must have cost a fair amount to lay on. It was also very good, especially considering the requirements of distancing forty singers in the space.

This is a brilliant way to offer value for free and help build up an audience, and ORA will undoubtedly have reached beyond their regular live concert audience. But I wonder how many other ensembles are able to pay a small army of freelancers to put on a loss-making event such as this, in the same of brand-building.

The outgoing president of the American Choral Directors’ Association, Tim Sharp, opened a recent letter to his community with a quote from the hymnodist Robert Lowry:

My life flows on in endless song; Above Earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet ‘tho far-off hymn, That hails A NEW CREATION;
Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—How can I keep from singing?

Sharp sees an opportunity to realise this ‘new creation’ by using the digital gains made during the pandemic to pursue wider teaching and engagement goals. I would love to be as optimistic as he is, and dearly hope he’s right, even though for me it remains something of a ‘far-off hymn’.

Ultimately, the conclusion I’m dancing around putting my name to is this: a transition to a more online economic basis for creative organisations is probable, at least in the short term, and not altogether undesirable. The speed of that transition is going to be the tricky thing. It will need to be cushioned by support for organisations attempting to make it. Perhaps more importantly, it’s the people they employ that need support during this time, to avoid being driven out of the industry altogether.