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.

Choirs Leadership

Musical leadership without music

The role of conductor changed abruptly in mid-March of this year. For me, it’s thrown the nature of musical leadership into the spotlight: how can those of us with responsibility for musical direction maintain this responsibility when a direct musical relationship isn’t possible?

The business world tells us that the companies that do well are those that are light on their feet. They adapt; they are, in teeth-grinding but somewhat useful management-speak, agile, alert to market conditions and ready to respond.

Musical groups are not businesses, or at least they don’t like to think of themselves that way. But the substantially ‘market-altering’ conditions which 2020 has visited on the performing arts have forced change on a genre which is normally remarkably resistant to it: western classical music. Likewise the leader or conductor of the group has had to make changes, and in this post I’m reflecting on mine, thinking out loud about musical leadership in a time of crisis.

A change in goals

Until earlier this year, the goal of the groups I direct was largely to work towards musical performances, and build up our common musicianship along the way. Goals are important for the motivation of any organisation, and musical groups are no different – indeed, many now have ‘mission statements’, a concept imported from the business world.

Our goals have adapted and evolved during the various stages of lockdown, roughly along the following lines:

  1. Keep our community intact

The immediate priority for me was making sure that, however long this all lasted, there would still be a strong sense of community within the group. The worst thing would be if, after all this, there remained only the husk of an ensemble to come back to. Zoom meet-ups, virtual pub quizzes, seminars and workshops formed a large part of this initial phase.

During this time, we became familiar with and adjusted to the requirements of online meetings, a necessary relearning of the rules of interaction.

  1. Maintain our musicianship

After these initial experiences with online get-togethers, my focus turned towards how to preserve any gains we’ve made in our musicianship, technique, or other skills, so that when we return, we can hit the ground running, without having lost too much momentum. This is where online music sessions came in.

I’ve generally resisted the term ‘virtual rehearsal’ when talking about these – it’s not really the same thing as a rehearsal, at least in the OED’s sense of ‘practice performance…in preparation for later public performance’. The most cynical way to think about it would be a sort of ‘choral karaoke’ – but I think even this has value.

The online sessions had a similar structure to our in-person rehearsals, but with a shift in focus: away from an eventual performance, and towards preservation of key skills. The warm-up was slightly longer, focusing on maintaining healthy technique even in a confined space or if sitting. The preparation of a piece was necessarily more basic, with no possibility of rehearsing anything involving ensemble. Instead we looked at possible interpretations, attention to details in the score, poetry and text. Performance was done along to a guide recording, either pre-existing or recorded by me for this purpose.

The performance element of the rehearsal had an almost completely different function – not so much cementing an interpretation honed or notes learned, as listening and reacting to an unfamiliar recording. Sometimes this led to critical listening of a performance or recording.

3. Produce something

Being a performing ensemble ultimately means generating a performance of some kind. Most of us are still in the process of working out what this looks like within the constraints currently imposed on us. I’ve written about one answer here. And with my cathedral choir, we’ve been recording items for use in broadcast services along the lines described here.

The autumn will provide the real test of ingenuity, if current restrictions continue. I’ve got some ideas, and I’m excited to see what others will come up with.

Lest this sound self-congratulatory, I think I was slow to react in the early stages, when we didn’t really have a notion of how long this might last. I was initially sceptical of taking everything online, and I might have been tempted to batten down the hatches and wait for it all to blow over. It was seeing others boldly pushing out of their comfort zone that inspired me to do the same.

Setting the tone

Perhaps more strongly than the move to redefine goals, the thing that came home to me was how much people look to leaders/conductors for moral and emotional leadership. No big surprise, you might think; but it reminded me of my responsibility.

When the message comes down from the top that ‘everything will be OK’, or ‘we’ll get through this and emerge stronger’, it permeates through the ensemble. If it’s true that what counts is ‘not what happens to us, but the way that we react to it’, then, in organisational terms, leaders set the tone and pattern of that reaction.

In those weeks where I was able to successfully project this optimism and reassurance – even if I wasn’t completely convinced myself – we ended our sessions with a sense of positivity and potential.

I’ve been trying to stay on the right side of a fine line: between the energetic, tigger-ish buoyancy that completely ignores what’s going on; and the quieter, more stable outlook which acknowledges the difficulty while believing in the strength of everyone involved to overcome it. There’s a place for both approaches. The first style might beget the response ‘I completely forgot about all the bad things for a couple of hours’, while the other might lead to ‘I didn’t forget about the bad things; but I remembered that we can overcome them’.

In Oxford, I used to occasionally act as a guinea-pig for MBA students and others at the University’s Said Business School. Unsuspecting lawyers, engineers, middle managers, or students would be thrust in front of a group of professional singers and told to conduct. They had no prior training, and, with few exceptions, no idea what they were doing.

Some would get up immediately, wave their hands around enthusiastically, and be rather surprised when nothing happened. But the most successful at this exercise were not the ones who tried to bulldoze their way through on pure confidence. Instead, they got up, and, with a mixture of openness, positivity, and humility, engendered a genuine connection, making us want them to succeed even when their technique was deficient.

I often miss the mark; but I think this is what I’m going for.

The last few months have frequently held up a mirror – literally, in the case of online video conferencing, or self-videography – in which we can see our attempts at leadership played back to us. I’ve found it a salient reminder of the need to try and maintain that openness, positivity, and humility.

Choirs Creativity Technology

Lockdown lessons: three habits to take back with us to normality

2020 has seen choirs, orchestras, and all manner of other cultural organisations forced online. It’s fair to say that for many it’s been an uncomfortable transition. But what can we learn from the adaptations we’ve made? And could there be things we’d like to take back with us into normality?

During the lockdown months, I got into habits – some good, some less so. Recently, I’ve found myself thinking about what I can take forward from this time into ‘normal’ life. For me, habits such as the mid-morning coffee, brewed slowly and deliberately, and daily exercise, are ones I’d like to continue. But are there new habits that ensembles have formed in this time that can be of value in a theoretical virus-free future?


A choir of a hundred people subdivides into voice-parts, and probably then further into multiple social groupings. It can be difficult to break out of those and get to know who else is performing at the other end of the room.

One thing several members of my ensembles have commented on recently is that they feel that they know more people in the group. The online ‘rehearsals’ that we’ve been having weekly present everyone in a very egalitarian way, each in an identically-sized box, and, importantly, next to their name. It’s been invaluable to me as a conductor and ensemble-members have benefited from it too.

The randomised ‘coffee’ break-outs, which put attendees into smaller rooms for a chat for a few minutes, before unceremoniously dumping them back in the main room, have also helped with encouraging interaction beyond automatic social groupings.

It’s a truism that people who go through adversity together form strong bonds. The challenge will be to maintain and further strengthen them once the adversity is over.

Technical Skills

Both participants and leaders of groups have had to learn new skills to maintain their connections. Even some of the more technology-shy have been surprised by how easily they’ve been able to learn to attend online meetings, or make and submit recordings.

Leaders have learned these skills too, managing newly-digital ensembles, and have often strayed quite far into the technical realm, making guide recordings or assembling multi-tracked performances.

These skills are not temporary assets, and the requirement to master digital skills is not going to go away. Even in a post-virus world, the arc of the social universe tends towards the digital. In a world that, whether we like it or not, will increasingly view its culture from behind a screen, these skills are necessary evolutionary adaptations. Even predominantly live groups are going to have to learn how to exist in both physical and online dimensions.


Closed door performances, live-streamed. Pay-per-view singalongs and workshops. Pieces designed for performance over video-conferencing. Innovations are being made not just in rehearsal but performance, and we’ll see even more imaginative variants this autumn.

In the amateur world, some may feel able to return to regular activities, while some will prefer to remain online. There may be hybrid concerts, with some performers live and some pre-recorded. We may see outdoor venues being used in different ways.

This kind of variety is good for the art. It keeps performers and audiences from complacency. It may even herald the ‘shake-up’ of live performance conventions which we are often told is so badly needed, especially in the ‘classical’ sector.

It might seem unfeeling to write of hopes for the future at a time of fundamental uncertainty for creative people of all kinds. All around us, cultural institutions are crumbling, and many involved in the arts are considering their options.

I remain hopeful that there will be a future for us. And if there is, we could do worse than taking into it with us any positive things we’ve learned.