I'm Not a Conductor

I'm not a conductor..     

So why then have I recently found myself stood up in front of professional orchestras on two occasions with the role of conductor?

The first was a private event where I was given the score along with a brief conducting lesson in the taxi en route to the rehearsal. (I asked someone to get a photo that I could send to my mum.. I think my facial expression pretty much sums up how I was feeling at the start!) 

My second experience was a day of 3 educational concerts for 6 year-olds. This time I got to conduct dressed as a skeleton (we had based the pre-concert workshops on Danse Macabre) and was definitely saved by my skills as an animateur!

So, I had two options. Either to say no to these opportunities because “I’m not a conductor”, and in doing so setting myself a limit for my career at the grand age of 28. Or, I could just get over myself, drop the excuses and do something about my lack of conducting skills.

I poured myself a large glass of wine and Googled “Conducting Course London”. After sifting through a few uninspiring entries, my attention was drawn to Women Conductors @ Morley College. Now with the Royal Philharmonic Society, these courses are designed to get more women conducting, from full time students/recent graduates aged 16+ to older music professionals and teachers.

I couldn’t quite believe it. There was a course specifically for Animateurs and Music Leaders on the one weekend I wasn't due to be working. I had missed the application deadline but Alice Farnham, international conductor and the founder of these courses kindly let me take part regardless of this. I had no idea I was in for such an inspiring weekend. 

We were given some orchestral repertoire to prepare as well as some Beethoven Piano Sonatas. I wasn’t at all sure what to expect, and had a last-minute rush to buy a baton in case we needed one - didn’t want to be the person that came unprepared! 


The course

On the Saturday morning I arrived at the venue, Kings College London, to be greeted by a room of about 9 equally apprehensive-looking women. However Alice, the course leader, instantly put us all at ease with her approachable manner, none of the stiffness or formality you might expect when imagining a conducting course.

What followed was an incredible two days of learning, personal development and laughter. There was absolutely no judgement between participants and instead the room was filled with sense of playfulness - the type of fun yet focused environment that frees everyone up to do their best. We all had different reasons for taking part yet shared a desire to learn as much as we could and get the most out of the two days as possible.

We learnt a lot about technique and used Beethoven piano sonatas to learn beat patterns and how to do a “bounce” and “circles” for legato. We focused on giving clear upbeats full of character and eliminating extra unnecessary body movements such as nodding on the first beat of every bar or bending knees!

Another theme that ran through the course of the two days was that of open and powerful body language. We even started Day 2 with some “power poses” which I have used since and found to really work! (If you don't know what I’m talking about, have a quick watch of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ks-_Mh1QhMc Try it! (Probably best in private… ;)

Something else that helped me a great deal was a concept Alice introduced to us about holding the sound as a physical thing, Imagining picking up the sound rather than putting it down - keeping hold of the sound as if it actually is something. Almost like moving through water, there is a slight tension in the movement. I found this idea really changed the way I think about conducting.

We were joined by two wonderfully supportive and encouraging repetiteurs, Fran and Nick, who stayed with us until the Sunday lunchtime. They were constantly giving really helpful feedback and were a really integral part of the weekend.

On the Sunday afternoon we then had the opportunity to take what we had learned and conduct string players who were alumni of the Southbank Sinfonia. This was again another great experience from which we gained a great deal. It was different altogether from conducting Fran and Nick on piano and posed different challenges.


For me, this course was invaluable. It has filled me with a new level of self-confidence and I have already seen positive results in my working life. A few weeks after the course I was conducting an orchestral performance consisting of beginner instrumentalists alongside professional players. After the concert, a violinist who had been in the orchestra I had conducted a few weeks before asked me what I had done to improve my conducting in such a short space of time. A percussionist also remarked that I now have the face of a conductor.. (not exactly sure what that means but I think it’s a compliment so am going with it!) Another player came up and simply shook my hand and gave me a smile that said it all. 

The importance of these courses cannot be underestimated. As a teenager, I was too shy to even tell an audience what my name was and the name of the piece I was going to perform. I was also too scared to do anything if I wasn’t 100% sure I was going to be really good at it (the limiting effects of perfectionism). If you had told my 16-year old self that I was going to make a living out of standing up in front of groups of people and getting them to make music together, I would have thought you were mad. These courses give people like me an opportunity to come to conducting a bit later and to learn in a safe space and develop skills that allow us challenge ourselves and develop our careers further.

Not only does it give us great learning opportunities, it also gives us access to a network of many other young women who are in a similar position. This is incredibly valuable as a freelance musician as although it is a wonderful career, I sometimes find that working for yourself can feel a bit isolating.

My advice to anyone who is considering doing one of these courses is simply to just do it. There is absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain…

Women Conductors is now entering an exciting new stage as it partners with the Royal Philharmonic Society. Check out all the details of upcoming courses for 2016/2017 here: http://royalphilharmonicsociety.org.uk/index.php/performers/women_conductors


I have been so inspired by this course that I intend to form a small orchestra that meets occasionally to provide an opportunity for conductors to put what they are learning into practise. If you read this and would like to get involved either as a player or conductor drop me an email. Alternatively, if you are able to help in another way, perhaps knowing of affordable (free?!) rehearsal space or helping with printing of music please also get in touch :)

Stop & Sing at St. Pancras International

Why we turned this piano...

 
 

Into THIS piano

The people of the United Kingdom awoke on Friday (that’s if they had managed to sleep at all) to what quite frankly now feels like a broken Kingdom. With shock, sadness, bitterness, blame, accusations, disbelief and even hatred flying around everywhere, it was impossible to escape the sunken feeling that had engulfed London. I’m not going to launch into an in-depth explanation of my political views as that is not the point of this blog. However, it is fair to say that come Friday morning I, along with most of the people I know, was feeling absolutely sick to my stomach.

Not quite knowing what to do with myself, I was scanning through the millions of social media posts on the subject when I came across one that a member of my choir, Real Voices, had posted in our Facebook group. 

“Actually cried at the result over breakfast. Can we have an impromptu rehearsal to cheer me up?” 

Another choir member had replied to this - “Music might be the only way to get through today me thinks”.

It struck me that she was absolutely right, music was the only way to get through a day like this. There is endless research out there about the many psychological benefits of music, but as musicians we experience this first hand all the time. For me personally, as much as I enjoy taking my frustration out on a poor piano, nothing beats the feeling of singing your heart out with a group of people and being immersed in the sound sound created by passionate voices singing together. 

We needed to do something to make ourselves and other people feel better. Sometimes you can’t control what is going on around you, but you can control how you react to it. And to me this felt more pertinent than ever. As did the fact that right now we need to stick together, and to me, making music is the ultimate group experience. 

As a choir, we had been toying with the idea recently of heading to one of the public pianos at St Pancras station at some point in late-July to do a performance for fun and to get our name out there a bit. I put some feelers out to see who might be up for it at a few hours notice, not to perform our choir stuff, but just to sing everything and anything that we wanted to. It felt perfect as one of the pianos is right outside the Eurostar - the gateway to Europe. Within minutes a few singers had responded saying they would be there, so we decide to go for it and spread the word - Let’s do something positive to spread some love and joy during an otherwise pretty awful time.

It was a case of turning up and seeing who could make it. About 7 members of Real Voices were able to get themselves there, and a great friend and colleague of mine had help get the word out so we were joined by a few of his choir members. One of my best friends from school came to support, so we were ready to go.

Within minutes of starting singing we were joined by people around us. People couldn’t resist joining in, and even those who didn’t want to sing came and stood close by to soak up the atmosphere. We just took requests from the general public, and googled the lyrics on our phones (thank you, technology!). And quite frankly, it felt amazing. We were there for about an hour, putting smiles on people’s otherwise serious faces. People who normally stand in stations and avoid eye contact with each other were communicating, speaking to each other, singing and laughing. People from all over Europe and the world. That’s what music has the power to do. It breaks down barriers that shouldn’t be there in the first place. This quote feels incredibly relevant at the moment. “Without music, life would be a mistake” - Friedrich Nietzsche. He also said “Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up”. That it certainly can.

I would encourage everyone to take to the streets and make music. It is liberating and feels seriously good. Thanks to my friends for being encouraging because without them it would have been me and a piano. “We have far more in common than that which divides us” and music is one of those things. Let’s stick together, people.

Here is what a few people had to say about what it meant to them.

Thank you so much for turning a dark day into moments that reaffirmed my faith in humanity.
— Member of general public
Singing with you all soothed my broken heart. Seeing smiles on strangers passing by and joining felt special, like we were healing each other with music and bringing us closer after a very sad day.
— Lilibeth
After a day of so much turmoil and division, it was a really wonderful feeling to put our differences for a moment and come together in song. I think everyone left feeling cheered and hopeful.
— Pamela
Thursday’s events rocked our world - it is no exaggeration to say we were devastated. Personally, I felt like I had been through a breakup. Within moments our spirits were lifted, a crowd gathered, and we could see in commuters faced we’d lifted them too. Music is powerful. We will emerge from the darkness a stronger, unified people - there will be bumps along the way - and if we keep on singing, as we chose to on Friday, together we will overcome all.
— Fiona
Friday’s #StopAndSing provided a glorious 45 mins of escapism from a hugely difficult day. A chance to be completely absorbed by the positive and inclusive vibes that sharing good music with strangers can offer. It was soothing for the soul.
— Amy

 

Videos clips that surfaced..