Whether it’s for an amateur choir, professional orchestra, musical production, opera or ballet, the role of the conductor is a demanding one. If you want to learn how to conduct, or if you would just like to know a bit more about what is involved in conducting, here’s our selection of the best online masterclasses and external courses.
Brief history of conducting
The role of the conductor as we know it today, didn’t emerge until about the early 19th century. Back in the Middle Ages, an early form of conducting using hand movements to indicate melodic shape called cheironomy, was used. In the 15th century, performances by the Sistine Choir in the Vatican were kept together by slapping a roll of paper to the beat. Then, a staff began to be used to beat time. In 1687, the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully was using a staff to conduct his Te Deum in celebration of King Louis XIV’s recovery from an illness, when he stabbed his foot with it by mistake. The resulting wound turned gangrenous but Lully refused to have his “dancer’s leg” amputated, claiming he would rather die than lose his ability to dance. He died two months later.
In the 18th century, a musician in an ensemble would act as the conductor. This was usually the concertmaster (leader of the first violins), who could use his bow as a baton. It was also common to conduct from the harpsichord for pieces that required a basso continuo (basso continuo, or continuous bass, was played by an instrument providing a chordal accompaniment such as a keyboard instrument, or a plucked string instrument such as a lute, along with another bass instrument, like a cello). However, as the size of the orchestra grew larger and music became more complex, the use of a baton became more common, as it was easier to see than bare hands or rolled-up paper. Composer and conductor Louis Spohr claimed that he was the first person to introduce the baton to England in the 1820, but reports indicate that Daniel Turk conducted the Halle Orchestra with a baton in 1810.
The composers, Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner, were also conductors and wrote essays dedicated to the subject. But it was Wagner who was responsible for developing the conductor’s role as one who imposes his own interpretation on a piece rather than just beating time and indicating entries.
Learning how to conduct
Today, the primary responsibilities of the conductor according to Wikipedia, are to unify performers, set the tempo, execute clear preparations and beats, listen critically and shape the sound of the ensemble, and to control the interpretation and pacing of the music. It takes a lot of practise and a lot of preparation! Here are some of our favourite online classes.
Hilary Davan Wetton, Musical Director of the City of London Choir and Associate Conductor of the London Mozart Players, has produced two excellent videos during the Covid-19 lockdown on behalf of the London Mozart Players. Learn about the basics of conducting including what NOT to do with the left hand (such as the grecian-urn effect), in the first video. (Part 2, where he talks about preparation and reading the score, can be found on YouTube here).
Internationally acclaimed conductor Leonard Slatkin, Music Director Laureate of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) and Directeur Musical Honoraire of the Orchestre National de Lyon (ONL), has produced a complete series of Conducting School videos, all free to access on YouTube. From lesson 1 which deals with the baton, to the placement of the orchestra (lesson 8), there are 19 excellent videos in total.
For more advanced students, there are some exacting online conducting Masterclasses with Daniele Gatti and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. These classes deal with conveying the finer points of interpretation. (After the initial introduction, these classes are in English).
When it comes to operas and ballets, conductor, Timothy Henty, discusses the craft of conducting in a theatre in an hour long video with industry specialists including: Sir Antonio Pappano, Music Director of the Royal Opera; Amy Lane, Artistic Director of the Copenhagen Opera Festival; ballet conductor, Benjamin Pope; Christopher Hampson, Artistic Director and CEO of the Scottish Ballet; and Laurence Dale. There’s a wealth of advice and information here that focuses on all the parts of a conductor’s work that sit alongside the music.
Finally, Timothy Henty, along with co-host Neil Thomson, explore some of the factors behind ‘great’ conductors, and what musicians and music lovers can learn from them, through the personal experiences of their guests: leading singers Sir Thomas Allen and Roderick Williams OBE.
If you’re really serious about conducting, the major UK conservatoires including; the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Royal Northern College of Music, and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, all offer conducting as a two year postgraduate course.
For those who wish to learn the techniques of conducting, perhaps if you are a graduate wanting to brush up on your skills, or an educator where conducting is required for musical activities, or a keen amateur musician, the RNCM offers a programme of external short courses and masterclasses that are open to all.
The Association of British Choral Directors is devoted entirely to supporting those leading choral music, both amateur and professional. Amongst the support it offers, ABCD also runs courses and workshops, which run from beginner to advanced levels.
Aware of the disparity between the numbers of women conductors compared to men, the Royal Philharmonic Society offers a range of courses for aspiring women conductors held at venues nationally. You can read about one student’s experience of the Phase One course here.
“RPS Women Conductors is doing something fantastic: a programme for women conductors led by the very gifted Alice Farnham. A chance to explore issues, musical and interpersonal, faced by the leader of an orchestra who happens to be a woman!” – Sir Antonio Pappano