On Choosing A Path: Conducting to Ethno

4/4 time

I get asked quite often why I pursued a grad. degree in conducting even though I knew I wanted to be an ethnomusicologist. There are a lot of reasons: it was the right time and place. I wanted to study more intensely with my undergraduate major professor. I was still teaching kids at the time and wanted to build a skill set. I had an amazing assistantship opportunity. I wanted to build my resume a bit before I set off to come, well, here. I knew it would  add validity so that when this intense period of study passes, I can dig up my wind band roots and direct a civic ensemble if it’s meant to happen.  On top of those things, I wanted to develop leadership abilities, expand upon undergraduate conducting courses, and gain a better understanding of standard repertoire. My New England roots are in early band music. I was raised on the bandstand.

In retrospect, a degree in conducting has become a continuous personal evaluation and outlet for musical self-reflection.  It’s difficult at this point, having switched coldly from performance in music to writing about music (sans performance). Though I’m building bimusicality through “world” ensemble participation, it’s a completely new animal. Most of my Western music experience sits on the back burner, however I imagine I unconsciously use more of it than I realize.

By conducting, I became a better ensemble musician. I learned that the conductors I admire are also teaching artists. I learned how to prepare scores for practical use, how to program concerts (yes, this is a skill), and how to be a strong music advocate to those who wish the arts to take a back seat to more pragmatic things.

I am grateful having had the opportunity to work with kids of all ages (band/orchestra/jazz), community groups, college ensembles, and “professional” musicians (I hate that word – throw it on my list with the terms “scholarly” and “academic source”). However, one of my biggest learning experiences: teaching young musicians in their first ensemble settings.

Consistency of conducting was essential because young musicians are still learning to respond to basic conducting gestures. The pedagogical result was that I learned to focus my skills. My students were constantly looking for cues, reassurance, and consistency. This experience was a great self-teaching tool.  The independence required to conduct is more demanding than most people realize – it’s important to become your own teacher. Without an ensemble available at all times, you must rely on mirror practice (yes, actually conducting in front of a mirror), score study, and self-reflection.

As an ensemble musician, I’ve learned to pay more attention to conductor nuances, to know other people’s parts as well my own (this one’s the key to musicality), to take ownership of phrasing, and the importance of the breath as an individual, a section, and an ensemble unit.

At the end of the day, I will never consider myself a conductor. Though I can stand on a podium and wave my arms around with enough success to get through the work, I feel like conducting should still be an apprenticeship system and degrees should only supplement that apprenticeship. I have several favorite conductors: Marin Alsop, Frank Battisti,  Simon Rattle, Leonard Bernstein, Gustao Dudamel, and Arturo Toscanini are at the top of the [very varied] list. All of them have uniquely effective conducting techniques, however I also admire them for what they bring/brought to the profession. The one distinction that I see in all of them is that they all want(ed) to share their music with the world, and not just typical highbrow concertgoers.

Bernstein never just showed up for the job. He used his Young People’s Concerts to share classical music with those who couldn’t be in the concert hall, and Marin Alsop is following his cue with her incredible educational pod and v-cast programming (and yes, I’ll admit that it helps that she’s a queer female conductor for me to look up to whose at the top of her game). Simon Rattle is introducing complex contemporary music to a traditional setting and saying, “If I can’t try to play the pieces with the Berlin Philharmonic, then who can play them?” Every third concert of Rattle’s is now taped and clipped for mass viewers on at his request. Frank Battisti is the leading figure today in wind literature and aims to expand peoples’ knowledge on the subject through expert music making and the creation of teaching artists.  His conducting experiences have raised him to such a level. Gustavo Dudamel has a relentless energy and passion for music. He presents it to the world when he stands on the podium, and his ensembles play better as a result of both. Finally, Arturo Toscanini exhibited absolute professionalism and near-perfection in every conducting gesture he made.

Well good, now when people ask me why I pursued a graduate degree in conducting even though I knew I wanted to be an ethnomusicologist, I can spare them the blabber and point them here. Okay, maybe not. The older I get, the more I fall into line with the idea that life happens to us – we don’t happen to life. Everything happens for a reason and everything that’s meant to happen, will happen. Enough fluff for you?  Karmic law. If anything, the degree allowed me to gain three strong mentors, one in particular who’s become a dear friend.  Perhaps one day I’ll do an ethnomusicological study on international ensemble leaders.

Conductors You Should Know: Marin Alsop

*My last post in this series was on Gustavo Dudamel. If you’d like to read it, you can do so here.

Marin Alsop (image from the archives)

At age nine, Marin Alsop (b. 1956) saw Leonard Bernstein conduct and decided she wanted to become just like him (ABC Video Clip). Currently the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and the first woman to lead a major orchestra, Alsop is fulfilling that childhood dream. At the beginning of her appointment, the BSO musicians publicly protested her position. Today, Alsop is the public face of the orchestra.

Ms. Alsop does her best to integrate cultural diversity from her own community, such as programming works based on Baltimore’s large Latin-American population. She also integrates popular music to target audiences that would not necessarily attend her concerts, for example, by programming The Roots with her orchestra.

Alsop never stops advocating for music or for the profession.   This is the reason I admire her. Her goal is to get people from all walks of life to experience classical music while honoring her orchestra in the process.

Concerning more technical aspects:

As a conductor, Alsop gives very consistent breath preps before the beginning of every piece.  This is an example of non-verbal interaction that leads to clarity of intent – i.e. letting the orchestra know what she wants. The result is that the orchestra breathes together as a unified body. Her pattern is always present, however she often lacks a horizontal conducting plane and instead emphasizes the vertical (i.e. enhancing articulation and dynamics).

She often supplements expressive gestures with the use of her body and face, notably when she has the score in front of her and her left hand is used to turn pages. These body and facial gestures flawlessly demonstrate clarity of intent for tempo, dynamics, and style, often without using a pattern at all.  In a performance video of Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite she often raises the right-hand pattern to her chest or higher, and often cues at eye level with her left hand.

Check it out here:

I consider Alsop one of my favorite conductors, and cannot wait to see her wave that baton in person. She has a long way to go in her career, although I greatly admire what she’s already accomplished.  As the first female conductor of a major U.S. orchestra, she makes me proud!


Works Cited:

1. Alsop, Marin. Shostakovch Jazz Suite Part 1, Concertgebouw Orchestra

Retrieved from:

2. Marin Alsop on ABC’s World News [Video], 2005

Retrieved from:

3. Marin Alsop on NBC’s Today Show [Video], 2007.

Retrieved from:

4. Marin Alsop at Aspen Music Festival & School [Video], 2008.

Retrieved from:

Conductors You Should Know: Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel (borrowed from

From Venezuela, Gustavo Dudamel (b. 1981) is the principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden and the current music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He also directs the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, a Venezuelan youth orchestra.

As a child, Dudamel was involved in El Sistema, the publicly financed method of music education in Venezuela. The system manages hundreds of youth orchestras and funds instrumental training throughout the country. Over ninety percent of the children who grow up in this system are from low socio-economic backgrounds (El Sistema website). (more…)