The Young Conductor VI - gaining experience
Date: February 20, 2014
In an earlier post I mentioned getting experience as a conductor. This is one of the big challenges for a young conductor and I’m a believer in making your own opportunities.
The first and best option for most young conductors (even undergraduates) is to find a position as church choir conductor (I've known other students who took on the children's or youth choir at a church as well). My own first position was in a small Lutheran church near Green Lake in Seattle when I was 20 years old. It was not a fantastic choir, but quite adequate, and I learned so much from my two years there. Everything that succeeded or failed was on me: I had to choose repertoire, coordinate with the pastor and organist, plan and run rehearsals, recruit singers, occasionally worked with the children, and had to have an anthem ready every Sunday. Of course, some things worked better than others (a nice way of saying that some rehearsals didn’t go well or I made poor repertoire choices—usually underestimating how difficult a particular anthem would be). But the experience was phenomenal, the learning curve was steep, and I improved rapidly. I also did a few extra concerts, some with friends of mine from the University helping out, including my first performance of a Bach cantata with instruments.
As for the church, they got someone who, while inexperienced, did have training and some skills, and was dedicated to doing the best job I could to help the choir make a significant contribution to the worship service. There will always be smaller churches who don't have a trained conductor and you can do a great service to those churches at the same time you gain experience.
Check with your college/university conductor and organ teacher as they will often get information about church openings. Look online, talk with older students who already have a church job. But do whatever you can to get your own choir. You’ll be able to put all those things you’ve been learning into actual practice. Even if (as I sometimes did) you have to occasionally sing the tenor part while conducting on Sunday morning, you’ll learn an amazing amount!
As much as you learn in a conducting class, there’s nothing like have a choir where you’re totally responsible to become a better conductor!
After two years at the Lutheran Church, I got the position of choir director at the large Methodist Church next to the University of Washington. This was a bigger church, better music program (although the choir was aging), and the organ professor at the UW was the organist at the church (Rod Eichenberger was one of my predecessors in this job). I continued to learn, could occasionally hire some of my fellow instrumental students to do some works with a few instruments or a small string group, and this church became my “home” for the next 8 years, until I was 30. With an office and a decent choir room, I also used it as rehearsal space (and sometimes concert space) for the other groups I would start, taught voice lessons there, etc. It was a great place with wonderful people.
I mentioned teaching private voice. This was also something I began quite early (probably when I was 19 or 20). A local HS director hired music students as voice teachers for his young students and I spent time traveling up to his HS once a week after school and teaching beginning students (I can’t remember now how I made that connection, but likely through ACDA). This is a fabulous way to learn about working with the voice, dealing with common vocal problems, and learning how to get beginners to sing better. As always, if you have to teach something it forces you to learn much more about what you do, how you do it, and how to explain it to another. I did the same thing later with my own former HS conductor, teaching at a nearby private school who rented out space for several of us to teach after school (the HS wouldn’t allow non-employees of the district to teach on the property). I then began my own studio as well.
In the next post I’ll write about starting your own independent ensemble, something with which I have a fair amount of experience. But know that getting experience is how you turn your education into a set of skills that take you from a student to a real (and better) conductor.