Conducting Business - advice to a young musician interested in the profession. 

burz96 writes:

Hi Jordan,

I’m 17 years old and been playing violin for 8 years and piano for 2. I am interested in conducting but I have no idea where to start. I am done with high school so a school orchestra is out of the question for experience. I was hoping you might be able to point me in the right direction or give me advice. 


— burz96

Hi Jamison, thanks for writing!

Where to begin? First off, congratulations on deciding to pursue conducting! At your age, and with your experience, the world is virtually your oyster. The first step, though, is to continue to develop your violin playing to its absolute fullest and to fully pursue the best possible undergraduate program for violin performance (and possibly music education). Certainly, I can tell you that the “usual suspects” such as Juilliard, Peabody, Oberlin, Curtis and Yale,  would be your absolute best bet if you are playing at or anywhere near that level. (Dirty little secret: conservatory-quality musicians aren’t really as god-like as you might imagine them when they are 17. There are a few, sure, that are really that good, but MOST are just run-of-the-mill teen musicians who are just a slight cut above. After coming to a place like Peabody, you’ll change and you’ll come out the other end at a much higher place. But it doesn’t start out that way.  

Maybe you’re not quite at that level? Never fear! I did not start out at the conservatory level myself, and worked for many many years to get where I am now. Many might have written it off and just settled for a different career, but I decided to go all the way, and it eventually paid off! So no matter what program you end up in, and there are many fine programs, Keep working hard, and you can end up with the best of the best in time. Tenacity is worth three times its weight in talent. 

Second, once you begin your undergrad, spend the first two years madly obsessed with your studies. Take extras classes. Get straight A’s in your music classes. Go to every recital, the more out of your comfort zone, the better. Study philosophy, art, literature, theater, and psychology. Join the honors college. Keep a 4.0. You may think “really? all of that?” no. Not all of that. But some of it, for sure. But more than anything develop your ears. You should make a 100 on every single sight singing exam all throughout college or very very very close. It is your secret weapon as a conductor and more important than all of the stick-waving in the world.

Next, plan a killer junior recital. Organize an ensemble to accompany you to a Bach or Mozart violin concerto. Lead the orchestra from the violin. Take conducting. Be the best student (but never be directly competitive and always be nice). Organize an end-of year concert. If you also do music education, then student teach as a senior and research what the absolute best program is where there are musical teachers leading the programs, teachers who do great work AND will love to let you conduct. Organize extra ensembles while student teaching. Arrive as early as the earliest teacher arrives and stay as late as the latest teacher stays. Pay your dues! 

While doing all these things as a junior, start attending conducting workshops. I would highly recommend you try to study with my teacher, Gustav Meier, before the clock runs out. He has been the great conducting pedagogue in the US for over 50 years now, and he is starting to keep a less active schedule. I would highly recommend at least auditing a workshop of his as soon as humanly possible. As I said, attend conducting workshops, First as an auditor, then (after taking conducting) as a participant. 

As a junior, really zero in on your top 5 schools you’d like to study conducting. Make sure you are dead-honest about your piano skills, because that will eliminate certain school options as a possibility for you if you are unable to do a certain level of score playing at the piano. With that in mind, visit the schools you’re interested in. Attend conducting class (Peabody meets on Mondays and Tuesdays, for instance). Visit with the teachers. Try to take a lesson if that’s a possibility, or at least seek advice. Speaking of: never seek a job, or an opportunity. Always ask for advice.


From my brief experiment with Google Glass.

Lastly, start this now and do it forever: buy every score to every piece you play in orchestra or plan to hear when going to a concert. Listen to it in advance. Multiple recordings. Find out what the tricky excerpts are. Hit up YouTube. Bring your score to rehearsal. Study it. Learn it. No matter how good or terrible the piece is. Visit every orchestra rehearsal you can. The better the conductor, the better. The worse conductor, the better. Either way, you learn what to do, and what not to do.

Hope this gets you started on the right path!

Jordan Randall Smith is the Music Director of Symphony Number One.