John Perry is a New York Times best-selling author and ghost writer. He has written major biographies of historical figures and co-written popular novels. But, as a student, Perry was drawn to music as well. He studied English and piano at Vanderbilt University and even began his career working as a radio producer in Houston. He followed his musical interests to Nashville, where he brushed shoulders with some of the music industry’s biggest stars. While writing eventually became his bread and butter, music was once one of Perry’s career paths.
Like many aspiring classical musicians, a young Perry considered a career as a classical music conductor. With music still playing a big role in his life, Perry outlines some of the steps required to achieve this goal.
Be a Musical Generalist
There are an incredible variety of instruments in a modern orchestra, and a conductor has to know about all of them. How fast can the violins play a particular passage? How loud can the percussion be without sounding distorted? How can the trumpets play this passage more easily? What do you tell the chorus in order to get the sound you want? How is the musical approach to Bach different from Brahms? Successful conductors are walking encyclopedias of musical knowledge. Also says John Perry, conductors often begin their professional careers as orchestral players themselves. The great British maestro Sir John Barbirolli gave his first concerts as a member of the cello section of the orchestra. Giancarlo Guerrero, who currently conducts three orchestras — in the US, Portugal, and Poland — began his career as a percussionist. Many conductors started out studying the piano, which gives musicians an excellent overall musical education.
Though today most conductors begin studying conducting at an early age, it is one field where talent and creativity are often just as important as an educational pedigree. One of the most influential conductors of the twentieth century, Sir Thomas Beecham, was completely self-taught. For him, conducting started as a rich man’s hobby and developed into a lifelong passion. More recently, great conductors have come not only from countries with the most famous conservatories but also from countries like Estonia, Finland, and Argentina with rich musical histories, explains John Perry. Many young conductors today rise up through the ranks by gaining admission to a prestigious conservatory such as Julliard, Eastman, Curtis, or the Royal College of Music in London. Of course most young maestros don’t have opportunities like that. But dedicated work in a music or conducting program almost anywhere gives naturally gifted men and women the chance to develop their skills and earn a shot at a professional career.
Fortunately for young conductors, there are many, many opportunities to gain experience and exposure. The challenge is that like many careers in the fine arts, a lot of these openings in the US are low paying or pay nothing at all. University and community orchestras, church musicians, bands and choirs sponsored by civic organizations and others field musical groups across the country, and need someone to lead them. These are the places where many aspiring conductors hone their skills, build their resumes, and attract the attention of the professional classical music world. In addition to musical training, these jobs give conductors valuable experience in other essential skills such as business management, personnel relations, programming, and budgeting. Also, says John Perry, conducting competitions have grown increasingly popular in the last few years. These showcases for new talent have been the launching pad for numerous new careers. Many of them are open competitions that anyone can enter. The grand prize may be to lead a world-class orchestra, conduct a high-profile concert, or make a recording.
Land the Job
In the end, becoming a classical musical conductor requires a passion for music, leadership skills, education, and experience. A truly excellent conductor also knows what it takes to be an outstanding musician so that they can better communicate with the orchestra they lead. If you’ve been able to get this far, chances are you’re ready to land your dream career as a conductor. Remember though that most conducting opportunities will be at the university level, or at a community orchestra, civic chorus, or similar job. But somebody has to snag that position conducting the famous orchestra in the international capital. And who knows? It may some day be you.
Becoming a conductor is no simple task and will take any individual many years of dedication to achieve this goal. But, if it’s something that fills you with excitement and determination, then go for it, says Perry.