Home     News   Can conducting be taught?

Can conducting be taught?

You cannot train anybody to be a conductor, and I will say until my dying day, conductors are born and not made. – Sir John Barbirolli

A technique of conducting does exist and can be learnt and practised down to its smallest details before a student first attempts to conduct an orchestra. – Hermann Scherchen

Can the art of conducting be taught? The question is an old one and despite the proliferation of conducting courses around the world, the answer is not straightforward. Ask a selection of experts on the subject and you will get a wide variety of answers.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the relative youth of the art of conducting itself. It is easy to forget this in a musical world which has seen figures such as Karajan and Bernstein rise to near god-like status, but the idea that conducting is a profession in itself is essentially a 20th century one. It was not until the appearance of figures such as Hans Richter late in the 19th century that the concept of the specialist conductor began to take hold. Even Hans von Bülow, who is very much remembered today as one of the great pioneers of conducting, was far better known during his own lifetime as a concert pianist.

The idea of actively training conductors was initially slow to come about, it being assumed that conductors should simply learn by first-hand experience. Richard Strauss famously told one aspiring conductor asking for tuition: ‘I can teach you all that can be taught about conducting in a few minutes, the rest can only be learnt through experience.’ Gradually, however, some of the basic elements of conducting began to be taught, particularly in Germany. Whilst little material exists detailing what form these early conducting classes took, we can guess from the writings of people such as Hermann Scherchen that any conductor training that did take place in the early part of the 20th century was at a fairly rudimentary level. It was not really until after the Second World War that the formal education of conductors flourished, with some form of training becoming the norm at universities worldwide.

But what sort of skills should a conductor possess in order to lead an orchestra? Most of us in the music industry think we already know, but perhaps it is worth taking a moment to reassess. As well as issues relating to basic musicianship and the visible, physical act of conducting, a successful conductor must know how to work with a group of people. As the world renowned French conductor Charles Munch once said, ‘Think for a moment of what it would mean to a pianist if by some miracle every key of his instrument should suddenly become a living thing.’ The conductor should also have an intimate knowledge of the score being performed and understand its structure, orchestration and harmonic content. He or she should have a clearly formed interpretation and have developed enough aural skills to be able to hear what is going on in the orchestra, and be able to solve problems as they arise. The conductor should be able to convey their vision of the piece primarily with their physical being rather than speaking, and not least of all, the ideal conductor will inspire the musicians of the orchestra to play to the best of their abilities. For an idea of what one orchestra was looking for in their next chief, click here. With so many individual ingredients required, the question arises again – can conducting be taught? Clearly some of these skills are teachable, but others are perhaps beyond the reach of a conventional education. The second half of the 20th century saw a proliferation in conducting courses being taught, particularly at the tertiary level. As such, the beginning of the 21st century seems to be an appropriate time to look back over this period and assess the strengths and weaknesses of various programs and approaches that have developed throughout the world, and to assess the ‘teachability’ of the art itself.

Leading conducting programs around the world.

Whilst conducting is now taught at a vast number of institutions around the world, I have looked closely at a small group that I would consider leaders of the pack. In Europe, three institutions stand out – the St Petersburg Conservatoire in Russia, the Sibelius Academy in Finland, and the Vienna School of Music and Arts in Austria. However, the teaching methods used at these three institutions vary quite dramatically.

The St Petersburg school of conducting still revolves very much around the teachings of renowned pedagogue Ilya Musin (1904-1999) who taught many big names including Valery Gergiev, Yuri Temirkanov and Tugan Sokhiev over a 60 year period. Musin had a very disciplined approach to the art of conducting and had a detailed technical system which he expected all of his students to adhere to. Students would work with two highly experienced pianists on a regular basis and also have the opportunity to conduct a small professional orchestra that has existed solely for the purpose of training conductors in St Petersburg since the early 1980s. Many former students of Musin speak of having to make a break and develop their own style after completing their studies with him, but at the same time of having an incredible technical vocabulary to draw upon.

This contrasts quite markedly with the approach taken by Jorma Panula who was the conducting professor at the Sibelius Academy from 1973 to 1993 and was also the first course director for Symphony Australia’s conductor training program (1997-2001). Panula himself says that he ‘has no method’ and indeed he is famous for his free approach. Rather than imposing any kind of technical system as the Musin school does, Panula works with what he believes to be the student’s natural movements and helps to make them more effective. To him the individuality of the conductor is of primary importance, and he detests anybody who should try to imitate any of the greats. Students have the opportunity to work with a paid chamber orchestra of high-level students twice a week and each orchestra session is followed by a session of equal length where the rehearsal is analysed on video, and this is where most of the teaching is done. Though video is of course used elsewhere, the emphasis placed on it as a learning tool is unique to the Sibelius Academy. This method allows the student to work more or less uninterrupted whilst on the podium and hence provide an experience closer to a professional situation.

Vienna has long been a mecca for conducting students and again has its own unique approach to conductor training. The golden period for the school was undoubtedly the 50s and 60s under the professorship of Hans Swarowsky, during which time students included Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta and Mariss Jansons. Whilst Swarowsky is not remembered as being particularly demanding regarding the physical aspects of conducting, he clearly instilled in his students a deep and thorough approach to the understanding of music through its form and structure. Many teachers have followed since the Swarowsky era, but what continues to make the school unique is the sheer number of students studying conducting full-time. This academic year there are approximately 70 students in Vienna, which is a stark contrast to the Sibelius Academy (12) and St Petersburg (19). There are two professors, each with his own class and the bulk of the teaching is done in groups of five, with four students playing two pianos while the fifth conducts. A professional orchestra is hired periodically to give students a taste of the real thing, but of course with so many students time is limited. However, one of the advantages of having so many students is that courses in subjects such as ear training and orchestration can be tailored specifically for conductors, thus students in Vienna can expect a more thorough grounding in these areas than they will receive in other institutions. Naturally, Vienna is a hub of musical activity and because of this a great place for a budding young conductor to be.

Although not as established as the previous three schools the Zurich School of Music and Arts is unquestionably one of the younger schools on the rise and will no doubt soon join its older siblings as being one of the ‘go to’ places to study. On the question of whether you can teach conducting, Professor Johannes Schlaefli prefers the word training to teaching and sees himself more in a role similar to that of a sporting coach. He provides the framework for the student and directs their attention to crucial points at the right moment. But the students themselves ultimately must do the work and make their own discoveries.

In the US conductor training is led largely by schools on the east coast such as the Juilliard School, the Curtis Institute of Music and the Peabody Institute. One slightly smaller school that deserves to have its name added to this list is the School of Music of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Currently headed by Kenneth Kiesler, this program has produced a large number of successful graduates and developed an excellent reputation over the last 25 years. What makes Kiesler’s approach different to other conducting pedagogues is his willingness to push the boundaries further than most in terms of what aspects of conducting are teachable. Some of the great conductors of our time such as Giulini and Abbado have been said to physically embody the music whilst they are conducting. But is it possible to teach such a concept to a student, or is it an inborn talent? Kiesler believes it is teachable and, uniquely, has various methods to assist his students to open themselves up emotionally and physically, so as to enable the possibility of this concept of embodying the music. This leads us very much into the field of psychology as Kiesler believes the conductor needs to allow him/herself to be ‘vulnerable’ to the effects of the music. In his one-to-one lessons he sometimes improvises at the piano and encourages the student to feel the music in their person, before giving a gesture. This is of course in addition to a very rigorous, traditionally grounded conducting program. On the subject of charisma, Kiesler says, ‘As far as I am concerned charisma emerges from having authority and the only way to have authority is to have knowledge.’

Another crucial factor to consider when comparing courses, is the audition process. How does one predict what kind of people will make the best conductors? Otto Werner Mueller is one of the biggest names in the US conducting scene having been the teacher at the Juilliard School for many years and is currently the teacher at the Curtis Institute. Whereas most courses ultimately place the emphasis on the student’s demonstrated abilities whilst standing on the podium, Mueller is more interested in the student’s listening skills, harmonic knowledge, analytical skills and ability to play an orchestral score at the piano. This naturally leads to a student group with a very different profile to most and hence produces a different kind of conductor.

The Juilliard School has been going through a transitional phase in recent years and has recently appointed Alan Gilbert, the new Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, to lead their program. It will be very interesting to see how this develops in the coming years, and how the students there will benefit from close links with one of the world’s great orchestras.

There are of course many things all of these courses have in common. A solid musical background is required to survive the rigorous audition procedures at all of these schools, and students once admitted are given the chance to work with orchestras on a regular basis. This is clearly a vital ingredient as many aspects of this art can only be learnt with the instrument itself. Another linking thread is that all of these schools have a long history of training conductors at a high level, and have built their reputations over a substantial period of time. In Australia, we currently have two Conservatoriums that offer full-time conducting program, but both courses are relatively young in international terms. Hopefully the excellent work currently being done by Imre Pallo and John Hopkins in Sydney and Melbourne respectively will be foundations for courses that in the future will also be recognised internationally.

Obviously there are other avenues open to aspiring conductors other than training at a tertiary institution, although in the eyes of this author, this is the best way forward, as there are some skills and habits that are best developed through weekly training. Having said that, an intensive masterclass or summer school experience can be enormously beneficial and is actually the perfect supplement to a long term course of study. Without doubt the most famous summer schools are in the US, namely the Tanglewood and Aspen Music Festivals. In Europe the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, Italy is particularly sought after by conducting students. Shorter masterclasses are also becoming increasingly common (particularly in Eastern Europe) and in some cases these masterclasses are linked together to form part of a larger structure. Germany’s Dirigentforum and Symphony Services International’s own program in Australia are two excellent examples of this, with the latter program providing a unique opportunity for Australians to gain ongoing instruction in front of a professional orchestra. And of course, more than one conductor has ventured on to the podium with no specific training at all, but inevitably he or she will have to learn many lessons the hard way and in a very short period of time.

So can conducting be taught? Ultimately the answer seems to be yes, but to quote the venerable Pierre Boulez, ’Teaching is only a beginning; it is teaching yourself that is important.’

Luke Dollman © 2012

Luke Dollman is active as a professional conductor and is himself a graduate of the Sibelius Academy in Finland and a former Fellow of the Aspen Music Festival. He was a participant in the Symphony Australia conductor training program in the late 1990s and today is a teacher in the program. He is writing a PhD on the subject of conductor training.