The Virtual-so Conductor
Note: this article can tie into a previous post I wrote about conducting, found here:
And as always, the underlined phrases lead to links designed to make the article more interactive. Please click them!
It has been said that there are many different paths to becoming a conductor. In my 7 years of studying conducting formally, I don't think I've ever done something as unusual as I did this summer, which was studying conducting online exclusively. Indeed, this is a most unusual path to the podium.
It's because as I write this article (July 2020), the entire world is in the middle of a pandemic (with the exception of Antarctica maybe) - the likes of which haven't been seen since the Spanish flu of 1918-1920. As a result, extra precautions have to be taken in order to control to the already very rapid spread of it. One of these precautions includes the cancelling of live events, such as classes, concerts, conferences, workshops or any gatherings of 10 people or more. Most musical events have moved online, and we have seen increase in streaming and remote concerts, most of them through the telecom app Zoom (which nobody knew about before the pandemic hit).
Musicians adapt to a changed concert environment
The good thing about this is that musicians have had an opportunity to bring their art to a newer and wider audience. Through virtual recitals, we have seen an increase in different varieties of music on these programs, including everything from the classics to new music (and as a composer myself, I was fortunate to have had some of my music on these recital thanks to phenomenal performers like Holly Mulcahy and Michael Hall). Also, the virtual concert era started off with a number of videos which featured pieced together videos of musicians performing their parts remotely, resulting in a sort of 'virtual band or orchestra'. While we're seeing less and less of those and more musicians starting to stream their performances in real time, one can't help but be amazed at how well musicians have adapted to this abrupt and sudden change.
The only thing that is missing from that, I think, is the energy of the live audience. That's what makes live performances really memorable, I think. With the virtual element, there is a noticeable disconnect in that sense and it sometime feels a bit artificial. This is why we can't wait for live performances to begin again, at least in the United States. Orchestral concerts are at a standstill at the moment, with some orchestras actually cancelling entire seasons. For now we are seeing more and more chamber music concerts that will hopefully build back up to the full orchestra sometime soon.
As I've mentioned earlier, another thing that moved online was classes. We've also seen schools cancel the rest of their semesters, and summer festivals opting to move online, including Brevard, which I was supposed to return to this summer. All of a sudden, a majority of us were left wondering, "What now?" Myself included. All performances were cancelled, and the future looked uncertain for a couple of weeks. That's when I noticed that a number of things started to move online and for affordable and reduced rates as well. That's when I decided to do what I did last year and work on conducting activities. Compositionally, I was set, having received a number of important commissions that would keep me busy in that department. Some mentors of mine suggested to me Miguel Harth-Bedoya's institute, which he was moving online. Having worked with Miguel before in real life, I decided it would be worth a try and that it would be cool to work with him again in a different setting. It was to be a two week course that included discussions of repertoire, ear training sessions and presentations by special guests. All of that looked promising and hugely informational, so I sent in my application, was accepted and started my journey down the rabbit hole that was online conducting programs.
Miguel Harth-Bedoya's Summer Orchestral Conducting Institute (SOCI)
A little bit of background on this before I get into this: I've attended the previous two (2018 and 2019) conducting workshops that were hosted by Miguel prior to the one this year.
The inaugural one was in June 2018 and was held at Texas Christian University. Because I was a student at TCU at the time and this program was brand new, scholarships to attend the workshop for free were given out to TCU students at the time. I applied and was accepted into his class as an auditor. The official name for his program is actually "The Fundamentals of Conducting", which fits because he's always welcomed different levels of musicians into his tutelage, from the seasoned professional to those who were just starting out. Because that was the first year, I believe he had at least 20 or so active participants out of 40 total, mostly college aged people, one or two professional conductors and one very sneaky 13 year old who lied about his age on the application in order to get in (which I also would've done at that age). This year was unique, because the entire Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (of which Miguel has just finished a 20 year music directorship) served as the lab orchestra. The conducting portion was in two parts: a smaller chamber music session, complete with calisthenic activities for all the participants, and a full orchestra session.
Before the conducting portion, however, there were a series of lectures Miguel gave on the theory behind the scores that we were studying, including basic music theory and in depth score study. Having worked with Miguel for three years and seen his program grow from the very beginning, I can say that the 2018 classes served as the foundation for subsequent years, because there were things he actually repeated in 2019 that he tried out in 2018 and there were things he left out as well, in addition to new things he added as well.
I applied again in 2019 and was accepted as an active participant, which meant I got to conduct in the orchestra sessions. This year, he had less people as both active participants and auditors, which meant more time to conduct and try things out. Also, it is worth noting that the workshop was extended to an entire week, whereas in the first year, it was only about 3 or 4 days long. And the entire Fort Worth Symphony was not hired out as the lab orchestra that year, but a smaller ensemble that consisted of members of the FWSO and talented freelancers and TCU students (including the violinist I wrote my 'concerto for violin and small ensemble' for). Like the year before, there were a series of lectures that Miguel gave on the theory that tied into the conducting portion. That year, however, there seemed to be a firm emphasis on the theory groundwork of conducting, because we were given some tests on basic transpositions, instrument name and musical expression translations and aural skills. This was one of the things missing from the first year and incorporated into the summer 2019 and 2020 classes.
As an active participant that year, I got a first hand look into Miguel's very intense and rigorous but fair and extremely sympathetic teaching style. It's worth noting that Miguel is a product of both the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music, so there was no doubt that the way he was teaching us was the way he was taught. In addition to the theory, there was an emphasis on movement and giving the orchestra exactly what they needed at that moment, which forced one to really think and make quick decisions on the podium. I found that I responded well to that teach style and grew a ton in just a week. I even noticed a difference in how more comfortable when I felt when I started concertizing as a conductor beginning in 2020.
Therefore, when the summer of 2020 hit and everything started to move online, I took a chance and applied for Miguel's online class at literally the very last minute, and surprisingly was accepted. Before I was officially in however, I did a small interview with the Maestro which I assume he uses to assess skill and levels. Because I worked with him for two years prior, and he was already familiar with me and my skills, it was more of a catching up session.
Sometime before that, in March 2020, Miguel had jumped ahead of the game and gave a series of online lectures, the first of which was called 'Beethoven the Symphonist', held on March 26, 2020. That was an interesting session in which Miguel gave an introduction to the Beethoven symphonies and the times in which they were created. It saw a good turn out and I even got to see a few people (in the chat, that is) I've encountered in real life before. As far as the lecture, however, it was very informative but I didn't take much new information away from it. It was nice, however, to get the perspective of a conductor who has had the experience of conducting these pieces in a variety of situations.
And with that, Miguel's online conducting institute began online in early June, via Zoom. This year, it was extended to two weeks, whereas in 2018 it had been for a few days and in 2019 it was a week. This seems to tie in to a conversation I had with Miguel about the direction of his program, and he told me he wanted to eventually turn it a conducting 'school' that had a month's length. I thought it was interesting idea at the time, and I still think it's interesting to see the steps Miguel is taking to realize his dream.
However, I don't think he could've imagined the circumstances that would befall all of us.
The point of Miguel's lectures is to tie in to the conducting portion so we could put theory into practice. The conducting portion was now gone, which meant we would only do lectures and music theory. It was basically the first few days of his 2018 class extended into two weeks. Nothing was repeated however, and it was kept interesting by engaging sessions like 'Coffee with Miguel', which happened in the morning, and in which you could talk with Miguel about a variety of subjects including but not limited to:
music (of course)
questions about various topics that arose in the seminars
seeing what Miguel thought about certain passages in a piece of music
Something like that was very interesting, because how often does one get to ask a top flight conductor what series he was binging on Netflix or what sports team he was rooting for?
Over all of this, there was an emphasis on the fundamentals or the building blocks of understanding a full orchestral score. Most of his lectures were 'crash courses' in this sort of thing, dealing with some basics like instrument transpositions, translations of instrument names and basic beating patterns.
In addition to that, there were also side presentations and seminars. The most notable of these were small informational sessions on different instruments given by members of the Fort Worth Symphony, in which they demonstrated various playing techniques on their respective instruments.
He also brought in guest composers to do presentations on their music, including wonderful people like Jennifer Higdon and Jimmy López Bellido. I did admire that Miguel brought a 'living' element to his seminars by bring in living composers who were creating music today and going through the same situation as us, and to hear their perspective on the art they were creating and why they write. As a composer, I found these talks really interesting and helpful, especially since I've met Jennifer Higdon in real life at least twice, and I count Jimmy Lopez as a sort of musical mentor.
However, did I mention this online class was two weeks long? All on zoom? ....everyday?....all day?
Admittedly, the so-called 'Zoom fatigue' is very real, and there were days where I just wasn't feeling up to logging into my computer. It wasn't just me; several of my colleagues felt this way and on some days simply didn't show up. I did show up as often as I could and always got a lot out of whatever I was able to attend.
Another thing: when one does these conducting workshops, it always helps to have someone to stick with and someone to confide in when it starts to get rough (which it always does). Shoutout to Tamara Dworetz, who was kind of my 'buddy' through the whole thing. I actually met Tamara briefly in Dallas a few months prior to that when she was a participant in the Dallas Opera's 'Women's Conducting Institute'. She's really funny and hugely talented so be on the look out for her soon!
Remember how I said that in pervious years, Miguel's lectures tied into the conducting portion of the workshop? That aspect is missing this year, so it was literally two weeks of lectures and classes. I'm pleased to know that Miguel will be doing a separate lab orchestra portion in the future, so that gives us a few months to reflect on what we've learned from him before we put it into practice.
If there's anything that the two week online course taught me that I'll remember for life is that conducting is more than just waving your arms around. There's no doubt that each time I go to study a work to conduct, I'll be keeping in mind everything I got from Miguel's two week seminar.
Side seminars - Jorma Panula and Ennio Nicotra (and Robert Trevino)
In addition to Miguel's workshop, there were several other seminars on the subject conducting that were being hosted online. I made it a point to attend several of these, just to get a different perspective on how conducting can be taught, especially in a time such as this.
In May and June, I attended two online sessions that were taught by the legendary conducting teacher Jorma Panula, who taught some of the best conductors working today including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Mikko Franck, Sakari Oramo, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, and Osmo Vänskä (note how they're mostly Finnish).
I realized that it would important to witness this teacher at work a few times, not only because of Panula's legendary status, but because he is 89 years old and draws on a lifetime of experience in his teaching. I especially jumped on this chance, considering his age and how I would otherwise never get the chance to see him work.
Of course, this was on zoom as well. In the two sessions I attended, he discussed the Beethoven first symphony, the Brahms first symphony, the Beethoven fourth symphony and the Mozart 38th symphony. What Panula would do is he would be seated at a piano and go through each score with a fine tooth comb, and point out tricky passages along with his advice on how to conduct them. Demonstrating these passages on the piano and occasionally singing them as well, Panula would then explain why the section in question was written the way it is, and what problems would come up when rehearsing them. I made sure to take careful notes as these are some of the most challenging pieces in the repertoire.
Overall, I enjoyed my experience watching Maestro Panula at work, and learned a lot of new information about how to conduct these scores as well. Even more interesting was the people who showed up to this class, among them someone who for many years had performed in the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under Claudio Abbado and a violinist in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
In early June, I accidentally stumbled across an advertisement for a masterclass that was to be held by the Italian pedagogue Ennio Nicotra, who is a disciple of the legendary Russian teacher Ilya Musin (who taught another person I've worked with, mentioned later in this article). Because it was free and because I've heard of this guy before (although I wasn't overly familiar with his work besides a really unusual video I once stumbled across), I figured I'd go watch him work as well.
This class was held on June 6 over zoom, live-streaming out of Italy where Nicotra lives and works. Actually, this wasn't so much a class as it was being a fly on the wall during several of his teaching sessions. His students consisted of several older participants who were probably getting started with conducting for the first time. Each of his students conducted a piano which was hidden from the shot with the camera being firmly focused on the conductor. While this was happening, Nicotra would be out of the shot, presumably observing. Once in a while, he would appear in the shot to let the student know his observations, usually in a mixture of Italian and English. He would also jump on the podium at certain points to demonstrate something or to make a point. Then, the participant would get back on the podium and try out what Nicotra just explained, only for him to appear once again in the shot to explain something else. This went on for about an hour.
This was interesting opportunity to get a different perspective on familiar pieces of music and observing another teaching style as well. I found that I could relate to Nicotra in terms of how he talked about different movements to give to the ensemble (when I could understand him of course), and found a way to segway that back into my initial studies, so that even though I wasn't there physically studying with him I still learned from him. And again, it was a really cool chance to get to observe another master teacher at work and probably something else I wouldn't have had the chance to do in real life.
And on a final note for this section, although this doesn't count as a seminar, I must thank Maestro Robert Trevino for a brief but extremely helpful phone call we had in July. I actually saw Trevino conduct the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in a concert in February, and both my friends and I were extremely impressed with his economy of motion, the sound he was able to get out of the orchestra and the depth of his interpretation of the Rachmaninoff second symphony. I read his biography in the program, and could relate to him in the sense that we were both from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and we both have worked with the same people (German Gutierrez at TCU and not necessarily Miguel, but he was a student when he started his music directorship at the FWSO so he saw him do many concerts). Trevino also doesn't have a college degree, although he attended schools and festivals for several years and managed to create a fantastic international career (a dream of mine). I also don't have a college degree (yet?), and could relate to this as well.
Not too long after that concert, I wrote Trevino a letter of introduction and sent it to his assistant to forward to him. I didn't receive a response for several months and because I really wanted advice from him (even if it was a few lines in an email), I sent the assistant a followup email. I received a response to that from the assistant a couple of days later who also told me that Trevino requested a phone call with me to answer my questions. I was super honored and excited! Because Trevino was in Spain (he is music director of the Basque National Orchestra) our time differences were huge, so at the time of our phone call, it was early afternoon where he was and it was 6 in the morning here in Texas. I am not a morning person at all, but when you have to the chance to have a one on one conversation with a top flight conductor, who wouldn't get up that early in the morning???
So thank you Maestro Trevino for your time and advice. You have made a huge difference in this young composer and conductor's life!
A small tribute to Will White
For about 3 years, I've been working closely with a friend and mentor of mine, Will White, who I actually met online in the first place when I emailed him for career advice on how to make composition and conducting work at the same time. He was really taken by me and my music and we kept in contact after that, and since then, Will has essentially seen my career take off. Of course, I didn't do it all by myself, and Will had a huge helping hand in that; some years after we first met, he became music director of Seattle's Orchestra Seattle and Seattle Chamber Singers, a wonderful community organization with a rich history. His 2nd season there was the orchestra's 50th anniversary of its founding, so he commissioned a new work from me, A Joyous Trilogy, which he also invited me to Seattle to conduct the premiere of. It was a fun time!
For the past few months, I've been doing score study sessions with Will via zoom. So far we've just covered the Schumann first symphony and recently the Ravel La Valse. It find it really cool to look closely at these masterworks with someone who has actually conducted them, and also in this case, played them. This is similar to the classes with Miguel and Panula, only there aren't many people here and the atmosphere is much more relaxed. I always come away from these sessions with a deeper understanding of the score I hadn't previously had, as well as a lot to think about, like the realization that the 4 notes at the end of La Valse was the complete destruction of the waltz form. And who better to study with than an awesome friend like Will? If there's anything that my friendship with Will has taught me is that mentorship can go a long way in a profession like this!
Now here is a saga worthy of its own section: my very first time working directly with a conductor of international renown.
I had previously heard the name 'John Axelrod' when, in 2019, I livestreamed a performance of him conducting the 'Rite of Spring' with Sinfonia Varsovia which was recorded in 2016. I remember admiring the tempos he took and the overall energy he brought to the composition, although the orchestra wasn't fully up for it at times.
I can't remember who told me more about Axelrod, but I eventually made the decision to get in touch with him and see if I could secure a lesson with him. He got back in touch and asked me what exactly I needed help with. I told him my really unusual story about composing and conducting and he was fascinated immediately. We met for our first session over Skype (nice to see no one forgot about it) and I discovered quickly that he was a really thoughtful, deep thinking guy and I would for sure find a role model in him somewhere. In a sense, he reminded me of me.
Axelrod also had an unusual path to the podium, which one can read about in his biography here. In short, he met Leonard Bernstein in Houston in the early 1980's and worked with him. He graduated college in the late 1980's and worked in a different industry until the mid 1990's when he decided to pursue his dream to become a conductor. He then worked with Ilya Musin in Russia (this relates back to Ennio Nicotra) and moved back to Houston where he began OrchestraX. Fast forward a couple of decades and he has conducted orchestras around the world and held a number of important conducting posts.
Having read all that, I figured it would be interesting to get yet another fascinating perspective on the world of conducting.
And as it turned out, we were more connected than we both thought. For one, he is from Houston, Texas which is not that far away from me (only a few hours by car and even less than that by plane). He had founded an orchestra in Houston in the 1990's called 'OrchestraX', which laid the groundwork for and eventually became River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, who is actually premiering one of my pieces in April 2021.
We had a few more sessions after that, each getting progressively more interesting in terms of topics we've covered (we are currently working on the Rite of Spring, the piece I discovered him through). As I write this, I'm still working with him and we have future sessions planned for interesting topics such as the different dynamics of orchestras around the world, which I'll be interested to hear his thoughts about. And he's always been open to any and all questions I've had about the conducting profession. I have no doubt that I'll count John Axelrod as one of my mentors for many years to come.
As the summer drew to a close, I decided to take one more conducting seminar, this one hosted by the conductor Edwin Outwater, who was resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony from 2001-2006 and who recently became music director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. This seminar was a first step to a promising conducting program he was creating at the SFCM.
This seminar finished recently, and was only two days long. However, those two days were some of the most interesting I've had all summer! The first day was filled with two panels, in which he brought in special guests from the world of conducting, all different people with different experiences. The first one drew on experiences from 3 different conductor guests from around the world, and the second got into the business aspect of conducting, with the guests being an orchestral player, an artistic planner and a representative from an agency.
Outwater's program was geared toward those who were just starting out, but it was really accommodating to those of all levels. Outwater did private lessons with everyone throughout the two days (15 or so participants in total), and the last days was capped by a virtual 'masterclass', in which we watched videos of some of the participant conducting and Outwater offered helpful suggestions and comments. It was a very cool experience that I was very happy to take part in! I'm also very glad I can count Edwin Outwater as a new connection as well.
So can the art of conducting be taught virtually?
Yes and no. Why do I say both?
Yes - certain aspects of conducting can be taught virtually, such as the theory behind the music. That was mostly what I spent the summer doing and it helped to me better understand the music and get behind the notes more. The first step to effectively conducting and interpreting a piece of music is understanding it deeply of course. You can spend a lifetime on this element, and you will - a conductor's deep study of music is never done.
No - perhaps the most important element of studying conducting is to actually conduct. And this was completely missing. That is the chance to put theory into practice, as the only way to truly get better at conducting is through trial and error. Plus the human element of interaction with live musicians and mastering the psychology of dealing with a large group of people is what makes the hard work of study truly worth it in the long run. No amount of 'virtual learning' will ever replace that.
But this is what he have to do for right now. And after all these experiences and perspectives, who knows? We might come out of this more rounded musicians than we were even a few months ago. At the end of the day it all depends on what you're looking for and what you want to achieve, but one thing is for certain: our art will be even better and even more deeply felt. And we can't wait for the day we get to share it with others once again.