The most important thing we can do as educators is continue learning! As music educators and conductors we should work to better ourselves in both areas and find time to learn new concepts in both areas. If we stop learning, we won’t be effective teachers. Here is a far from complete list of things we can do to continue our life-long education:
- Conferences: State, regional, national, international, and who knows, maybe galactic… There are so many conferences out there it can become overwhelming. I know release time can be hard to come by but we should all go to at least one conference a year. And we should try and explore conferences outside of our region if at all possible. Get a different perspective from a different part of the country (or universe…)
- University and College Institutes and Summer Symposiums: A number of these exist throughout the country that offer incredible programs with great clinicians. (I might be a little biased towards this one because I run the New England Band Directors Institute.)
- Honors Festivals for our students: While these are, or should be, primarily for our students, they are a great opportunity to observe conductors work. They are like a live lab that you can learn from just by observing!
And then there is the masterclass! This is your chance to get up in front of a good ensemble, conduct them, and get feedback from a teacher while you do it. If you want to become a better conductor, this is the the best way to do it. If you are unconfident, or just unsure of the whole experience you don’t have to jump right in the deep end. Most of these masterclass/symposiums have a nonparticipant level that allows you to go observe what happens. This might give you a chance to see what goes on first, before jumping on the podium and opening yourself up.
But for those of you like me, who want to just jump right in, make sure you prepare right! I was asked by a friend to talk about how to prepare for a masterclass a long time ago, and have been struggling with this post ever since. How do you prepare for this kind of experience? Like anything we do, there is no completely right answer, and there is no completely wrong answer. Conducting is an individual thing, and we each need to find our way of preparing so that we can be successful. What works for me might not work for you. But, having thought long and hard about this, I figured I would throw out some pointers on ways you could prepare (and ways to definitely not prepare.)
- Score study: Do you study your scores? How do you study your scores? Preparing for a masterclass might not be the best time to start studying scores. We won’t get in to the benefits of score study to your daily rehearsal life though. But you need to know what is going on. You need to spend some time with the score before you get up in front of the group. Will you blank out? Quite possibly. At my first masterclass, I blanked on a question about chord structure from the clinician. What happened to me shouldn’t ever happen though, and I am going to leave you hanging on what happened until later when I offer a few words of wisdom for those of us who do these from the clinician side.
- Practice Physical Conducting: Do you practice your physical conducting? Sure you have studied conducting and you have a degree or two that says you took classes on how to conduct, but do you practice your physical conducting? I took seven years of French, and passed with good grades, but I can’t speak a word of the language anymore, because I never took the time to really practice. I have been to France a few times, but destroyed their language because I never practiced. Getting up in front of an ensemble that is not yours without practicing could be just like visiting a foreign country without ever practicing the language, even if you have studied it. Just ask the French, when I tried it was a disaster!
- Listening to the music is fine, but… When I was preparing for my audition for my conducting DMA, I spent a lot of time listening and conducting along to a recording. Whether this is right or wrong could probably spark a debate that would rival any political debate happening now, so we won’t go there. But if this is in your way of preparing, be sure you are score studying as well, because there was a recording of La Fiesta Mexicana, by a first rate ensemble, with a wonderfully powerful timpani part played at the wrong time. In my audition I gave the timpani player a wonderful cue, and he just looked blankly at me. Wrong place! My listening had overtaken any score study I had done.
- Allow yourself to learn. Prepare yourself for critique in front of people. If you have issues with this, maybe you need to practice this. Maybe you need to have people come observe you and, let them critique your technique after your rehearsal. But find a way to prepare yourself for what is going to happen.
- Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Don’t mail it in and change the way you conduct on a daily basis. You are there to get feedback on how you conduct, so be you! And not far from this, don’t conduct the way you think the clinician will want you to conduct based on videos of them conducting. Again, be you!!!
These are just a few suggestions. But there are many other ways that could help prepare you for this experience. Ask a friend who has done it. Ask colleagues who have been up there what it is like. But have some sort of game plan, and don’t just wing it!!!
As to what happened to me at my first masterclass. Well, I was asked a question about a chord and blanked on the answer. What followed was a dress down about me wasting the time of the clinician and how I should find another career. While I learned some valuable techniques that day, the most important thing I learned was I never wanted to be like that clinician. I never wanted to cloud my desire to help those in my profession with some sense of self-absorption. We need to be better than this. If a conductor is willing to get up in front of a group and open themselves up, we as educators need to give feedback in a positive way.
But take a chance and get up there. Learn and find positives, even if it is a rough ride.