My Conducting Year
I’ve never been a great conductor. I was perfectly content to stay this way—good at composing, bad at conducting—until a friend suggested more than once that I should consider taking conducting lessons.
“Think of all the possibilities!” he said. “You could lead clinics! You could conduct honor choirs!”
Two years ago, I decided to take his advice. At the very least, I figured conducting lessons would make me a better composer. I began studying privately with Dr. Nancy Holland, whom I’d overlapped with during my time at the University of Southern California.
As a composer, I aim to be more of a collaborator than a dictator. I want to leave some decisions up to the conductor and performers. But in our lessons, Nancy liked to remind me that whenever composer-me had punted a decision to the conductor—a tempo where the quarter note equaled ca. 80-88, or a fermata of ambiguous length—that choice now boomeranged back to my conductor-self. As I prepared to conduct my own pieces, I watched as music I’d written, music I knew in my bones, rearranged before me. It was like the light around the notes had shifted. Sometimes the logic behind what I’d thought were unconscious choices astonished me; more often, it baffled me. Why did I put one measure in 3/4 when every measure around it was in 6/8? Why did I change meter so often? Who made these illogical decisions?! (Me.) I’ve always respected conductors, of course, but now I had a new appreciation for how even minor elements of the score, rational or not, have to be memorized or near-memorized in order to communicate them to an ensemble.
A few months into lessons, a local college was performing my piece Where Go the Boats—my first chance to rehearse with actual singers. If half the struggle to conduct well is simply having confidence in yourself, then I was already at a loss when I stepped in front of this choir. I gave what I thought was a decent preparation for their entrance, an upbeat and a breath, but when I lowered my hands for their entrance, I was met with dead silence. They looked back at me, waiting for a more confident cue than the timid one I’d given. And so I tried again, this time counting in their entrance out loud (“one and two and three and…”). I knew this was a form of cheating, not really conducting at all, but at least when I counted, the singers came in. Together, we stumbled through the piece. The stumbling was entirely my fault, not theirs. When we reached the final measures, I was mortified by my ineptitude and more than happy to step off the podium.
Months later, Nancy and I began learning another piece, You Find Yourself Here, in preparation for a high school choral festival held by Linn-Benton Community College in Albany, Oregon. That piece would be the final work for the festival, combining LBCC’s singers with the high-school singers. Unlike Where Go the Boats, I could conduct most of You Find Yourself Here in one, with a simple buoyant motion that left me unable to second-guess my decisions or micromanage every entrance.
I told LBCC’s Director of Choral Studies, Raymund Ocampo, about my conducting lessons: my lack of experience, yes, but also my interest in conducting this piece in rehearsal. When he enthusiastically agreed to let me practice my new skills, I was surprised by how much I genuinely looked forward to conducting these singers. In our first combined rehearsal, though I lost track of my intentions more than once, the ensemble responded to my gestures; they sounded great. Raymund and I decided I’d conduct the piece in concert, too.
In my hotel room after our rehearsals, I practiced constantly, nervously, furiously, but when I walked onstage to conduct You Find Yourself Here, I was hardly nervous at all. It seems so obvious now, but I hadn’t realized that—for the first time in my career as a musician—I’d be performing with my back to the audience. I have always thought of conducting as a game for extroverts, but here, the singers and I might as well have been back in the rehearsal room.
I raised my hands to cue the entrance, and—they sang. They sang, and I felt a kind of buoyant confidence I’ve been searching for my entire life.
Then I lost my place, but I kept going, and the singers kept going, too. They did everything we’d rehearsed; they were wonderful.
I was far from perfect, forgetting cues, swapping 3/4 for 6/8 in a few measures—my old composing decisions back to haunt me again. Still, when the piece was over, I felt an emotion I don’t find often, and one I certainly don’t seek out: It’s kind of fun to be bad at something. It’s freeing to try a new skill without expecting immediate perfection.
When I compose, I hold myself to high standards. I expect my music to be good. But that’s not yet an option with conducting, and it might never be. In most lessons, I was simply trying to make it through a piece without screwing up. But in Nancy’s teaching, I could make copious mistakes—which I did!—and still be met by her patient guidance. I had permission to fail and permission to succeed. And on the rare occasions where my hands did express my intentions, it felt similar to when I’m composing and the music locks into its near-final form: my body flushed with a feeling of complete rightness.
Even before the pandemic started, I decided to put conducting lessons on hold. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever become a great conductor, or even a good one. I know what it would take to be excellent, and I’d rather leave that—at least for now—to the conductors who what I feel when I’m composing: like their entire body is rinsed with joy.
But I’ve gotten so much out of conducting lessons. A good conductor, I’ve learned, welcomes you along on a journey: You can trust me to lead, and I’ll trust you to follow. Even if a piece of music is not new to you, a good conductor will show you a new path through it, shifting the light around those notes until they gleam. A good conductor grants you permission to take bold risks, then trusts you to recognize and fix any mistakes you make along the way. And if you fail to come in on an entrance, a good conductor will look you in the eye, raise their hands, and offer you another chance. I’m not taking lessons anymore, but I’m still waving an invisible wand over my life like my own fairy-godconductor—trusting my curiosity wherever it leads me next, and trusting myself to follow it.
This essay was originally published in Cantate Magazine, Vol. 33, no. 3, Spring 2021