Let’s start at the very beginning…..

as, in the words of Julie Andrews, it’s a very good place to start!

I am Michael Seal and I am a professional musician. For the last few years I have been trying to establish myself as a professional conductor, having been a professional violinist now for 20 years. I have been lucky so far – I have just been promoted from Assistant to Associate Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, have conducted many great orchestras and have been involved with many fabulous concerts and projects. So how did I get to this point and why do I want to conduct?

It would be a lie to say “I always wanted to conduct”! I know some had a calling from an early age but with me that just wasn’t the case. From the age of 14, all I wanted to do was play the violin in a professional orchestra. It stemmed from watching the BBC documentary about life in the LSO, “Life of an Orchestra”. I couldn’t believe that people got to do what I loved as a job and travelled the world doing it. All of my efforts went into getting in to a pro orchestra and on September 7th 1992, I started as a member of the CBSO. I had got there and intended to play for the rest of my working life. But one day in 1999 changed all that….

Four of us were given the amazing opportunity of conducting the CBSO for one hour each, in repertoire of our choosing. Now, what would you do? Conduct a piece which you know they can play on their own or conduct a piece you know they don’t know that well? I’d had lessons at music college and conducted an amateur orchestra in a concert but this was going to be different! This was the CBSO……

I chose the riskier option – I chose Nielsen’s Symphony No.2, a piece the orchestra hadn’t played for over 5 years. After finishing my hour, I was exhausted but exhilarated beyond belief! I remember thinking at this particular moment, “just enjoy this, you might never do this again”…….

Well, it turned out I would do it again. After that day the CBSO gave me a Schools concert, and a Family concert and I then stood in for the Music Director, Sakari Oramo when he cancelled some concerts at very late notice. It was this that led me to be announced as the Assistant Conductor of the CBSO in 2005.

But after many years as a player, why do I want to become a fulltime conductor? For me it was all about the music. Even with some of the great conductors I often sat in my chair in the Second Violins wondering “why are you conducting it that way, why are you balancing it that way, surely it should be faster / slower” and occasionally with some conductors, “I can do better than that”! I felt I had something to give to the music and that if I wanted my voice to be heard, I would have to “put my money where my mouth was” and try to become a conductor. My musical thoughts were never going to be heard from within the Second Violins and there was no point moaning and groaning about things, I just had to do something about it for myself.

I intend this blog to be a journal of my experiences past and present, as well as my thoughts as I continue my journey towards my ultimate goal – the day I have to shut my violin case for good as my diary is too full for me to continue as a player. The next post will be about my next engagement – two days studio recordings with the fabulous Ulster Orchestra. And by a lucky coincidence, we will be recording a piece that is rather close to my heart, Nielsen’s Symphony No.2!

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5 comments on “Let’s start at the very beginning…..
  1. I think your blogh is off to a great start (says the “experienced” blogger, who just started blogging like a month ago).
    One question sprung to mind immedeately: Doesn’t it feel awkward for you conducting your old colleagues? It did for me when I returned to conduct the Odense Symphony Orchestra where I had been the 2.horn for 5 years prior to taking up conducting. I couldn’t put the necessary distance between us, and never felt at ease.

  2. The ‘traditional’ path of player-to-conductor is certainly one of the most stable, secure and credible. Wish I had done it that way.

  3. Michael Seal says:

    Thank you Jesper and Stephen for your kind comments and questions. I shall answer you both in one go, if I may?
    Firstly, Jesper, I am still a member of the CBSO. I suppose, depending on how you look at it, this makes conducting them easier OR harder! They have been incredibly supportive from Day 1 – I am sure there are some who might hate me being there but in general, all I have received is positive comments and lots of encouragement. I have fallen foul of being too close to them in the early days but now I feel I treat them as I would treat any other orchestra.
    As for the ‘traditional’ path, I don’t perceive that here in the UK presently. In 20 years, not many players have taken that path – only recently can I think of a few of us who have successfully made some transition towards the baton. And for that reason, I think one has to be quite thick-skinned! I could not have conducted the CBSO for too long had I worried what my colleagues were saying in the tea queue.
    I’m wasting a post here, gents! There will be more on the ‘conducting your colleagues’ subject to come – until then, thanks for reading and I hope you keep coming back.

    Mike

  4. I agree…it’s not a huge amount of successful conductors that come from within an orchestra. In the ‘german’ tradition, many come from working as a ‘repetitor’ or from more academic backgrounds. There are noteworthy exceptions of course…like Toscanini or Harnoncourt.

    It’s a great subject for a blog entry; conducting your old orchestra.
    I was considering it for my own blog sometime in the future, but will refrain if you choose to write about it. If you need ‘second opinions’ I’ll be happy to quip in.

    In brief, It was very hard for me to describe exactly what the problem was for me, but it was something akin to being a magician infront of a crowd of people who allready knew all the tricks. It felt as if I had no secrets, nothing was sufficiently ‘arcane’ if that makes sense, because they all knew me so well. I had been an outspoken and ‘prominent’ member of the orchestra, appearing as a soloist several times, was a member of several comittees etc.
    Even if there were lots of voices of support, it was in hindsight not a happy marriage.
    I hope to go back before long to rectify that if I can. (hmm, I think I’m gonna write to the orchestra manager right away).

    Even with the Copenhagen Philharmonic, that I have conducted in over 10 different productions by now, and whose members count some of my closest friends, I feel I can keep a professional distance which is healthy.

  5. Michael Seal says:

    I will try to compose a post about the difficulties and beauties of conducting an orchestra in which you have , or in my case, are still a playing member. This might take a little while to formulate but your comments would be most welcome.
    Briefly, I will say I am lucky in the fact that we seem to get on well and there is a real element of trust between us.
    I had better get typing then…….
    Thanks Jesper – looks like we have a lot in common. It will be interesting to see how our blogs pan out over the weeks and months!

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