Never work with kids or amateurs?

When I first started conducting, I was told a story by a conductor who regularly works with amateur orchestras. He had been advised by a very well-known British conductor to stop working with amateur and youth orchestras as it would harm his conducting. The argument was that it would change the way he worked with and reacted to, professional orchestras. I might add that the conductor who told me this story thought the advice was rubbish, but I thought it might be a  good idea to look into why this advice is total drivel!
[DISCLAIMER – For the remainder of this post I shall refer to all non-professional musicians as “amateurs” and all members of Youth Orchestras, juveniles, young people etc, as “kids”. It is not meant in any way to be derogatory, I am just being lazy and cannot be bothered to type out all the alternatives!]
So, where was I? Oh, yes, why should a conductor avoid working with kids and amateurs? Well let’s take the major thrust of this argument, that it changes the way you work with professional orchestras. Well that point is all about……
The easiest way to avoid any problems swapping between the many types of orchestras is to treat them all alike! Treat any orchestra as you would wish to be treated. If you treat them with respect there is a greater chance that they will treat you with respect.
I have been conducting the Sinfonia of Birmingham for nearly 10 years now and we have a great working relationship. It is based on trust and on the premise that we are striving to achieve professional results. Sure, there are times when those results might seem difficult to achieve but treating them like amateurs isn’t going to help! I fact the opposite is true – the more you expect them to behave, play and perform as pros, the more often it happens.
This sort of leads on to the next point – if you expect them to play like professionals, you should conduct like one, never compromising your…..
Another point used against working with kids and amateurs is that your technique will suffer. Will it? Really? Well looks look at why it might suffer.
When I started at the Sinfonia I made it clear from Day 1 that I expected them to play together as an orchestra and not rely totally on my beat to do so. I wanted them to listen more, be more aware of what is going on within the orchestra and then use those tools to play together and not rely on sticking rigidly to my beat. This is not because I cannot beat in time, but because I wanted them to be able to play as a group autonomously (as all the great orchestras do) and then react to my balance and phrasing gestures etc. It is exactly the same attitude I take with me into the CBSO Youth Orchestra and the Birmingham Schools Symphony.
It doesn’t mean I try not to be clear – far from it, but it does mean I don’t just stand there and impersonate a drum major! It is often a phrase I use ( and sometimes a gesture I use ) to remind them to listen harder and play together.
So if I use a professional attitude and my technique is no different, what am I going to gain by conducting kids and amateurs? Where are the…..
First of all, unless you are one of those conductors who is either a young competition winner, an international soloist who instantly declares that he is now a ‘conductor’ or a young whizz-kid with a major conductor overseeing your every move, you need to practise with somebody! You need to not only get used to rehearsing and shaping a performance, you need to practise your technique ‘in battle’ and surely the more you do it, the better it gets.

And during those rehearsals you will have plenty of chances of learning how to get the results you require. You will encounter every rhythmic problem known to man, I guarantee! You will have to learn quickly how to tune a woodwind or brass chord. You will have to learn something about bowings and how the bowings can enhance or ruin a performance.

You will also have to learn how to get the sound you want. Yes, you can stand in front of a professional orchestra and ask for the sound to be “more ethereal”, “more stentorian” ( I had to look than one up in a dictionary, which is more than the conductor who used had done!) or “more like bathing in chocolate” – chance are all of those phrases will get some change in sound. If you used those phrases with a Youth Orchestra or amateurs you might also get a change in sound but you have to know how get it technically if those phrases and metaphors don’t work. If you don’t know how to get the sound to change technically you will struggle – you will just end up sounding like you’ve swallowed a thesaurus and the sea of blank looks will get bigger!
Then there is the question of repertoire. I can tell you that when you spend an intensive week long course or a whole term on one programme, you know it, backwards! It is also a great place to try out repertoire before you take it into a pro orchestra – a trick the great conductors have used and are still using.
To be honest the positives are endless – so are there any……
The only one I can think of is the fact that some managers and agents will look down their noses on some conductors for working with kids and amateurs. I am convinced this happens and I am equally convinced that some conductors would benefit greatly by doing more YO and amateur work.
I shall finish with one final statement, one I have using since I first conducted. Working with amateur and youth orchestras is an amazing experience, one that is  full of energy and commitment – there will always be times in the performance when the orchestra sounds like the Berlin Philharmonic – you just don’t know when and for how long!
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