What I Look for in a Conducting Demo

I have spent a good deal of my life looking at, and listening to, conductors--in concert, and on video or audio recordings. Young conductors have learned that eventually I will look at any video they send me, and so they send them!  Between the concerts and rehearsals I have attended in my forty-plus years in the music business, and the videos that I have watched, particularly from conductors applying to various programs offered by the League of American Orchestras, I think it is certain that I have seen and heard more than 500 conductors at work, and possibly more than twice that many. I am often asked by conductors what I and others look for in these videos (and today it is mostly videos, not audio-only recordings).
Conductors applying for music director positions, for competitions, for university positions, or for special programs are virtually always required to submit video recordings of themselves at work. I don't know if this will be helpful, but for what it's worth here are my FAQs and answers--with an important caveat: My answers will not be everyone's answers. Nothing in music is more subjective than attempting to evaluate the performance of a conductor. If anyone reading this blog is in the position of evaluating conductors from video recordings and wishes to add anything to what I've written, or has a different view, please chime in.

Should I send complete pieces, or short fragments? My answer is a definitive "yes." The problem is that some who evaluate conductors like lots of three-minute fragments to see a variety of musical styles. But others (and I count myself among them) prefer to see at least whole movements, if not entire works, so they can see the way a conductor shapes a large structure. If possible, a good video should offer both options (and the good news is that DVD technology allows enough time on one disc to provide both).

Should I worry about the quality of the orchestra? Clearly it helps if your video is made with the best orchestra available to you. But most of those who view the work of emerging conductors can allow for the limitations of an orchestra, and can judge whether the conductor is getting the best out of the musicians.

What about sound quality? There has been an important change in the protocols under which the musicians' union permits videotaping for a conductor to use as a demo. There used to be a requirement that the camera had to be behind the orchestra to show the front of the conductor, and the microphones had to be on the camera. Thanks to an understanding head of Symphonic Services at the AFM (Laura Brownell) and an effort by the League of American Orchestras in calling attention to the problems of balance that this led to--everything sounded like a horn concert, because the horns were blowing right into the mike--that has been changed, and the mike placement may now be in front of the orchestra. Take care to do this.

What do you look and listen for? I look for emotional contact and communication. I do not look for a conductor who does the piece the way that I prefer it--in fact, I happen to be one listener who doesn't have just one view of the way a piece of music should go. But I want to see something well beyond technical competence. I want to see eye contact between conductor and musicians. Conductors who regularly look at the ceiling (or, perhaps, Heaven) may be trying to conduct the Heaven Philharmonic, whereas in fact they have to conduct the musicians here on Earth in front of them. I look for a left hand that is independent of the right hand and demonstrates something about phrasing, shaping, dynamics, color--something other than the beat. And I also look for a right hand that occasionally indicates something other than beats. Phrasing and line are crucial elements in a great deal of music, and I often see them ignored when there is a traffic-cop approach to conducting. I also look and listen for a conductor who clearly hears what is happening and reacts to it. A conductor who never seems to suggest a balance change, or an adjustment in dynamics, comes across as a conductor who is conducting the recording he has in his head rather than the actual music that is happening in front of him. I would underline that observing real contact between the conductor and the music, and between the conductor and the musicians, is critical to making judgments about that conductor. Ultimately, I think what everyone looks for in a conductor is that sense of making the music come alive, a sense that while this particular performance is happening, the music must go that way, and that it will not let the listener go. I know this is easy to say in a general way, and isn't very specific. But it is, in fact, what the making of music should be all about.

May 29, 2009 11:38 AM | | Comments (5)



Hi Henry,

My apologies, I totally misunderstood the sentence! All clear now, thanks for your patience. Best, Galen

I hope that every conductor starting out has the opportunity to read this life experience advice, Henry. Your suggestions are worth the cost of many conducting lessons! I might add that candidates looking for a post with any orchestra, would fare best if they provide enough information which supports their community outreach and knowledge of community finances and adaptability. Even on the smallest level, it proves the candidate has hands-on experience and is willing to be an all-around advocate for the orchestra in the community.

Hi Henry - I just finished reading your article CONDUCTING TALENT; GIVE IT TIME TO MATURE in the Conductors Guild Podium Notes. Thank you for your insight on this subject. Can remember as a young orchestra player how pleased we where when a more experienced (older?) conductor showed up before us. Now that I am a "seasoned" music director myself I feel I have much more to offer, however find myself less marketable. Your article calling attention to the unique nature of this profession is deeply appreciated.


Gordon J. Johnson
Music Director, Great Falls Symphony (MT)

Did you really mean to say, "A conductor who never seems to suggest a balance change, or an adjustment in dynamics...?"

I don't understand the question. In my blog, I said the following: "A conductor who never seems to suggest a balance change, or an adjustment in dynamics, comes across as a conductor who is conducting the recording he has in his head rather than the actual music that is happening in front of him." That is what I said, and it is what I meant to say. Let me explain: adjusting balances and dynamics is one of the principal jobs of a conductor - and it is rare, if not unheard of, for a performance to go by that does not need any adjustment in those areas. The point I was making is that when I see a whole movement or piece go by with a conductor who is beating time, and emoting visibly, but who does not actually appear to hear what is happening in the performance, and does not react to it, is a conductor who in my mind is not in contact with the performers, but is, instead, conducting the music as he hears it in an imaginary recording in his head.

While the broad notion of communication is the point of what a conductor should be doing, I would like to be more specific. In contrast to the complete technical security that is expected in almost every strata of music-making by performers today, I have noticed that the technical abilities of conductors have not kept up. In the lower echelons of orchestral playing, the principal players will almost certainly be better performers than the conductor will be at conducting. Rudimentary matters of having a clear beat pattern, cues that are timely and helpful, a real conducting field of beating that clearly shows that two won't be mistaken for beat three, and obvious subdivisions that should not have to be talked about are never to be taken for granted. And, it seems, conductors often can't maintain a clear technique while listening and reacting at the same time. The above should be standard and expected of a conductor on any level, as a public instrumentalist's fluency is expected today on all levels of public music-making.

The learning curve for conductors seems to be really lagging behind the abilities of the people they conduct more than ever in the lower and middle echelons of performance. Could this be because of fewer and fewer opportunities for a developing conductors? I am talking about basic conducting equipment; this doesn't even touch on matters of interpretation, general musicianship, stage presence or 'communication'. It is often unsettling to see conductors with impressive resumes who seem so physically untrained!

I don't disagree with G Chapman's comment, other than to say that I don't think this is as recent a development. Look at the videos of "historic" performances by famous conductors (and remember only the most famous got to be filmed), and you will see some with great clarity of technique, and some who lack that. Furtwängler, Kubelik, and Tennstedt are just three conductors who could be criticized for an unclear beating technique, except that they managed to get remarkable results from the orchestras they led. -Henry


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