The Conductor’s Identity

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Something that I’ve explored in both my books is the idea of musical identity: how it is that you acquire the label (and the way of being) of cellist, or soprano, or barbershopper. I drew on the ideas of people like Anthony Giddens and Judith Butler to show how people acquire and maintain musical identities through a combination of patterns of behaviour and personal narratives. These internal autobiographies are developed through social interactions and draw on the cultural discourses that configure those identity types in wider culture.

Now, the identities of most performing musicians are developed over a period of years, generally starting at a young age. You gradually become a pianist over the course of years as you take piano lessons. (Having said that, I do recall telling my mum at the age of about 7 that I wanted to be a concert pianist when I grew up. Her reply was that I’d have to be awfully good, which, while true, I regard in retrospect as not entirely helpful.)

But conducting is a role undertaken only after developing a significant level of musicianship in other areas. It is also a role that is often regarded as needing some distinctive, special kind of personal qualities that mark it off from ordinary musicians.

So I’m rather intrigued as to how conductors make this leap from ‘ordinary musician’ to ‘conductor’. At what point do they decide that they have these ‘special powers’? Do they aspire to conduct first, and follow this by action, or do they find themselves in a situation in which they need to conduct, and find the identity follows on? Is it an identity they assume gradually, or by Damascene conversion?

Not everybody who conducts thinks of themselves as a conductor. My undergraduate course had a compulsory term and a half of conducting in the first year on the (sensible) grounds that music graduates are reasonably likely to find themselves in a position of having to lead an ensemble at some point in their future lives, so might as well learn the basics of how to do it. So, we all passed a conducting exam, but only a few of us went on to identify ourselves as ‘conductors’.

Incidentally, before this class, I had shied away from even thinking about conducting, assuming that you needed to be an extraordinary musician and that little old me was just too insignificant to even imagine doing it. (This despite the fact that until I went to college I was one of the more accomplished musicians in my social circle – I had swallowed the Maestro Myth good and proper!) So, I was doing the class because it was obligatory, with no great expectation of success – until, in the very first class, the tutor announced, ‘she’s a natural!’ That was when I became a conductor – the identity was actually conferred upon me by someone I believed qualified to do so.

So I always wonder how other conductors made the leap. Does happenstance play a central role in their stories too? Wouldn’t it be funny if such a focal and mythologised role in classical music was generally filled by people who kind of fell into it by chance. Though of course that does not minimise the dedicated study required to make a success of it once you’ve accepted the label.

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