This week I participated the 1st Frederic Fricsay International Conducting Competition in Szeged. It was an inspirational experience. I didn’t conduct particularly well, and wasn’t expecting to progress past round 1 considering that fact that my competitors were 108 other very highly trained and extremely talented conductors. But I did try my best with the greatest amount of enthousiasm, and came out of it wiser and hopefully, better. Many very respected young professionals also didn't progress through round 1, while others surprisingly did, so I don't feel badly. I also learned an important lesson: don’t just conduct in round one, but make sure that you also rehearse well. Even if for just one minute. The following blog post is not only about me, but is more of an explanation of why, what, how, and the consequences of having ambitions for a larger career.
A few impressions. First of all, it’s good to think about the collective investment that each participant (we’ll talk about the organisation itself later) needs to make to get this far. First of all, you need to be an expert in your field, and to get there, you need to have taken private lessons in an instrument from a very young age. Lessons are costly and to be brutally honest, only available to those children whose parents have the means, ability, and luck of landing a great job in order to finance these extracurricular developmental activities. At that point, if you have enough talent, you will possibly be admitted to an undergraduate music degree in order to specialise in whatever instrument you have studied intensely. At least in the US, only then can you continue to a conducting (Masters) degree, and at that point, it’s important to chose the very best school with teachers and a reputation that will actually bring you places. These schools do not necessarily have to cost you a lot of money, but only if you obtain a grant or scholarship. I was personally very fortunate to get a full ride to attend San Fransisco State University to study with the Alexander String Quartet, and an opera theater assistantship to help pay for my years at IU Bloomington. But my situation is just one example and my point is that you need some degree of luck and talent to obtain these positions. Something that I learned too late… you need to learn how to network AND how to elbow your way through without stepping on any toes. There are some less talented musicians who on sheer adroitness of network/elbowing have obtained fantastic positions for themselves. And I have zero critique for them, because they have their obvious positive qualities that I perhaps lack.
But now comes the hard part. Whereas, due to a variety of factors (briefly.. better societal appreciation and understanding of the arts, less social unrest which is to date caused by the effects of ineffective distribution of wealth, proliferation of the culturally uneducated, overconsumption, overpopulation, globalisation and therefore detachment of national identity) music was played, appreciated, and understood at a higher level in the past than at the present. It has therefore currently increasingly become difficult for graduates to find enough work in their field of specialty. Some become, if financially feasible, eternal students, stacking degree upon degree. But now there is a whole (but not entirely new) field of requirements post-graduation if one aspires to ascend the greatest (or less great) concert podiums on planet earth. The mill of competitions and masterclasses. The only way to get a coveted position at a major (or any, for that fact) artist agency is to win a competition AND get the backing of a major internationally acclaimed artist.
Now, there is a loop-hole that must be mentioned before I talk about competitions and masterclasses. One can also chose another path and set up one’s own professional ensemble (be it choir or orchestra or chamber music group). This is a mountainous path; daunting, time-consuming, expensive without the right donors, exhausting. However, considering the alternative, it could possibly be considerably easier than the other route. It also necessitates a completely different skill set than the driven-on-talent-alone path. It entails entrepreneurship, impeccable organizational skills, social adeptness, and pure guts and I daresay the ability to be (extremely) pushy without becoming a nuisance. I’m not sure if I can claim any of these features in a 100 percentage, but once upon a time, I was especially good at putting enormous projects together, including Maria de Buenos Aires, the Tormis Festival, and my gigantic final exam at the CVA.
Getting back to the competition/masterclass route. These are specifically designed to pluck out the driven-on-talent-alones, and they are particularly successful at it. In fact, I know for myself that I am not one of those greats, having witnessed pure talent and I dare to say original genius on various occasions. I’ll just drop a few names here that have crossed my path .. the Japanese conductor that won the Bartok Opera Competition in 2007 (don’t know his name), Mirga Gražinte, Natan Sugar (very young but bright future ahead), and Felix Bénati. And so it is for the highly educated and talented-but-not-genius such as myself to compete in these competitions along side the true winners to finance their rise to fame. Because finance we do, and how.
Let me explain the process that one goes through. I already mentioned the requirement of at least a Bachelors and Masters and preferably more from a respected institution, following lessons and dedicated daily practice from early childhood. Then come the hard part. One must actually get into the competition. This requires a recommendation letter from an internationally recognised pedagogue or performer/conductor and really excellent video footage of, in this case, conducting. Now, there are orchestras (or choirs, whatever you are going for), and there are orchestras. Conducting community orchestras is exceptionally difficult in that one must strive to preserve one's technique while inspiring and leading those who are, in necessity, giving more attention to their own techniek than following the conductor. One can easily pick up bad habits. Just to speak of myself, I’ve spent years trying to get rid of bad habits that I did have a tendency towards, but lost sight of in the last 15 years and unfortunately let grow. Slow expressive movements in the Baroque or Classical (or Impressionist) style are actually my strongest repertoire, as I don’t have any tension and can completely focus on a beautiful transparent and expressive sound. Most chamber choir repertoire complements my style of conducting perfectly. However, with other repertoire such as heavy symphonic repertoire, I can now examine my horrible habits when I view previous and unfortunately recent footage. Let this be a reminder!! But now I’ve veered off from my explanation.
One needs really great video footage, face-on, to get into competitions. That means, setting up an orchestra if you don’t have one at your disposal, which means a huge amount of work and time and money. If you do have an orchestra, you are at the mercy of their level. It’s strange and feels egotistical to set up face-on cameras at an (amateur) orchestra that you may have conducted for a while and that pays you to lead them, just to advance your own career. However, it is vitally necessary! If you have great material from university/conservatory or other masterclasses and competitions, blessed be you. They can get out of date, however. Some competitions require material no older than one year. Bastards. But when you send your documents to an international competition, including CV, bio, recommendations, entry money, and videos, you are then competition against hundreds, sometimes thousands of VERY talented musicians that are vying for the very same thing that you are. Oh, and I forgot. For most reputable competitions (thank goodness that there are now several acceptable exceptions!) there is an age limit of 35. So, if you are a woman and raised a family after your studies were finished, and at the same time tried valiantly to keep your career going by working at local ensembles, you are simply too old once the kids are at an age where you can think about international advancement of your career.
So, congratulations, you were one of the chosen out of hundreds or thousands! You need to still pay the rest of the entry money (which can be anything between 500-2000 euros), pay for transportation which usually and unfortunately entails a flight, and hopefully find cheap accommodation. Of course you need have real scores, and preferably the urtext, for conducting. If you are an instrumentalist, you need to have a very very good instrument, which you either finance yourself, or get on loan from an institution, but of course that is another journey you have to travel.
I think that I have omitted a rather important detail, or, details. You have to study the scores. A lot. I'm talking about not only weeks, but months of study for some of the repertoire for particular competitions. I remember having to prepare 5(?) operas for an opera conducting competition. I think I spent about 5 months on that one. You need to research. You need to keep up your instrument. You need to speak several languages next to the obvious language of music making. You need to be articulate and eloquent. And if you have personality issues, you need to working on becoming a good person. Anything can be worked against you these days.
I have done 3 competitions and other quasi competitions veiled as masterclasses, and most have been with Eastern European orchestras that play reasonably well and are generally and mostly open, generous, and responsive to all of the participants. Of course you always have your few frustrated, bored, embittered musicians in the orchestra that passively sabotage the music making, but in general, the orchestras try their very best to follow and make music with all of those strange birds that ascend their conductor’s podium.
So what do you get out of it? There are obvious benefits. You meet other conductors and observe them, which you would never have otherwise had access to. You can get inspired by their methods, take over their moves if they have same body build, see what works and what doesn’t in their rehearsal techniek. It gets you new (and of course, recent) video footage that you can use to get into the next competition. On the slight chance that you do win against all of the other exceptional talents that were invited, you get the golden ticket of invitations to conduct professional orchestras and possibly be admitted to an artist agency.
HOWEVER. I know, I know, this is going to sound horribly discouraging. Say that you win a competition, because you are obviously incredibly talented, perhaps genius. You’ve been invited here and there. Does that guarantee further advancement in your career? No. Damn it. Bloody truth. No.
When examining the biographies of various outstanding conductors that I have been with at competitions, some of them have actually won not only 1 but sometimes 2 competitions. So why in the world would they be coming back for more!? Why do they not have enough work to keep them away from this millstone of competition madness?! One guy I asked replied that the covid restrictions required him to start from scratch again. Meaning, winning a competition, even a well-known one, has an expiration date. Let that sink in. Those few engagements that you win along with your prize are not a guarantee AT ALL that there will be more invitations waiting for you. In fact, you can be darned sure that those invitations are going to the conductors that win competitions in the years following your own win.
Le Sigh. In brief, our world is madness. One can only be insane to pursue a career in music.
So to wrap up. You now know what it entails to be a professional musician with the ambition to have an international career. Compare it to your own path in whatever professional you may have. Does it elicit some sympathy and understanding as to why musicians have the right to be paid just as well as any “normal” job that requires a high level of education?