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From the back side

I go to a lot of concerts from professional level through to primary school groups with different standards and styles. Normally I focus on what they sound like, but this is about what they look like, or rather what one member of each ensemble looks like.

Let me set the scene – a senior school band, all looking fabulous in formal concert black, sitting up straight with clean shoes. Sparkling with good presentation. They have obviously listened to hours of lectures about the importance of looking good as well as sounding good, and rightly so. They spring into action and stand for the arrival of their esteemed conductor. Out saunters a guy wearing old brown shoes, shabby greyish too-big pants and an old faded tan jacket with patches on the elbows. What on earth? The scary thing is that this frump was probably the guy giving the lectures!

A string group is all turned out in immaculate school uniform, ties – the works. I can feel the glowing pride of the Principal from here. The conductor comes on wearing exactly what she wore to school that day. Long flat brown boots, tights, floral skirt and a ‘nice’ coloured cardy.

A community orchestra is in black with white shirts, black jackets and bow ties. Women in all black. Look great – super formal. Female Conductor comes on – also in black (yay – good start) but a short shirt creating a gap during the loud bits and leggings!

These are all real examples and I could go on and on and on.

Most don’t pass the ‘from the back side’ test. They look dreadful from behind. Some outfits don’t cover or get stuck on ‘the back side’. The back of a conductor is where the audience will look, they are front and centre, literally.  A conductor should never attract negative attention.

Female conductors have a more difficult time with this. Men have it easy. If they wear a nice dark suit, they will be fine. Easy. It will look tailored, cover their bums and they will look like they have made as much effort as their ensembles. Perfect.

When I buy conducting outfits, (which I do, frighteningly often), I stand in the changing room getting a very critical friend to look at me from behind while I flap around.

Conductor outfit check list:

  • Do you look at least as good as your ensemble?
  • Wear black – almost always?
  • Has someone to check you from behind?
  • Flap your arms up and down vigorously to see if anything catches.
  • Are there any gaps?
  • Is anything see-through?
  • Check the length! (I didn’t even include this example, too awkward. You can imagine – high stage, short skirt…..)
  • Does it look like you made an effort?
  • Would your ensemble be as proud of you as you are of there presentation?

It doesn’t matter if you are conducting in the school gym or Carnegie Hall, every conductor should have a formal conducting outfit that looks great and has passed the ‘from the backside’ test.

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Conductor vs video camera

I have been practicing my conducting today. Mostly because I videoed my community orchestra rehearsal the other day and it was horrible to watch. Sooooooo many bad habits – either old ones that had crept back in, or skilfully developed new bad habits.

Sometimes I dream of the days before I knew I was supposed to practice conducting. Coincidentally, those were also the days when I thought I was pretty damn good at it. Sigh.

When I started taking conducting seriously, I was introduced to the video camera!  This has since become my worst nightmare and also my greatest tool. There is nowhere to hide.

A video of a rehearsal very clearly points out some rather important things:

  • Clarity of beat
  • Expression – face and arms
  • Size of gesture
  • Extra bits (movements that don’t need to be there, subdivisions etc)

The most obvious things it points out are those times when I am telling a group what and how I want something but I’m still beating exactly the same! This applies dynamics, articulation, phrasing, passion and intensity – everything. The ensemble should be able to see the changes and intentions.

The process becomes even scarier when I turn the sound off and just watch the video. I should know what I am watching, should know where I am in the piece based on what I see and should be able to see my intentions for the music. I am watching what the players see.

Even worse (this one is not for the faint hearted)– try setting up the video camera in front of you. Then conduct a piece – no sound. Watching those videos back can be a very humbling experience.

It is the reality for conductors that sometimes (often) what we think we are showing is not what the players are seeing. It is disappointing but true. This is especially the case when we think we are exaggerating something and it is hardly showing at all.

Challenging questions for all of us:

  1. Do you practice conducting as much as you expect our ensemble players to practice?
  2. Do you have lessons conducting?
    Conductors of all levels could do with a couple a year, so we know what to work on. A re-tweak can be fun if you do a conducting summer school or course.
  3. Do you spend enough time preparing your scores before rehearsals?
    There is probably never ‘enough’ time but score analysis can make a huge difference to the effectiveness of your rehearsal – at all levels.
  4. How many of us video ourselves regularly then work on fixing what we see?

Your conducting and ensemble leading ability is the one factor that has the most effect on the quality of your ensemble.
Take time to sharpen your skills – you won’t regret it!


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Mirror mirror – Basic ways to improve your conducting fast!

Music teachers usually end up conducting something.  Even if we hate it, we are still expected to be able to do it to some degree. I used to think I was pretty damn good at it. I have conducted excellent school ensembles, youth orchestras, big bands and community groups.  As I say – I used to think I was just a natural – everybody told me I was! (Isn’t that enough?)

This year I am completing my Masters degree in conducting which is great fun but rather humbling!!

Apparently I am not God’s gift to the conducting world! I am a lot better now but still have a lot to learn. So I sat down and thought about the two most important things I have learnt over the last 18 months which would have helped earlier and have made the most difference. Here goes:

  1. Practice in front of the mirror.

I never did this – no idea why. I heard about it but everything seemed ok so I didn’t bother. You know how everybody talks about clarity when it comes to conducting? It is the most important thing we do but how do we know we are clear??  The reality is – we don’t. There are only 2 ways to find out – one is to practise in front of a mirror and the other is to video yourself practising or in rehearsal. Doing both is good.

The good thing about the mirror is it is instant and it also forces you to get your head out of the score so you can see what you are doing. I discovered that several things which I thought were clear – were rubbish. I had to work to fix them.

You know the saying ‘What they see is what you get’. It is soooo true but sometimes it is less clear with a school group when you have so many other variables involved (like technical issues and no sight-reading ability)  The mirror helps this as you can see exactly what students are seeing – not what you think they are seeing.

One thing that I was surprised by was the lack of contrast I used. I don’t mean massive flapping around but the difference between staccato and legato as well as variation in dynamic range. I would have thought it was a strength but a few video sessions proved otherwise!!!

2. Score Prep.

I have found that I don’t know a score until I have physically practised conducting it. I have tried when I am in a hurry to bluff away having just looked through the pages.  Going through it marking entries and dynamics is fine but we all need to actually practise giving the cues and giving the volume markings. The score then becomes a very different animal.

I know music teachers are time poor (or actually usually time extinct) but I have found that time spent on a score makes my rehearsals go better and my ensembles learning time decrease dramatically – therefore removing stress.  I make sure I have thought about and marked tempos, about how I am going to start and marked which sections will need help in which parts (note this is not ‘who has the melody’).  It has made a huge difference to rehearsals.

How we conduct and lead our ensembles is the most important factor in determining how well our groups play. If we are well rehearsed with clear aims and know what we look like when we are conducting, then our groups will reach a high standard faster.

This may sound like more work but it is a true time and stress saver in the long run.


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Wide eyed rehearsals

One of the things I love about school ensemble conductors is that they are usually educators first.  This is vital for the work we do with school ensembles. There is so much to teach!

  • Notation
  • Playing instruments
  • Listening skills
  • Group skills
  • Sound production and tuning
  • Ensemble conventions
  • Playing and moving together

And sooooo much more.

Most of this is best taught through doing and through being an active part of an ensemble rather than explicitly. As a conductor I don’t want my rehearsals to feel like another class. We want this learning to feel different – like making music, like a social activity, like a team sport. This is what kids do for fun in their lunchtimes or afterschool.

The best most active learning time of any rehearsal is when you have every eye wide open. Every player on the edge of their chair – ready to go, focused, determined and excited. So how do we achieve this? Here are some of the things I do to get kids pumped.

  • Challenge with increasing tempo
  • Passion
  • Concentration and intense teamwork.
  • Humour

Challenge with tempo.

Works at any level and especially with a really hard new piece. It is hard work slogging through a new piece of music, especially if you have to go slowly.  So find a bit that sounds good, even 16 bars – maybe the intro or end? Practice it – and then speed it up – really fast – edge of their seats fast -‘we can’t play it that fast’ fast! It is especially good at the end of the piece because it gives players something to aim for and they are delighted when they get there. This pushes kids on all sorts of levels and it is fun. I also like jumping up and down yelling ‘come on – faster faster’ but that is optional.


Often in rehearsal I get so bogged down by the notes and frustration that I forget the music. Recently I watched a workshop where the conductors were concentrating so hard on the technical side they totally forget to listen to the beautiful music happening around them, and it was absolutely gorgeous. This happens for the players as well. We lose our connection with other players and the sound while focusing hard on our own part. Reminding students of the music, the passion and the drama often fixes the technical issues faster than anything. Don’t forget that music is fabulous.

Concentration and intense teamwork

This one is for slow pieces. You have to set it up so your ensemble is committed to playing perfectly together, listening to each other and achieving a common goal. Again it can be done at any level. I tell my ensemble that in especially slow music the role of the conductor is just to shape. Moving together, creating a unified sound and an emotional connection is for them to do – it is much deeper than watching the conductor, it is a feeling amongst the group. This is often a good time to get off the podium and let them do it.

NB – If you do get off the podium don’t stand to the side pulsing with your body – that defeats the purpose!


I like picking on players and sections so we all have a good laugh! This is very much a relationship thing and obviously needs to be done with care. It works with some students and some conductors. Pick the kid carefully – usually the loudest personality who is a relatively confident player. The great thing about this technique (and yes – I call it a technique not just nastiness) is that it shows players it is ok to make mistakes and the worse that can happen is that we all have a good laugh. This can be done with sections or the entire ensemble – some would call it ‘teasing’. I once watched an MSO rehearsal where Sir Andrew Davis was getting fed up with the orchestra playing so far behind his beat. He said ‘I gave my last beat, turned around and bowed, turn back around and the note sounded – ahhhhh’.

We have all sat through boring rehearsals!

There is no excuse.

Wide-eyed ensembles are fun and the learning, and most importantly the music, will be better.

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‘Man spread’ for performers

So we all know what ‘man-spread’ looks like.The phrase was coined to by people trying to get a seat on the train when some guy is sitting with his legs so spread out he takes up two seats!! Grrrrr.  It turns out that this ‘taking up space’ that is perfectly natural to some people (not just blokes to be fair) is actually helping their confidence and general life performance. Not only that, but 2 mins of it actually alters our brains!

This all comes from a TED talk by Amy Cuddy and it applies perfectly to performance and can help our students.  It made sense to me so I tried it! It is similar to ‘whistle a happy tune’ and ‘fake it till you make it’ except that this has science behind it so it must be good!! (?)– take the time to watch this one, it’s great.

So – last weekend was a big one for me.  I had an audition and a concert where I was acting as conductor and presenter. Both required me to be confident, assured, present a good musical performance, be focussed and remember a lot of different things.

Before I went on for each of my events, I spent some time ‘taking up space’.  2 mins of this is proven to change the hormones in your brain. Testosterone levels (dominance and confidence hormone) go up and your cortisol levels (stress hormone) go down. This ‘high testosterone – low cortisol’ combination is found in effect leaders. This is also the perfect state for performance.

I literally stood up as tall as I could, spent some time reaching out sideways to take up as much space as possible (in private of course), I did the Wonder Women pose and I swung my arms around. When I walked on for both events I had an amazing sense of clarity and confidence. I am usually a bit nervous before I go on and I sometimes get the wobbly knees once on stage. There was none of that – in fact I thoroughly enjoyed both – which is a bit weird really but came from a sense of doing my absolute best.

This is an easy and effective technique to assist those students who suffer badly from nerves or who are just shy people.  Even quite socially out-there people find performance situations nerve racking.  All students could do with some brain science to assist them to do their best and give the best performance they can.

Things you can do to take up space

  • Hold your arms in the air out to the side
  • Stand/ sit with your legs apart
  • Shoulders back
  • Hands on hips, legs shoulder width apart (Wonder Women pose)
  • Hands behind your head

Just another tool for your students to add to their performance excellence kit!

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Music needs a better marketing department

I have taken a while to comment on this. Not because I don’t have an opinion, as most of you know – I have many opinions, about almost everything. The reason I wanted to wait was that it was all getting a little fiery and really we are all on the same side. Actually we are totally on the same side, wanting  students to receive as much high quality music education as possible.

So this is just my opinion there are plenty of others – all valid – all good.  Try everything, find the one that works for you and your kids in your situation.

The first time I heard about this was a light bulb moment for me. It was in Perth at one of their fabulous ASME Summer Schools for music teachers and the Keynote was by Richard Gill. He said it was time we stopped treating music as a handy thing to have if you wanted to be good at maths.

Recently an excellent article by Peter Greene has been going around social media which also includes a range of advocacy arguments that we can be using.

I have spent a huge amount of my life securing the place of music in whatever school I’m in – all of us have. I have reorganised entire junior school programmes to demonstrate how extra time in music can work for the school.  I have written submissions about how it is not just another ‘option subject’  from which students should pick 1 or 2 out of 12 (of an every growing list that includes pottery, hat making, and Zumba) to study for a term. I have put advocacy propaganda in school newsletters and spouted it at staff meetings and school events. This is part of the job of Director of Music and musicians everywhere.

We are special and we have a special subject. We are not main-stream and a lot of people don’t understand us. More importantly,  they don’t know how to test us which means we are not going to fit with their little models of data collection. Grrrrrr (That’s another blog!!)

However – I draw the line at justifying music by saying how good it makes students at other school subjects. I don’t mind listing the social or general learning benefits but If we justify our subject by saying how important it is to other subjects, we are immediately putting it in a position of being inferior to those subjects and we are doing this to ourselves! I think we should be making our position as equal to  maths, science and english not by defining  ourselves as a lesser subject.

I aim for the opposite! Maths should be saying that it is important to learn maths so that we learn to subdivide beats in music! That it is important to learn English so that we can understand poetry and lyrics, that it is important to learn science so we understand how music effects our brains, our moods and how sound is created, that it is important to study languages so you can understand Italian and German performance directions. This is the land I dream of – the world I aim for.

These other subjects should exist so that students can better understand arts for the rest of their lives. What is more important to living a happy,  healthy life  than having an appreciation of art? Music should be the pinnacle of what schools are aiming for, not the support subject. Almost all top academic schools have excellent music departments. Students who study music are smarter than others. There is research to suggest that music makes us smarter but it is mostly because smart people want to understand, participate in, and learn to love music.

What we can promote is the music industry and how it is absolutely everywhere. Music can be heard everywhere, we all listen to hundreds of pieces of music a day. Why aren’t we pushing this?? If maths can successfully justify teaching algebra as an absolute necessity when  most of us are still wondering when we can ever use it, then we can justify something that gives people so much pleasure every single day and employs millions of people.

The subject of music needs a better marketing strategy!
We need to think bigger and be proud.

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Musical ‘plating’

‘Why does it matter what I look like if I play well?’
“Nobody pays attention to anything but the music if I am good enough”

I’m not sure why kids don’t think presentation is important when it comes to performances but they don’t – they seem to think it is a figment of my imagination. Teenagers are desperately trying to create an image for themselves and present that to the world, they are simultaneously trying to fit in and stand out! Yet all of that collapses when it comes to performance and suddenly they are purists who think that only their music will do the talking. Ha!

Lately I have tried a new way of communicating the importance of presentation and appearance to students – plating. With all the food shows on TV very few of them have avoided the constant reference to ‘eating with your eyes’, it is 2nd only to mentioning Nonna’s recipe when it comes to quality food. Suddenly when you put musical presentation in this context they get it! At last!!!

So what are some of the topics I cover when discussing presentation with students?

It starts at the door – I had an adjudicator (not to be named – ever) come and tell my students that he played the 11 second rule with every student that walked into the room.  For each student he gave them a grade at the door for how well he thought they would play. He then checked that grade against his final grade and guess what??? – they often matched!!! (Yes – that is sarcasm).

Students are being judged from the minute they walk in – just like a job interview. Looking relaxed confident and professional wins every time, even if it is all put on. Students must practise looking like a confident performer. It will only look natural after it has been practised till it is a habit.

Clothing – ahhh. I hate having this discussion with students. I am very honest with them all. No, a teenage girl should not be wearing a sleeveless dress that looks like it is going to fall off when playing a flute, no, a guitarist should not wear a suit if playing heavy metal, no, shorts are never acceptable. We all know it – keep up the good work people! Professional concert dress is always the correct answer. There is no point putting a roast dinner on a silver saucer just because the saucer is your favourite – it just isn’t appropriate.

Practical clothing matters as well- they need to have rehearsed in the shoes and the exact outfit. I have seen people not being able to play because they suddenly wore contacts, guitarists sleeves getting caught, hair stuck in an instrument, skirts so short or tight so they can’t walk, shoes too high to play in. Practise in the exact outfit.

Smiling – An important part of student’s musical ‘plating’ is smiling. Nothing makes performers and audience members relax and enjoy themselves more than a smile. The audience will enjoy the performance more and the performer will probably accidentally relax themselves.

Own the performance area – this bit of the plating analogy works really well. Think of a balanced plate – we want the performance to be near the centre, students have to set up where they can see the accompanist, they shouldn’t have a stand in front of their face, etc. Nothing on the plate you can’t eat – no extra chairs, nothing you don’t need on the stage, nothing left over from the previous performer. Take the time to get set up correctly. Clean the plate and make sure everything on it looks great.

If we listen to a recording then nothing matters but the sound. A performance however, should stimulate our visual as well as our aural senses. A great performer makes the audience feel that they can’t wait to hear them in the same way that seeing a plate of food put in front of you should make you look forward to eating it. This is why musicians put on a show. They dress appropriately, have screens and even fireworks sometimes. It all adds to the enjoyment and expectation of the music. ‘Listening with your eyes’ is not quite as catchy as ‘eating with your eyes’ but it is just as true.

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Put up some hurdles

A couple of years ago I heard students with special needs perform at a music conference – in some cases very profoundly special needs. The focus and determination these kids showed was huge. Deaf students who loved playing music and loved having access to it through some very hard working and talented teachers. These students were fabulous and inspiring. The sign language choir had me sobbing!

So what are my students excuses?! I went back to school and had entitled students having to be begged to play in ensembles. It really grated!

I think we should start putting up a few more hurdles! It is true that you don’t appreciate something unless you have to work hard to get it. Are we making it too easy for our students to access music? Would they appreciate it more if we told them to come back once they had done some practice? Should student need to audition to get into our elite ensembles instead of making them compulsory and chasing kids when they don’t turn up?  Should it be made known that the senior music class only has a certain number of places? You will notice a lot of question marks and they are genuine questions.

I once had a trombone student get down on his knees and beg me to teach him privately.  This guy was keen. I told him I would take him, but if he hadn’t practiced, I would send him to wait at the end of the driveway in the cold. I never had to, and he went on to pass his grade 8 with distinction. He knew that I was doing him a favour (not the other way around) and so he appreciated his lessons.

I really think that we spend too much time trying to get students, and Principals and parents for that matter, to consider music important instead of just assuming we have a fabulous product that they will want. We have to have this assumption in everything we say and do. Our mindsets, actions and department philosophy has to shout this out before it will change in others. We have what our students want and need – access to music. NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND!

Starting points:

  • Students who haven’t attended regular rehearsals do not play in the gig. No matter how good they are.
  • Have one year where your senior ensembles are smaller, and you tell a few musicians that they are not good enough yet.
  • Never beg students. You can encourage but draw a line. If they say no, say ‘your loss’ and walk away
  • Tell students that there is a waiting list (you might need to work on this bit) to take their place.
  • Make sure all rehearsals are planned, fun, challenging and worthwhile. (This is assumed)

In community music the easiest seats to fill are the flute players. As a consequence, our flute section is the most reliable in the orchestra. They show up every week. One of them just had twins, she only took a couple of months off before she was back in fear of losing her seat!

So maybe the key to growing our departments is making our classes and ensembles harder to get into – not easier. Make our standards higher – not lower, spending a bit more time saying ‘no’ instead of ‘yes’. Have it be known that music is for kids who work hard and understand that it is something special which students want to have access to it and will work hard to get.

The special needs kids performing for me already understand this.

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The career backstop

Hopefully you will forgive me for this rant. This is one of those topics that I am passionate about.

Music is a hard career. Rewarding – yes, fun – yes, satisfying – most of the time, but it is also highly competitive and requires a huge amount of skill and hard work. Being successful musicians requires us to be very very good at what we do.

This is why I am a firm believer that music students should not have a ‘backstop’ or ‘fall back’ career plan.

The Parable of Oscar

I have a friend who was an excellent trumpet player – he still is but this story is about his younger years. Oscar was always a committed musician and was always passionate about practice and playing at a high standard. He played in a variety of ensembles and did well in all his exams. When he left school he was easily capable of becoming a professional trumpet player with a bit more study and experience.  Unfortunately Oscar had parents! Oscar’s parents were very supportive of his music all the way through school, right up until he said he wanted to be a professional musician.

At this point Oscar’s parents patted him on the shoulder and told him that that would be great, after he had a profession to ‘fall back on’. Oscar was a good boy so went to university to study accounting as his parents wanted him to. After years at university and then working Oscar became a chartered accountant but still wanted to play the trumpet so finally went and studied trumpet playing in his late 20’s. Unfortunately Oscar’s playing level had dropped a bit in those years with a split focus and he never managed to really get to the professional level that he was once capable of. Life forces took over and Oscar needed money so went back to being an accountant and lived comfortably ever after.

The moral of the story is that music is too competitive to split the focus with something else. The entire purpose of a back stop is that it is easier field to get jobs in – nobody has brain surgery as their backstop position. When things get tough it will always be easier to get a job in the backstop position especially as the time spend working on the backstop has reduced the chances of being an outstanding musician.

I had lunch with Oscar the other day and told him that I use his story in my classes (and now blog). His reaction was ‘good’. I don’t think he is bitter but he is certainly disappointed and would do things differently if he had his chance.

I understand that having a back stop career is sensible from a parents perspective but not if it reduces the chances of living the dream. We should always inspire our students to live their dreams.

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