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What's it really like?
Benjamin Ellin is an award-winning conductor and composer. He is currently Music Director of Thursford Productions, Principal Conductor of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra, Music Director of the Southbank Centre’s Soundbank Ensemble, Music Director of Focus Opera and President of Pembroke Academy of Music, London.
How long have you been in this particular job?
I have been a conductor, professionally, for 10 years, though I have been conducting since I was about 14 years old.
What did you do before this job?
Before I was lucky enough to earn my living from conducting, I did various jobs around the music business to help keep mind and soul together whilst learning how the machine of live music worked. These included orchestral management, stage management, librarian work, teaching and proofreading!
What do you do in a typical working day?
There is genuinely no typical day. If I am not conducting, there is normally a huge amount of admin, research, learning and ‘normal life things’ to do. If I am on the road, then invariably travel, meetings, rehearsals, concerts, interviews and learning for the next project whilst doing the current one fills my day.
What instruments do you play?
I can play piano, clarinet, tuba and then a little bit of strings. I also studied singing at the Guildhall in London, to help me get a broad awareness of how singing works and how it feels to sing in front of others. Psychology and affinity are important with conducting.
Do you get to travel a lot?
Yes. I am rarely at home which means I have to juggle a lot of different commitments, deadlines and demands on the road. I enjoy travelling though so that is fine.
What do you like about the job?
Music is absolutely linked to who I am. It offers hope as it shows what humans can do together and it forces us to look at ourselves very seriously. All that is not really a thing, but as an entity it is pretty irreplaceable. I don’t really think of it as a job in that respect. Other things such as travelling to great places, meeting new people, hearing amazing musicians, are all great.
What do you dislike about the job?
There is a danger of cynicism in music making that has to be avoided at all costs and it is sad when you come across it. Music is such a difficult job to get into that if you want to be cynical about it then do something about it or get out! I also can’t stand it when I meet, or even worse, work with people with egos. There are a lot around and it is the most destructive thing to music making – if not humanity.
What is your best memory as a conductor?
Difficult question – again! Each project has something to take from it and can provide many memories and moments of discovery. My debut in Japan as a conductor in 2010 was pretty unforgettable. The programme included Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast: a huge, terrifically exciting work and there were about 600 performers and singers on stage - a sound and a buzz that I will never forget. The way the creative process worked was perfect for me. It was based on equal respect and a desire to move forward and improve. I also found Japan a wonderful place to be.
What is your worst memory as a conductor?
Well, we are all learning all the time, but when I was a lot younger I remember standing in the middle of a performance I was conducting, wanting a different tempo and not having any impact on what was happening. I learnt a lot that day!
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Start by setting up your own concerts and projects. Be proactive and don’t have any self-pity when it gets tough. The world owes a lot more people more than it owes you a career as a conductor. Just get conducting and learn through making lots of mistakes. Listen to what honest, good people say to you, especially friends who play for you, as they will tell you what they need as musicians from a conductor. Be honest with yourself and accept the fact that if you want to make a career out of music it will be fantastically difficult and, as the great Bernard Haitink once said to me, you have more chance of failing than succeeding. That sounds depressing, but it’s not. If you accept his view but still love music enough to want to be immersed in it, then whatever happens, you will have some satisfaction. However, and at the risk of appearing contradictory, don’t be in a rush. Life now seems to be about instant results. All worthy things don’t work that way. It takes time so don’t allow the perpetual media of ‘now, now, now’ and other management jargon to suck you in. It will probably just spit you out very quickly!
What other inside-information can you give to help people considering this career?
Ask what field of conducting you want to go in to: orchestral, musicals, film music. Try and look at how those systems are set up and understand them. That should help you find a path to their door, even over time.
How did you end up doing this job? Was it a childhood dream or was it by accident?
I always knew I wanted to conduct – and compose, which is the other strand of my musical career. There isn’t one way of becoming a conductor and there wasn’t just one way for me. We are all still developing and learning so the process is still evolving. In all fairness, being a conductor is not something most people stumble into. It’s a little bit like being a director. The obstacles and hurdles are so great that you wouldn’t ‘normally’ just end up doing it. You’ll get the bug one day, a musical epiphany if you like, and you’ll start to carve your own path.
Conductors lead amateur and professional groups of performers. Their role is to make sure that pieces are performed to the best of the musicians’ abilities.
Conductors are leaders of orchestras, choruses, opera and ballet companies, as well as other musical groups. They work with instrumentalists and singers to make sure that pieces of music are interpreted and performed correctly.
Conductors choose, study and prepare musical scores for performances and rehearse them with their group. They train musicians on their individual parts, explain how to keep unity and harmony, and balance instruments and voices against each other. They need to be excellent communicators to convey to the performers what they think is the right interpretation of the composer’s score.
Conductors are outstanding music “technicians” who learn the entire score of the pieces they conduct. They must know exactly when instruments start and stop playing in order to control the various sections of a piece. They normally play at least the piano and another instrument.
During a performance, a conductor uses a baton and body language (mostly arm movements) to help the musicians follow the rhythm, tempo and dynamics of the piece.
Conducting in front of an audience only represents a small part of a conductor’s job. They represent the orchestra, so they are expected to give interviews and promote concerts. On the creative side of things, they plan the orchestra’s repertoire and decide to concentrate on a theme or a composer for the season.
They often audition new performers, choose guest soloists and schedule rehearsals.
Conductors work in a range of settings, including:
Although this field is extremely competitive, becoming a conductor can be both lucrative and gratifying. Established conductors usually have an agent who negotiates fees on their behalf.
As well as taking part in rehearsals, performances and meetings, conductors often combine their orchestra work with teaching and training performers.
There is no set salary for conductors. Pay can vary hugely depending on experience and status. At junior level, conductors might only get their expenses reimbursed, whereas top conductors receive large fees.
A conductor starting out can earn around £360 per concert.
Most conductors earn around £1,000 per concert, but fees can go up £3,500 with experience.
A few top conductors may charge more than £10,000 per concert.
Conductors often have degrees in music or music education and have taken postgraduate courses with an emphasis on conducting.
The Conservatoires UK Admissions Service (CUKAS) lists all the schools and conservatoires offering undergraduate courses in music. The following colleges offer specialist courses in conducting:
The Association of British Orchestras, which has links with all the orchestras, offers seminars for graduates.
Being a conductor requires passion and commitment. The job is both physically and mentally demanding.
There are no set working hours. It is common to work during evenings and weekends. You will often spend many hours at home preparing for performances.
You may work in a variety of indoor and outdoor environments, from concert halls and recording studios to parks.
Travel is often required, both in the UK and abroad, as conductors accompany their orchestras on tours and competitions. This may require staying away from home for lengthy periods.
Permanent and full-time jobs are very limited, and most conductors work on a freelance basis.
The majority of conductors first train as musicians.
The field of conducting is very competitive. You are likely to start as assistant conductor in conservatoires and music schools, on a voluntary basis. Conducting in community settings (ensembles and youth orchestras, for example) and following a summer course in conducting will give you the opportunity to gain experience. These steps will help you to widen your network. Indeed, networking is essential as few jobs are publicly advertised.
You can also get noticed by entering competitions or forming your own ensemble.
Orchestras, opera and ballet companies, and recording studios are the main employers.
Conductors usually combine conducting with teaching so they might decide to pursue their career in education at conservatoires and music colleges. They can also become director of music.
With a certain amount of experience, conductors get to work with reputable national orchestras.