Women Conductors

In recent years, the world has increasingly asked why – in so many walks of life – men often get the majority of opportunities. This is particularly conspicuous in conducting where stark statistics show we are far from equality.

At our last count, only two British orchestras had a female principal conductor, and only six women conductors had titled roles amid the several hundred conductors on the staff of professional British orchestras. Furthermore, only 22 of the 371 conductors represented by British agents were female. That’s 5.5%.

People frequently cite this as being a ‘grass roots’ problem and that more needs doing to encourage women at early stages to take up conducting, stick with it, and develop the skills needed for the profession. At the Royal Philharmonic Society, we are proud to present the UK’s foremost initiative to help women do just that. It was the idea of pioneering conductor Alice Farnham in 2014 and, since 2016 we have been working year on year with Alice and a growing range of organisations to create more opportunities giving more women the means and the confidence to conduct.

At the heart of this, since 2016 we have presented a range of courses, as means allow, for aspiring women conductors at venues nationally. These have included:

Phase 1 courses for female music students aged 16 and above and individuals embarking on a career in music (as performers or educators) to pick up the baton and take to the conductor's podium either for the very first time or after very limited experience so far.

Phase 1.5 courses for female music professionals with a little experience in conducting who would like to achieve greater proficiency at it, either as a principal focus or as part of a varied musical career. Participants often include teachers and music service staff who may have conducted junior ensembles for years but without any prior training.

Phase 2 courses for female music professionals who already conduct to at least a moderate level and for whom a particular focus, or expertise in a particular genre of conducting, could transform what they are able to achieve. The nature of these courses has varied and to date included focus on contemporary music, choral music, ballet, and an immersive delve into opera presented in collaboration with the Royal Opera House and National Opera Studio.

The pandemic has prevented us running such courses lately, but we are seeking funding to instigate some anew in 2022. Any such opportunities will be publicised here on our website and on our social media @RoyalPhilSoc.

Nonetheless this year we are fortunate, with support from Sage Gateshead, to be piloting a new high-level course with Royal Northern Sinfonia that in the years ahead will give a cohort of outstanding individuals dedicated time to further their skills with a full professional orchestra, and year-round receive support and guidance from the RPS on attaining professional opportunities. Further details of this will be presented here soon.

Alongside our courses, we are ardently involved in advocacy, discourse and planning with colleagues sector-wide to ensure women are better represented on the podium and that the current imbalance is one day consigned forever to the past.

"RPS Women Conductors is doing something fantastic: a programme for women conductors led by the very gifted Alice Farnham. A chance to explore issues, musical and interpersonal, faced by the leader of an orchestra who happens to be a woman!" - Sir Antonio Pappano

We are very grateful to ABRSM, the Samuel Gardner Memorial Trust, and a small circle of individuals for supporting Women Conductors. On some of our Women Conductors courses, a limited number of bursaries are available to participants who require financial support to take part. These are made possible thanks to the Sir John Barbirolli Memorial Fund.

We dearly need other generous donors to continue these courses and help us give more women the chance to conduct and establish a living from it. Please click here for more information on how to get involved in our life-changing programme.

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