The story so far
In 2013, Marin Alsop became the first woman ever to conduct the Last Night of the Proms (in its 120th year). On that occasion, she remarked that she looked forward to a time when there would be no more firsts for women. Conductor Alice Farnham was inspired to take action.
With Andrea Brown, then Director of Music at Morley College in London, Alice co-founded a series of workshops giving women the chance to try their hand at conducting, who may not otherwise have got the opportunity. While Morley presented the initial sessions amid their busy annual schedule of creative workshops, it was clear the initiative would benefit from greater support and a broader national scope. Since 2016, the Royal Philharmonic Society has been proud to run the initiative, increasing the number of opportunities it offers at varying levels, and advocating internationally for its worth.
Since its launch, over 500 women have taken part, from beginners taking their very first steps to early-career professionals keen to amass experience and learn specialist skills. Courses have taken place across England, Scotland and Wales. Alongside Alice, courses have been coached by such conductors as Sian Edwards, Jane Glover, Jessica Cottis, Claire Gibault, Karin Hendrickson, Julia Jones, Rebecca Miller, Natalie Murray Beale, Andrea Quinn and Sarah Tenant-Flowers.
All our courses involve some live musicians so participants get invaluable practical experience, and select courses include coaching on posture, stagecraft and making an impression, as well as insightful talks from women excelling in other professions. In addition to the courses, the RPS facilitates social networking opportunities for participants and mentors, and provides bespoke guidance and introductions to individuals, aiming to empower all involved to make continued progress.
In 2018, we presented our most ambitious course yet: a five-day immersive course on conducting opera in collaboration with the Royal Opera House and National Opera Studio which brought together 12 participants and 13 observers drawn from a range of backgrounds and abilities, many of whom called it a life-changing experience. Further courses with ROH and NOS followed.
The pandemic - and startlingly limited funding for gamechanging initiatives like this - then slowed our momentum. We are still dearly seeking funds to present more of our beginner and intermediate courses around the country. If you're an individual, or part of a trust or company, who might have means to support the cause, please do get in touch: we would love to offer more such opportunities with your help.
Nonetheless, from 2022 - with help from North Music Trust - we have established a new high-level course with Royal Northern Sinfonia, the orchestra of Sage Gateshead, designed to 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 Alice and from the RPS team on attaining professional opportunities.
Numerous participants are now establishing careers as conductors, such as Olivia Clarke who had never considered conducting till she took part in an RPS course and has now been appointed as both the Mackerras Conducting Fellow at English National Opera, and Assistant Conductor at the CBSO. Other participants such as Lada Valesova and Karin Hendrickson have both proceeded to conduct mainstage productions at Opera Holland Park.
In 2023, Faber published Alice's book book 'In Good Hands: The Making of A Modern Conductor' which accounts her life in conducting so far, including all her endeavours to change the game for women conductors, and uniquely draws on the insights and testimonies of a host of other renowned conductors worldwide.
In his prior role running the orchestra Southbank Sinfonia, RPS Chief Executive James Murphy rallied colleagues to address the issue in a headline speech to the Association of British Orchestras. James and the RPS team remain committed to promoting discourse and action across the classical music sector to contend the gender imbalance yet facing women conductors.
Through all our endeavours, our long term aim is to nurture individuals who will one day take their rightful place conducting on the world stage, and – in doing so – eventually eliminate any remark about whether a conductor is a man or a woman so they are judged on their talent alone.
Here are what some participants have said about the experience:
"For me, this course was invaluable. It has filled me with a new level of self-confidence and I have already seen positive results in my working life." Becky Chalmers
"The course was an incredibly empowering experience and I truly felt myself fundamentally changed by the end." Caroline Jaya-Ratnam
"This week will go down in my personal history as one of the richest experiences I've ever had. As my colleague said, "You gave us power, and you gave us community." A million thanks to the Women Conductors team!" Caroline Slade
"A truly inspiring workshop that provided a great starting point for my conducting studies." Felicity Cliffe
“I came away from the workshop with new techniques, ideas and more confidence. I rediscovered the enjoyment of learning something new – of reaching out of my comfort zone." Kirsty Devaney