Women Conductors: My Story

12 Mar 2019

Three years ago, Olivia Clarke caught the conducting bug at one of our Women Conductors courses, after just ten minutes conducting a string quartet. Now about to complete her Masters in Conducting in Berlin, she’s looking ahead to her first professional engagements on the orchestral podium.

She writes here about the challenges and rewards of conducting, and the solidarity she's found from meeting other female musicians experiencing the same struggles as her own.

In the Spring of 2016, I took part in one of the earlier Royal Philharmonic Society Women Conductors courses led by Alice Farnham, at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. At that point I was 25 and studying for a Masters in Singing there. I only signed up because of a nudge from a friend, and because it said no experience of orchestral conducting was necessary. By that stage, I’d had a lot of choral conducting experience (I was an organ scholar at Oxford) and I always preferred conducting the choir to playing the organ! Thinking back, I really loved choral conducting - but had never even let the thought of orchestral conducting enter my mind. I played the violin and oboe at school and was exposed to many exciting musical environments. My youth choir took part in big choral and orchestral concerts at top London venues, and I even got to do child roles at the Royal Opera House. Actually, all of the choral conductors I was singing with were women, but I never saw a woman standing on a podium waving a white stick.

At the end of the two-day course in Glasgow, I went to a sticky pub with the same friend who had given me the initial nudge. I remember feeling very emotional and saying to her, “I have to do this”. All I had done was conduct a string quartet for 10 minutes, but something had clicked. Within a month, I had a job conducting a local choral society of 70 singers, founded an opera company with an orchestra of students, and most importantly got a conducting teacher. Within a year I was applying for Masters courses in Conducting, and later secured a place on the two-year Masters at the International Conducting Academy Berlin at the Universität der Künste.

Since then, things have gone so quickly, with the sheer amount of work it takes to be a conductor hitting hard. Aside from the continuous practice and development of a clear and flexible conducting technique, the preparation for each piece of music is immense. From researching the composer, the work and the edition, to analysing the structure of the work, deciding on tempi, thinking about bowings and articulations, how the orchestra will sit, planning your rehearsals, to actually learning the score and deciding what you are going to do with the music! Sometimes you do all of this and you don’t even get to stand up and conduct it – for example if you are assisting another conductor, or if it's for the final of a competition. After this preparation is complete, the real magic can happen. Suddenly there is an unbreakable parity between you and the music and you are free to be in the moment (actually in real time, you are free to be one bar ahead of the moment). I have this right now with Mozart’s Haffner Symphony and it is getting very difficult to restrain myself from singing it, or worse: air-conducting! If the musicians have reached this level too, there is no limit to what you can achieve.

Last Summer, after a year studying in Berlin, I was a participant on the first Women Conductors Opera Course piloted by the Royal Philharmonic Society with the National Opera Studio and Royal Opera House. The tutors were mostly female and all very inspiring. The musical sessions were fantastic, with such a wealth of knowledge and experience available to us. There were also practical sessions from agents and website specialists giving us first-class advice on the business side of being a conductor. The best thing for me was simply seeing so many women conducting in front of me. It helped me with the physical side of conducting – watching people with a similar stature to you is so much easier than trying to copy someone with the opposite body type – as well as the emotional side of putting yourself out there and allowing yourself to make mistakes. I felt like there was a safety-net beneath me, and as a result I conducted better than usual.

There is much debate surrounding positive discrimination of this kind, but the difference in atmosphere on the Opera Course, compared to what I’ve experienced on mixed-gender courses, was astounding. Being in a group of 25 female conductors and accomplished musicians was empowering, and allowed me to relax and focus in a serious way. I found that I happily volunteered to go first, ask questions, and share ideas: things that I rarely do in a mixed environment, even though most people do not consider me to be shy. In the breaks, we shared genuine compliments and observations of each other’s work, as well as the difficult experiences of harassment, sexism, rudeness we’d all had to overcome alone. After a year of regularly standing on a podium, I already had my fair share of sexist experiences, and it was invaluable to find solidarity and to talk to other women about how they deal with these situations. Now if something unpleasant happens in a rehearsal, I will not be isolated by it, and I’ll try not to let it sink in, because it is a waste of my time. I now have a supportive group of 25 conductors going through similar experiences, who will listen and help me through it if necessary.

What’s next for me is finishing my Masters in July. Then I will hopefully work as an assistant conductor at an orchestra or opera house, a post which may involve some repetiteuring too. I have my first professional engagement with an orchestra next week and after that, a few small jobs lined up. We’ll see – I am just starting out, so I think for now I have to send applications out into the world, meet as many people as possible, and then wait for magic emails to appear. It’s a terrifying prospect, but I now know that I have something unique and interesting to offer.

Hopefully some people will see that too, and not because of or in spite of my gender, but because of the music I can make!

To find out more about Olivia, you can visit her website or follow her on Twitter at @ofclarke31.

If you’re an experienced female conductor who’s been inspired by Olivia’s story, you may be interested in applying to the Women Conductors Opera and Ballet courses this year. Details on how to apply can be found by clicking either link.

We’re also presenting two one-day workshops in London on 13 and 28 July, as part of Kings Place’s year-long festival celebrating female musicians: Venus Unwrapped. Click either date for more information.

OUR MEMBERS

George Benjamin, composer, conductor, teacher, programmer: awarded RPS Honorary Membership in 2011.

DID YOU KNOW?

An early Philharmonic superstar was the virtuoso double bassist Domenico Dragonetti. He brought his dog Carlo to performances, and commanded higher fees than almost any other player.