Phoebe Manley: My Journey to the Conducting Podium

17 Jan 2019

21-year-old Phoebe Manley discovered her passion for orchestral conducting during high school and has never left the podium since. She was one of 10 participants on our Women Conductors workshop in Cardiff last December, and a recipient of an ABRSM bursary. Read about her conducting journey, and what she learned from Alice Farnham and Alma Sheehan on the Phase 1 workshop weekend.

Conducting has always appealed to me ever since I sung in the CBSO Youth Chorus during high school. The opportunity to see great conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and Edward Gardner in rehearsal and concerts inspired me over and over again. When I entered sixth form, I asked my Head of Music if I could take over the orchestra. This marked the beginning of my conducting venture, which I’ve continued to pursue to this very day.

At university, I started conducting lessons where I learned baton and hand technique, and beat patterns. I chose to embark on a semester abroad in my second year at the University of New Hampshire in the U.S. While it was a rather scary experience, I was able to take a module in conducting. Lectures took place three times a week, meaning I was forced to practice between sessions, with podium time usually twice a week in the company of friends and peers. I learned a great deal during these four months in the States. Through the conducting module I gained confidence, studied and eventually mastered transposition, and was able to video my progress each week.

Phoebe conducting players from Welsh National Opera, guided by Alice Farnham.

I was excited to return to Cardiff to finish my degree at Cardiff University. When I saw the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Women Conductors programme was hosting a Phase 1 workshop at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, I jumped at the opportunity to apply. After being successful in gaining a place on the course, I was told I’d also be receiving a bursary from the ARBSM to help fund my attendance!

Shortly before the workshop weekend, all the participants were sent music to study at home. I spent some time marking up entries, circling dynamics, counting bar numbers and listening to different recordings of the music. On the first day of the weekend, I think everyone was slightly nervous. We were all given name badges and greeted by a smiley YeYe and Alice Farnham, introduced ourselves and talked a little bit about our musical backgrounds, be it in conducting or otherwise.

Then we went straight into conducting two pianos, played by repetiteurs from Welsh National Opera – and I was first up! Everyone was clearly a little worried about going onto the podium for the first time, but by the afternoon we’d all conquered that fear and just got on with making music. To practise our acting skills, we played a couple of games. We were each given a card with an emotion or character written on it and were tasked to conduct one of the pieces in that character. Everyone else (including the players) tried to guess which one it was. This helped greatly by boosting our confidence and taking us out of our comfort zone.

We had two sessions with stagecraft coach Alma Sheehan on posture and relaxation, working with the body to create a calm and poised stance for conducting. (This was gratefully received on Sunday morning when we all needed a little bit of waking up…) What I found most interesting about Alma’s sessions was when we discussed how to walk onto the podium. She explained that walking with your heel firmly first would automatically give you a larger presence on stage, and she demonstrated this expertly. She started at one end of the room, looking at one wall as if it were the audience, and walked, heel first, whilst moving her eyes in an arching movement across the imaginary audience. This illustrated to all of us – and the imaginary audience – that she was ready to conduct, and that she knew exactly what she was doing. It’s a great technique to use when performing in any context, especially if you want to conceal your nerves. She explained that even if you didn’t know exactly what you were about to do, you would at least look like you did!

By Sunday afternoon, we knew the pieces much better and were ready to be videoed conducting Welsh National Opera players and students from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. I think I could probably have stood on that podium all day. It was amazing to have such musical power at my fingertips and to lead professional players in creating gorgeous music. I hope one day I get to do it all again!

Phoebe was one of three participants from Cardiff University whose places were funded by the generous support of ABRSM.

To keep up to date with her news, you can follow her on Facebook, here.

RPS Women Conductors heads to Glasgow on 23-24 February and Liverpool on 17 March. If you're a budding conductor who's interested in applying for one of our workshops, click the link below to find out more.