A report by Katie Smith ? BASBWE scholarship holder at the recent Sherborne Summer Music School
Sherborne Summer School of Music was founded in 1952 as the Canford Summer School of Music, a name it retained for the next 52 years before relocating to Sherborne School in the pretty medieval market town of Sherborne in Dorset, home to the stunning?? Sherborne Abbey
This article reflects on my experiences as a new conductor. I am a primary school teacher who teaches Music for only one hour a week, so it might seem surprising that I have aspirations to conduct. However, I studied Music at university and would love to develop my conducting skills for potential future jobs leading youth and amateur ensembles.
My first experience of ensemble conducting was in Manchester, running children’s wind and brass bands during my PGCE year (2012-13) and my year as a peripatetic music teacher after that. I really enjoyed leading instrumental groups but realised my technique could be a lot better. This was when I approached Mark Heron - I knew him well as he teaches conducting at Manchester University - to ask for some lessons and he suggested I tried the BASBWE Wind Conducting course at Sherborne Summer School instead.
What great advice! The Sherborne Wind Conducting Course massively exceeded my expectations, both in tuition and enjoyment. I’ve found it so useful that I attended for a third time this year and was lucky enough to obtain funding from BASBWE, for which I am very grateful.
It is a very well-organised course ? the main thing which sets it out from other conducting courses is the egalitarian approach to podium time, with every participant conducting for about 10-12 minutes every day. Another great aspect is that you are always conducting a proper ensemble, as the conducting participants all play for each other and make up a reasonably balanced wind band. The atmosphere is incredibly supportive, with everyone giving their all and the people are so friendly that I am still in regular contact with conductors I met on my first Sherborne course.
At Sherborne, we are lucky to have three professional conducting teachers with a great variation of styles and ideas ? this year we had Mark Heron, Bj?rn Sagstad and Alberto Roque. They pick up on different aspects of our conducting and constantly have us laughing with their amusing anecdotes. You can also learn a lot from watching the other participants ? perhaps they use a gesture you really like, or the aspect they have to work on is something you could also improve on, for example, straightening up their posture. Additionally, as the course is linked with the Wind Ensemble course, there are opportunities to conduct the full ensemble in rehearsals and concerts which is a great plus!
One of the hardest things about conducting is that all your practice is carried out in front of a group of people and it is particularly difficult to find somewhere to conduct when you are inexperienced. Initially I didn’t feel confident enough to put myself out there and contact local bands as I knew my conducting had a long way to go. It’s scary to conduct adults when you know you’re not experienced, but experience is exactly what you need to improve ? a vicious cycle!
After my second year at Sherborne my confidence was finally built up enough to contact local bands. I was lucky to find Woking Wind Orchestra who are happy to let me conduct and I think the practice has really helped me improve. Perhaps every wind band conductor should open up an assistant position for a more inexperienced conductor. Or perhaps they could have a couple of rehearsals each term when members of the band can have a go. How else can new conductors have the chance to practise?
In conclusion, I have gained a lot from my experiences at the Sherborne Wind Conducting course and would recommend it for any aspiring conductor. During the week itself you can really see the participants progressing, and improvements are even clearer when conductors return after a year of practice.
However, we need more opportunities to practice throughout the year, particularly to gain experience of rehearsal technique. As I’m sure you are aware, it is unfortunately not just a case of getting our baton out and practising 4/4 - we need ensembles to respond to our gestures so we can understand what works and what doesn’t. Wind band conductors, this is a plea to think of new conductors when you run through a few pieces ‘for fun’ in post-concert rehearsals. Offer up opportunities and perhaps you’ll end up moulding the conductors of the future.
Katie Smith Interview
Question and Answer interview with Katie Smith with “WINDS” editor Bruce Hicks.
- It seems like a good place to start, “how did you get into music”?
My family is musical and my parents took me to concerts as a child, so I started the piano as soon as I could read and the French horn when I was 7. Growing up, I played in several area youth bands and orchestras and sang in choirs but the best thing was Hampshire Youth Orchestra where I finally found a source of great like-minded friends. I didn’t realise that I would want to do music seriously but ended up going to Manchester University to study Music and then did a Music PGCE with Specialist Instrumental Teaching at the RNCM and Manchester Met.
- What were your expectations of joining the conductor’s course? Did you have any idea what it would be like?
I mostly went on my first Sherborne Wind Conducting course to improve my technique, and I was also interested to find out more about wind band music because I had played mainly in orchestras up to that point. My aim was to have a go at improving my conducting in a safe environment. Each course since then has contributed something new; my expectations were different each time and I was often surprised by what I learned. Now I have developed a love of wind band music and the course has far exceeded my expectations.
- How long have you been conducting?
I had a few opportunities to run ensembles before I went to university, but my first actual conducting tuition was on my PGCE at the RNCM with Mark Heron. That was about five years ago. During my PGCE and the years afterwards, I conducted a number of school ensembles. Now, since attending Sherborne, I am an assistant conductor of a local wind orchestra.
- As a course participant, what were some moments that stood out for you?
One moment was when I realised how important it is to be relaxed and calm so you can connect better with the players and music, rather than worrying about technique. This was when I was conducting the main wind ensemble rather than the other conductors from the course and a tutor explained this principle to me. I found it a different experience conducting players than other conductors ? it was easier to relax, but I still need to unlock my conducting and listen more carefully.
Another learning curve has been in my score preparation. I have learnt a lot about how to prepare a score in an efficient way.
Also, this year, particularly, some old friends who had not seen me conduct for a while were saying how much I had improved since my first time. I had been able to see this myself, by going back over the videos that are taken on the course, but I was really nice to hear it from others.
- Could you tell us about some of the repertoire you studied while on the course?
There is always a good range of repertoire, with some fast and tricky pieces but also many slower, more melodic works with opportunities to draw out melodies. I enjoy conducting recently composed music that is exciting and technically difficult, with time and tempo changes and dynamic contrasts. These pieces are in good supply for wind bands and one example is ‘Awayday’ by Adam Gorb. This year I prepared a wide array of pieces: from ‘John Gay Suite’ by Buxton Orr to Holst’s ‘First Suite in E flat’.
- ?In addition to your wind band work what do you do to relax?
I play the French horn and trumpet regularly in orchestras, bands and shows. I am also currently very passionate about learning German, partly as a result of making friends with a couple of people from Germany who were on the Sherborne course with me, and I enjoy cycling.
- What do you see as the most important role of a conductor?
To give the players a shared vision of the music because they often start off with lots of different ideas about how it should be played, to bring out lines in the music and sometimes to give a clear beat to enable good ensemble playing. To give the players confidence so they can perform to the best of their ability. Wind players need to be very relaxed when playing and the conductor needs to help with this.
- ?What do you find to be the most challenging part of being a conductor?
I think accepting that you can’t control what happens; you can only control yourself. It is impossible to cue every player so you need to trust the band and every person in it to be in control of themselves and their playing. Also, deciding what is the most important thing at any moment to be focused on ? for example to have a particularly clear beat or to cue and encourage a particular section. Also, being able to hear what isn’t right and what might be improved and explaining that in a people-friendly way so as not to upset anyone!
- What, for you, is the most fulfilling aspect of your life as a conductor?
My full-time job is as a primary-school teacher so conducting is just a hobby, but nevertheless it is fulfilling in many ways ? I enjoy taking rehearsals and getting to know a piece well enough to have a vision of it and to be able to convey that vision through the band.
- What is one piece that you’ve always wanted to conduct? - And have you had that chance yet?
My favourite composer of wind band repertoire is Adam Gorb and I was really excited to conduct his piece ‘Awayday’ on the course. I also conducted ‘Yiddish Dances’ last year.
- ?If you could meet any composer (who ever lived) who would it be?
Interesting, I think I am actually much more interested in the music itself but it would be great to meet Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov because they must have been very interesting and unique people.
- ?How has your experience at the Summer school changed your life?
It has given me the confidence to conduct adults rather than staying in my comfort zone with school ensembles. I approached local wind bands to ask for conducting experience, and now regularly conduct adults at Woking Wind Orchestra. I also met people on the course who have become good friends and have met up with many of them separately from the course, even flying over to Germany a couple of times to do so!
- Would you go again?
Yes, it was so beneficial and I learned so much that I am sure there will be many aspects of my conducting I can focus on in years to come.
- Would you recommend the course to other wind band conductors?
Yes, it is good for all levels and the wind-band conductors all get 10-12 minutes of podium time every day of the course, with tutoring from excellent tutors. There is a very supportive atmosphere ? read my article to find out more reasons why it is so good.
- What do you see as the challenges that lie ahead for wind bands in the UK?
Probably maintaining the enthusiasm of the players by ensuring a steady supply of good, motivating conductors. Although I only have a narrow experience of wind bands because most of my playing has been in orchestras, it would be really good if all wind bands had an Assistant Conductor - someone less experienced who can learn from the current conductor. This should keep the conducting standard high so our bands can continue to produce high-quality music.
BH: Many thanks Katie and very best wishes for the future.