Jobs 101: Conductor

Conducting an orchestra is not all about casual flicks of the baton - it involves a bit of studying too! Think you have got what it takes to be one then?

Wan Munirah
Wan Munirah

Published: 30 August 2012, 1:13 AM

Beneath the sea of brass and wooden instruments, a lone figure stands in the front of the orchestra, waving his baton intermittently and alternating between swift and smooth strokes. At first glance, being a conductor sure looks effortless, but when I sat down for a quick chat with Joshua Kangming Tan, I was surprised at the sheer amount of work he puts in. And yes, it is not just about waving your baton.

A graduate of The Juilliard School, Joshua has been conducting for 15 years. Youth.SG met Joshua for a quick chat before his rehearsal last Thursday for the upcoming Singapore premiere of “Manon Lescaut”, an opera by famed Italian opera composer, Giacomo Puccini.

WHO: Joshua Kangming Tan, 35.

Tell us more about yourself.

I am quite an adrenaline junkie. I love roller coasters and paragliding. If I am not working, I am probably at the gym or watching football.

How and why did you become a conductor?

I started playing the violin when I was six, but I was not that interested in it until I turned 14. My interest in music started when I was a teenager.

I majored in violin when I was in college. My dream then was to play in an orchestra. I thought that to better understand the orchestra, perhaps I should take up conducting lessons.

After I graduated, I got a job in an orchestra but I still continued conducting. My conducting engagements grew to the point that I had to choose between being a violinist or a conductor.

I was quite fortunate that one of my mentors was very encouraging, and told me to concentrate on conducting.

Joshua during rehearsals

Describe a typical day at work.

It depends on which orchestra I am with – sometimes a rehearsal takes about three or five hours.

I also spend a large amount of time studying my music, preparing for rehearsals and proposing programmes for future concerts that I have been engaged for.

There are a lot of “behind the scenes” work that people do not see. As a conductor, I am also the spokesperson for the organisation.

What are some of the memorable experiences you had as a conductor?

The most memorable thing was being accepted into The Juilliard School (a prestigious dance, drama and music school in the United States). That was a milestone for me.

What are some of the challenges you face?

The challenge is to make better music and to motivate everyone else to do the same because not everyone will share your expectations, or set the bar as high as you.

Unlike a violinist or a pianist, I do not have physical contact with an instrument. Since I work with a large group of people, I have to convince them through the music to achieve the highest quality, given the resources and the amount of rehearsals we have.

Do you have to make any sacrifices for your job?

Another conductor once said this: “Love the art, but hate the lifestyle.”

For any serious musician or artist, you spend so much free time outside rehearsals just studying and trying to get to a better level, until you sacrifice your personal time unconsciously.

Travelling [as part of my job] can also be quite tedious and tiring. For instance, once this production ends, I have to catch a midnight flight for a morning rehearsal in Beijing. I just have to make certain sacrifices and not have my rest days.

Sometimes, I am constantly on the move but I love it. As long as I am making music, it is fine.

What advice would you give to youths considering a career as a conductor?

A lot of people think that being a conductor is glamourous. They have to be realistic about their expectations.

Firstly, you have to get into it with the right mindset. Secondly, you have to really love music because it is a form of art. If you do not pursue it like a religion, I think there is little chance of success because you will get lots of rejections, since competition is intense.

You have to love it so much that you are willing to put your whole life into it. It is extremely hard work. You need to have an extreme passion for it, or else you cannot make those demands on yourself and thus you cannot go far.

Manon Lescaut is showing at the Esplanade Theatre on 31 August, 1, 3 and 4 September 2012.

Educational requirements: Usually a Masters. For positions in colleges or universities, a doctorate may be required.

Qualities needed: You must have an extreme passion and devotion for your art form.
Working hours: Depends on your engagements, especially since travelling and studying music is involved.

Salary range: It varies for conductors who have a performing career. For each concert, it can range from $2,000 to $10,000. If you are highly sought after, it can go up to five or even six figures.

Career prospects/advancements/specialisations: There are many options available and each comes with its unique challenges. Some conductors aim for a performing career and work with a professional orchestra. One can also venture into education and train the next generation of musicians. Alternatively, you can also get involved with amateur or community orchestras.

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