How to be a conductor: Seek out mentorships and maintain your skills

Gemma Tipton offers a beginner’s guide to taking up a new cultural pursuit

The film Tár puts the spotlight on the person on the podium, but how do you get to be a conductor? Karen Ní Bhroin’s career takes her around the world, including London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestre Symphonique de Québec and our own National Symphony Orchestra.

I’m passionate about music but I’m not sure Cate Blanchett’s Lydia Tár is a great role model. How do I get started?

Ní Bhroin grew up surrounded by Irish music. “Age three, I picked up a tin whistle, and one thing lead to another. I was leading ensembles, ceilí bands, grupaí ceoil. It was a form of conducting, although I didn’t know it then. I’ve always been someone to fix things, bring people together and raise the bar,” she says. “When I realised what conducting was, I knew I wanted to do it.” Ní Bhroin studied music at Trinity College Dublin and took a masters in orchestral conducting at Kent State University in Ohio. “My first job was with a gospel choir,” she says. “I was willing to do anything that would have me lead a group.”

That’s the education side sorted but how do you get the gigs?

Not quite. Ní Bhroin also seeks out mentorships to learn and develop her network. “I’m one of those people who can’t see why not to do something,” she says. “Starting off was easy; the hard part was, and is, maintaining it. With only one position for each job, competition is fierce.” Jobs come in by a mixture of recommendation and application. “If it’s a big assistant conductor position, it’s most likely application and audition. Guest conducting gigs are all based on your reputation, word of mouth and hopefully the organisation taking a chance on you.”

Assistant conductor? Surely there’s only room for one person on the podium?

Indeed. An assistant conductor looks after rehearsing, education and community concerts, and “other duties as assigned”. Those “other duties” are so various and vague that last year Ní Bhroin created a podcast series featuring conversations with assistant conductors, demystifying things and giving a hand up to people hoping to get involved. “What you see on the podium is 10 per cent of what actually happens before a concert,” she says.


I’m intrigued. How much is you and how much is the orchestra?

It depends on your leadership style. Ní Bhroin will study the music in advance and then typically have three to four rehearsals ahead of a full classical concert. “I have the overall vision of the piece in terms of story, its journey and so on, but within that there are solos from different members of the orchestra. As a conductor, it’s beautiful to allow those moments to be controlled by the players, to add to the story.”

What if everyone hates each other?

“Energy is everything. You know within minutes if it’s a good match and of course sometimes it doesn’t work. But when it comes to unhappy musicians or orchestras, it’s my job to make the entire experience better. It’s pretty rare though, most of the time everyone wants to give their all.” If you think that’s a world away from the manipulative Lydia Tár, you couldn’t be more right. “For me, conducting is about being a good person,” says Ní Bhroin. “A strong person, resilient yet open, empathetic yet direct. Organised but with an open heart to really make music. Of course that is controlling in one way but really you’re the facilitator, the navigator, aiming to be the one that inspires the overall picture.”

Listen to And Other Duties here

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture