“What we see of the conductor at the rostrum is really just the tip of the iceberg. A deeper look reveals a veritable pyramid of competences made up of skills ranging from music to management,” says Alois Glaßner, head of the mdw’s Department of Conducting. mdw Magazine spoke with Glaßner about the University’s comprehensive training of conductors, the conducting programme as such, and the profession’s ongoing transformation as well as the department’s own plans.
The mdw’s Conducting diploma programme gives its enrolees a choice between three majors: Orchestral Conducting, Choral Conducting, and Opera Accompaniment. Gaining admission to the programme involves auditioning against 50–80 competitors and passing a multi-part entrance exam in order to be chosen for one of the ca. 10 available places. Applicants need to already possess comprehensive command of music theory, formal analysis, and ear training, bring along a certain level of technique on the piano, in singing, and in conducting itself, and also be able to present themselves well before a vocal or instrumental ensemble. In light of all this, it’s no wonder that those looking to study conducting have often already completed other degrees in instrumental performance, composing, or music education. However, there are also those who apply and are admitted immediately upon leaving secondary school or even during their final years of schooling.
The programme itself is comprehensive and demanding so as to prepare students as well as possible for their future professional lives. A conductor’s work at the rostrum in a concert or at the opera is the part that the audience actually sees. But alongside the necessary musical skills and specialised knowledge, personal “soft skills” likewise play a major role. The ability to lead musically and otherwise, including the associated communication skills, occupiers a central position in one’s training. The notion of the conductor who approaches the orchestra in an authoritarian manner is rather outdated: “What’s needed today is a partner-like mode of work, with the conductor leading as a primus inter pares. That’s why our curriculum includes subjects like “Kommunikative Kompetenz” [Communication Skills]”, explains Glaßner. “Students need to have the confidence to assume a leadership role and be able to navigate it without acting in a top-down manner. And when a conductor succeeds in winning the musicians or singers over to his or her interpretation, it results in magical moments for the audience”, Glaßner is convinced. Thanks to the breadth of content covered in this programme, students also qualify themselves for areas of work beyond simply leading ensembles. Graduates as well as those who’ve completed only part of the programme benefit from the leadership and communication skills they’ve developed, with some of them establishing themselves in areas such as music and artist management. Others go on to teach various musical subjects at universities and conservatories. “At its core, conducting is also an educational activity”, says Glaßner. “Conducting is like a nonverbal language that functions via gestures. And just like when one speaks, one should also have something to say when one conducts, expressing it comprehensibly by way of clear baton technique,” Glaßner explains. Musical leadership always plays out on three successive levels, the first of which is comprehension of the work itself: learning the piece by studying the score, playing it on the piano, and reading up on how it came to be. The next step is where rehearsals begin: the work that one has just internalised is conveyed to the choir or orchestra in one’s own interpretation. Then comes the final step: leading the orchestra or choir in a concert or a performance of an opera. In conductors’ training, these three levels are constantly present. The initial step of learning a work sees students study it in small groups, led by their teachers at the piano. At the mdw, subsequent rehearsal takes place primarily with the practice ensembles Pro Arte Orchester and WebernStudiochor. These ensembles make it possible for students to rehearse the pieces they’ve worked on while receiving feedback from their teachers, after which they frequently perform them in recitals. This is an important aspect of conductors’ training, since conductors—unlike instrumentalists—have no way of practicing on their “instruments” at home. “A conductor’s instrument consists of people, so he or she needs to inspire and lead the collective such that it makes music in conformance with his or her vision while also taking into account a choir or orchestra’s own expertise and skill,” the department head emphasises.
It’s for this reason that Glaßner would like to see cooperative arrangements arise with professional ensembles that make available regular conducting internships for beginning conductors. “This would do more than just enable the students to gather valuable experience—because for such ensembles, opening themselves to up-and-coming artists would likewise be of benefit. After all, experienced conductors don’t just appear out of nowhere”, Glaßner remarks.
Doing justice to the demands of this profession requires that the conducting programme undergo continual development. The next reform is set to take place in 2024, when the present diploma programme will be converted into a bachelor’s and a master’s degree programme. “These days,” comments Glaßner, “conducting programmes are subject to international comparison, and students are often highly mobile. So in the interest of our own students as well as other highly qualified young people who’ve completed a bachelor’s degree elsewhere, we’d like to offer an attractive master’s degree programme.” One of Glaßner’s central concerns is to have his department offer a more diverse curriculum. Beginning in the winter semester of 2022, a step in this direction will be the new professorships of Andrés Orozco-Estrada and Sian Edwards (see interview, p. 26/interview, p. 29), who will benefit the department with their international experience and expertise. A further aspect important to Glaßner is embodied by the ongoing deliberations regarding how more women can be motivated to study conducting and enabled to succeed in being admitted to the programme. And in this regard, the conductor and well-versed pedagogue Sian Edwards will be able to provide valuable impulses.
Alois Glaßner himself studied organ, church music, composition, conducting, and vocal pedagogy at the mdw. He began teaching at the University in 1991, was appointed professor of conducting at the Anton Bruckner Department in 2004, and assumed the professorship in choral conducting at the Department of Conducting—which he has headed since July 2021—in the autumn of 2018. “Back when I studied at our institution, which was still called the Hochschule, what was missing was in-depth training offerings for choral conductors—which is why I’m especially happy to have been entrusted with the development and expansion of this area,” says Glaßner.
The question of what still needs to be done in order to better prepare graduates for professional life is what provides Glaßner and his department’s teaching staff with continual motivation. Though he does hasten to admit: “In a university programme, one can’t prepare students for everything they’ll encounter over the course of their invariably tough lives as conductors. But we do help our students develop strong personalities as musicians and as leaders, personalities capable of weathering the storms that life will bring.”