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International New York Times: Weekend Courses Encourage Female Conductors

OXFORD, England — Dressed in shorts with tights and sneakers, her brown hair pulled back, Charlotte Lynch looked like any other 25-year-old graduate student when she stepped to the podium in front of the eight-piece string orchestra.

As she lifted her hands and began conducting Peter Warlock’s “Capriol Suite,” her face grew serious, her back taut and her movements aggressive. The violinists played controlled notes while the cello came in with strong power.

In the midst of the piece, as she was moving her mouth in concentration, the British conductor Alice Farnham stopped Ms. Lynch, a doctoral student in materials science at Oxford University who has some conducting experience.

“I think you should be punching out the accompaniment a little more,” Ms. Farnham said.

“I meant to do that, but I chickened out,” Ms. Lynch replied with a giggle. She began again, more forcefully. When the orchestra finished the piece, Ms. Farnham asked her how she felt.

Ms. Farnham, right, working with Maddi McArdle, another student, in 2014. Credit Catherine Ashmore

That conducting is cool — as well as a potential career for women — is the idea behind “Women Conductors @ Morley,” a program of weekend courses sponsored by Morley College in London. Run by Ms. Farnham and Andrea Brown, the director of music at Morley, the workshops are phase one of a program designed for young women between the ages of 16 and 25 who are involved in music but may have never conducted. The weekend courses took place this spring in Oxford and Leeds; they will start again in September and run through the academic year in London, Cardiff, Glasgow, Birmingham and Cambridge.

Phase two, which begins this autumn, will be anchored in London and will be for female music professionals and teachers 19 and older who hope to add conducting to their portfolios. Those weekend workshops will focus on different genres — from classical symphony to everything from opera to choral to ballet — and taught by prominent female conductors in those genres, including Sian Edwards, head of conducting at the Royal Academy of Music, and Jane Glover, who has conducted at the Metropolitan Opera, the English National Opera and the Royal Danish Opera.

A program devoted to teaching conducting to women is by definition groundbreaking. The field is overwhelmingly male, and women have had to struggle to break in.

“I think having women at the top of the profession open to championing the next generation and trying to create opportunities on many fronts creates a great atmosphere to see more change,” said Marin Alsop, music director of both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra.

It was Ms. Alsop’s appointment in 2013 as the first female conductor of the Last Night of Proms, a prominent event on the British cultural calendar, that inspired Ms. Farnham and Ms. Brown to set up the pilot program for the conducting weekends in the spring of 2014.

The appointment made headlines, especially after Vasily Petrenko, the principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, told a Norwegian newspaper that orchestras “react better when they have a man in front of them,” and that “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things.” He went on to say that once female conductors go on to have families, it was difficult for them to be as dedicated to their profession.

“Those of us who conduct had a think about it,” Ms. Brown said. “What we felt we could do was create some kind of opportunity for young women to work with very experienced conductors to try it out.”

anna krause 2One reason for the relative scarcity of female conductors is that women have not been channeled into the profession. Ms. Farnham, who studied in St. Petersburg, Russia, under the conductor Ilya Musin, said she noticed that in the 20-plus years since she graduated there had not seemed to be much growth in the number of women who have chosen conducting as a profession, “whereas in other professions there have been more women coming through.”

The problem, and challenge, starts at the student level.

“To be in conducting, you need to be a trained musician, but you need to really start thinking about being a conductor quite early on,” she said. A musician not only has to shift her focus from her instrument but also must spend years competing for scarce positions.

The “Women Conductors @ Morley” program aims to give female musicians more choice by introducing them to conducting earlier. The two-day workshops of phase one include instruction from professional conductors as well as body language techniques from stagecraft coaches.

“I got them running onto the platform and got them laughing, saying, ‘Be the worst actors you can be, really ham it up,”’ said Alma Sheehan, a coach who has been a part of the workshops since the 2014 pilot program. “I got them thinking about breathing and told them not to think about it as preperformance nerves but as a buzz.”

Ms. Lynch, the Oxford graduate student, who has conducted her college orchestra, said she learned a lot during the weekend course.

“When I started doing the conducting in October, it became quite apparent that I loved doing this,” she said a few weeks after the Oxford workshop. “That was one of the motivations for going on the course, I wanted to get better. And having done the course, I love it even more.”

Anna Krause, a doctoral student in music composition from Missouri, said the weekend lit a fire under her to seek more conducting opportunities in the future. “I think the biggest change I saw was in confidence,” she said. “It really struck me how apologetic everyone’s manner was in the beginning, and I am not sure why that is, but it was the coolest change. And with something like conducting, that makes such a difference because you are up there in very much a leadership role and how you present yourself has a huge effect on the result you are going to get.”

Because phase two is geared toward professional musicians, it will focus on specific conducting techniques for different genres of music. The hope is that the women in the program will eventually be assigned mentors with whom they can stay in touch throughout their studies and as they begin their careers.

There is even talk of a master class music festival to showcase the students’ development.

“I wish I had had this when I was starting out,” said Ms. Edwards of the Royal Academy of Music, who will be working with the phase two group on Romantic symphony conducting.

“There are major issues in all areas — how you dress, how you present yourself, how you feel. I think it is great to get these discussions out there and empowering women to feel that it is worth doing.”

In addition to the Morley course, there are a few fellowships to encourage female conductors who are in the middle stages of their careers. The Dallas Opera this autumn will launch its conducting institute, aimed at female conductors who are 40 years old or younger.

More than 100 women from across the globe applied, and the lucky six will spend 10 days in late November and early December getting hands-on experience, as well networking and mentoring opportunities.

“A lot of the applicants talked of socializing the audience to get them used to seeing a woman in front of the orchestra,” said Keith Cerny, the general director and chief executive of the Dallas Opera. “As human beings, even as open-minded human beings, we respond to what we are used to.”

Meanwhile, since 2002, Ms. Alsop has been running the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, which every two years chooses a young female conductor to work under her tutelage. Because of the number of strong candidates, the 2015-17 fellowship program has been expanded to include two associate fellows.

“I think it is critical that everyone is coming together to address the lack of opportunities for women,” Ms. Alsop said.

“It is one of the those things that of course I am always asked about,” she added, “but until now no one has really wanted to hear about it.”