Home » Uncategorized » Tips for Conducting at a Symposium (Stuff I would have told myself back in the day!)

Tips for Conducting at a Symposium (Stuff I would have told myself back in the day!)


I had a great time watching the Michigan State University conducting symposium live-streamed on banddirector.com today.  Kevin Sedatole, Jerry Junkin, and John Madden are absolutely fantastic, and the attendees did a great job conducting.  I strongly encourage every band director to sit down and watch one of the conducting symposia via the web if you cannot make them in person.

Having done several of these back in the old days, I felt my toes curl as I sympathized with what these conductors were going through.  For the uninitiated, here’s how it works: pay a fee, stay on campus at a place with a great band and 2-3 great world-class clinicians, conduct the band/chamber groups for several days, take critique in front of the group, analyze tape one-on-one with clinicians, go back to your dorm room and use your last bit of energy to try to synthesize what you were told, lather, rinse, and repeat the next day.

My conducting matured more doing each of these than any other conducting experiences as a younger man–they are intense and exhausting, but the level of conducting focus can not be attained in the daily routine of band classes.  I’ll never forget conducting the Strauss Serenade as an early teacher with Maestro Fennell sitting amongst the woodwinds right in front of me, and seeing him leap leap to his feet, arms raised, frantically exclaiming, “No! Do it like LENNY BERNSTEIN!”

….well…okay, Maestro, right away!  I will just do that….whatever that might be….

Let’s say you find yourself preparing to go to one of these.  Again, GO. I know it costs money. GO!

After being reminded of my own experiences at these, I thought I would offer you two quick lists:


1. Know your scores better than you know your name.  Be able to audiate every line, make sure you know how long/short/accented/connected each note, phrase, and line should be.  Make sure you can justify it musically or historically rather than with what the recording sounds like.

2. Look up the title of the piece.  What does it mean?  Look up every term.  Look up the composer.  Why did he/she write it?  What are the composer’s other pieces like? Check out their orchestral or vocal works, and try to draw out the stylistic similarities.

3. Know what gestures you will use to effect your justifiable decisions.  Practice doing them until they are second nature.

4. Dress nice-casual.  Suits will constrict, literally and figuratively.

5. Be able to answer the question, “Why?” for any element of the piece.  Why should the audience be engaged?  Why should the 2nd alto be the most prominent voice in a given section, or why not?  Why are the performers playing those staccato notes too short?  Why are you inserting a rallentando when one is not marked in the score? (As you internally quiz yourself, if the answer is, “I heard it that way on the recording”, then you have discovered a need for more research!)


1. Remember when Han Solo told Chewie, “I dunno…fly casual!”  You must practice your conducting without LOOKING choreographed.  This is a biggie.  Do you really think Professor Junkin will be impressed by your carefully practiced flourish for a release?  Your gestures, while rehearsed, must appear genuine and natural.  They must BE GENUINE AND NATURAL.

2.Your facial expressions should FIT the music!  If you are conducting Mozart, wincing like you are in the throngs of your 5th straight hour of Wagner is not appropriate.  I get it.  You want to DO something.  You want to SHOW that you understand that the face should reflect the music.  Think of a great book–a good author can make a powerful point through meaningful subtlety.  This is not necessarily THEATRE, even though some conductors can be theatrical (in an effective way).  This comes from years of developing the understanding of music and gesture.  If you are mimicking a “move” you saw from a well-known conductor, take it out.  That is neither genuine nor natural.

3. DO NOT feel like you need to give excessive verbal responses when the clinicians correct you.  I have been there, and it is hard to be corrected in public, on video, with great players in front of you.  TRUST ME when I tell you, the best course is to nod, answer their questions (even if it is simply, “I don’t know”), and go onto the next thing.  I tell you this with love in my heart: nobody in that room is interested in hearing an explanation as to why your tempo slowed down!  Just fix it!

4. Do not get frustrated if you can’t fix everything over the course of a few days!  These are issues that take years of revisiting to really fix, and it just takes time.

5. Be gracious to the musicians–thank them.  Thank the clinicians profusely.  Thank the host!  These are long days for those musicians (think of playing the Holst Suite 8 times a day–great music, just a LOT of it!)

6. Do not go to the clinician immediately after the last day finishes and try to get them to let you into their graduate doctoral program. Have you ever adjudicated for a full day?  How do you feel at the end of the day? Yep. So do they–times the number of days of the clinic.  Let your postive attitude and sincere growth speak for itself!  If you are right for their school, they will remember you when they see your application video!

These are truly great opportunitites.  Take them–they will change you!

…and above all else:




  1. Chip Birkner says:

    Great tips, and so so true!

  2. Gowhamsankaran says:

    Nice ways to indulge people and encourage people about !!!

  3. andypease says:

    I just got back from one of these – I totally agree with every sentiment! What a wonderful thing it is that these exist.

  4. Chad,
    I have run a Conducting Symposium in New Jersey for over 20 years, with Mallory Thompson. Your list contains all the things I’ve said to participants over all these years.
    I’m writing to ask if I may add a link to your tips on my Symposium site (wcs.ebernet.biz). I think it would be a great resource, and will undoubtedly bring a lot of traffic to your site. Please consider — thanks.
    Curt Ebersole

    • chadnicholson says:

      Hi Curt-
      Sounds great! I appreciate it, and I hope it will be helpful to folk new to conducting!

      • Anonymous says:

        Great – thanks! The link will appear today.
        You really nailed all the things I’ve been thinking for years!

  5. […] found these Tips for Conducting at a Symposium on Chad Nicholson’s blog. The list is terrific! It includes, tips for what you should do, but […]

  6. Chad,
    Your tips are still timely. I’m going to keep the link to your post active for the coming symposium. Thanks for your contribution.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: