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Finding the Right Guest Conductor

Steven P. Katzenmoyer | October 2018

    Some of your most advanced students are selected to participate in an honor band or orchestra festival. You teach them the music, take them to the festival, observe the guest conductor, and participate in the day’s events as your students work diligently. At the conclusion of the concert, you ask your students, “So, what did you think?” And the response is either, “Uh, it was okay” or worse: “I didn’t like the conductor.”

How Does This Happen?
    Long before the first downbeat, honor festival host teachers must identify a guest conductor who can best serve the needs of the student musicians. Here are some items to consider as you evaluate potential guest conductors.

Rule of Three
    This is an effective mantra for identifying a suitable guest conductor, who should fall into at least one of these two categories, and preferably both. First, the guest conductor should presently be teaching students whose ages are no more than three years away from the ages of the students at the festival. Alternatively, the guest conductor should be no more than three years removed from teaching students the ages of those at the festival. Ideally, the guest conductor should satisfy both of these criteria.
    When considering candidates to lead a middle school honor orchestra, you could consider someone who has led the world’s most renowned orchestras. However, if the candidate has never taught middle school orchestra students or is more than three years removed from teaching middle school orchestra students, expectations might be unrealistic. Children do not care what groups a guest conductor has led or how much music a guest conductor has composed. They care about having a good experience with their group.

Reflect on Your Experiences
    For me, the most memorable conductors were those who pushed the musical limits of the ensemble without overextending them. They selected challenging, enriching music, which led to deeply fulfilling and unforgettable musical experiences. 
    Think about your most memorable conductors and what made them that way. They might be noteworthy for exceptional charisma, great knowledge, high energy, or humor – or for more negative tactics, such as using fear or intimidation to get the most of the ensemble. Whatever characteristics you associate with your most successful guest conductors can serve as a springboard to identifying appropriate guest conductors for your honor bands and orchestras.

Ask Colleagues 
    Pose the same question to colleagues, and focus on why their best conductors were that way. Maybe there will be some overlap among your colleagues’ reasons. They may share similar sentiments with you, or perhaps even recommend the same conductor or conductors. Even if a colleague can’t remember the name of a specific guest conductor, ask the colleague to describe the reasons why this conductor was so effective.

Ask Students
    College and high school students may have had enough ensemble experiences to provide you with characteristics of outstanding guest conductors, perhaps even specific people. Children are generally honest, sometimes to the point of being blunt. Use their honesty and experiences to help identify characteristics of conductors they hold in high esteem. You also might be able to use those conversations to influence and enhance your teaching.

Avoiding the Ordinary
    Most of us have probably experienced a tactician guest conductor: one who is competent at teaching pitches, rhythms, and dynamics but who lacks personality traits that elevate them above an average band or orchestra teacher. The students selected for honor bands and orchestras have been chosen because they possess superior musicianship skills. They deserve an extraordinary leader to teach them. Identify someone who will have the students think critically about their music, visit the higher-order thinking skills of Bloom’s taxonomy, or engage in activities above and beyond the printed pages of sheet music on students’ stands.

Insist on Being a Part ofthe Music Selection Process
    After you have identified and invited the guest conductor, inform this person that you will be involved in selecting music. This is especially important if you are at the limit or beyond the Rule of Three mentioned above. If you are the host teacher, you know the students’ playing levels at the time of the festival and can help the guest conductor select challenging music that students will be able to learn before the performance.
    An additional resource for you and the guest conductor is to have access to the three or four most recent concert programs of the festival. These can be invaluable in understanding the degree of difficulty of the music you select.

Set Expectations for Rehearsal Time 
    All persons involved in the planning of the festival should understand how much rehearsal time is allotted. The guest conductor should select music and structure rehearsal time (and sufficient breaks) based on the design of the festival. It can be disappointing for young trumpet and horn players, for example, to be overworked for an entire day, and then have no upper range for the performance that evening. Savvy guest conductors know how intensely to teach a given group while still providing enough downtime for students to rest.

    Hosting an honor band or orchestra festival is a daunting task, replete with unexpected problems to address, some of them urgent. However, the first and perhaps most important task is to identify a guest conductor who will work with the students to create a worthwhile, musically rewarding experience that should motivate them to continue to excel in instrumental music.