‘People’s personalities are very different in front of orchestras but the worst thing a conductor can be on the rostrum is defensive because an orchestra susses that out. Orchestral players are the quickest people on the planet, they’ve got very quick minds, and conductors have to be at least as quick as that.’
Denise Ham has been a leading teacher of conductors in the UK for decades now and her advice, as is the case with the more enlightened among her colleagues of today, often puts the role of the conductor into this kind of perspective.
‘One of the worst things that a conductor can think is that they have the right to be up there because they are more musical than the orchestra. Well, if you take the collective musicality and musicianship of an orchestra, that’s ridiculous. You are there to work with the orchestra and to serve them. There are only two things that matter when you conduct: the music and the people who play it.’
But the advice Ham gives is not only motivational: she is not only the author of a two-volume instructional DVD The Craft of Conducting but also puts her experience to work as a highly regarded teacher. She has been involved with the conducting course at Sherborne Summer School of Music since it was hosted at Canford and run by the late George Hurst (the week she teaches is still named after him). And as well as an annual three-day weekend workshop at Wimborne, she runs her own year-long class, the London Conducting Academy.
Now located at Charlton House and run under the auspices of the Greenwich Music School, an independent music education studio in south east London, this course started life in 2006 at the nearby Blackheath Conservatoire. It was aimed in particular at working professional musicians either looking, or finding themselves asked, to do more conducting. The course consists of fortnightly sessions – some will involve piano, some an ensemble of instrumentalists and soloists, some are taught by guest tutors – and covers a range of orchestral repertoire. Ham is conscious of the fact that she is training musicians to work in various parts of the orchestral landscape.
‘When I was teaching at Canford Summer School with George Hurst, he always used to say: we take great pride in the fact that people from the summer school get into the profession but that’s never what we’ve aimed at. What we’re concerned about is the youth orchestras and the amateur orchestras who really need you. A professional orchestra: they’ll have someone else next week so they’ll cope.’
“If you have to say something to an orchestra, they should already have seen it in the gesture”
Ham had been a student at Canford before Hurst invited her to assist him and then join the summer school staff. But she first encountered him in his role as conductor at her local orchestra, where her ears were opened to orchestral music. ‘The first thing I got bitten by was orchestral sound. The first time I went to an orchestral concert – I think I must have been about 14 – I came away barely able to speak, it was so exciting. I played the piano from the age of about five and started the cello at about that time but it was just incredible. That was the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Shortly after that the chief conductor, who was Constantin Silvestri, died, and the man who became my teacher, George Hurst, then took over. I was then going to concerts every week.’
She eventually approached Hurst, having had her first taste of conducting on a youth orchestra course a couple of years later, with a view to attending Canford. ‘He looked at me rather sternly and said: yes, but only as an observer. So I went as an observer but I did actually learn the scores. For some reason, at the end of the auditions on the first day the two observers were invited to do something if we wanted. So I got up there with my little stick and carved my way through Mozart 39 and nobody was stopping me so I carried on. And then the next thing George was standing up and shouting: Bravo! Would you be a participant?’
Summing up her approach to teaching, she returns to her key idea. ‘Your starting point is the music and then you acquire the tools you need to convey that to the orchestra by means of gesture, preferably, not by having to make a speech. If you do have to say something to an orchestra, they should already have seen it in the gesture. Conducting must start with knowledge of the score and a desire to communicate that. The thing is that communicating a great piece of music is beyond all of us, even the greatest conductors. One just tries to do it – but it doesn’t hurt to have a few decent tools to do it with.’
1982 – 85: Canford Summer School of Music Conductors’ Course
1986 – 2008: undergraduate conducting tutor at Royal Academy of Music
Since 1994: Canford Summer School of Music, now Sherborne Summer School
Since 1997: directing Wickham Conducting annual weekend course, now Wimborne Conducting
2006 – 16: directing Conductors’ Course at Blackheath Conservatoire
Since 2016: directing London Conducting Academy