26: Pathway to the Podium with Alice Farnham

Show Notes:

In today’s episode, Conductor Alice Farnham will share her journey to the podium with us.

Farnham started her career as a church musician playing organ and trumpet. She was an Organ Scholar at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University and trained for three years with the legendary pedagogue Ilya Musin in St. Petersburg.

Alice is Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Women Conductors with the Royal Philharmonic Society.  She is listed in the Classic FM Today’s Ten Best Women Conductors and in the BBC Woman’s Hour Music Power List. Recent conducting engagements include the BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Opera House, Mariinsky Theatre, Calgary Opera, Singapore Lyric Opera, and English Touring Opera.  

Upcoming engagements include productions with Welsh National Opera, Belfast Ensemble, Opéra de Rouen, to name a few. She has been a Guest Conductor with the Royal Ballet Covent Garden, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet and Danish Royal Ballet.

Links Mentioned in Today's Episode

Alice 0:00
To think about conducting technique is not separate from the music. Because I think very often people say, Oh, well, I learned a very good technique and then then you add the music to it. But the music is the technique, there are some very basic things that have to do with picking up the sound. Rather than you hitting the beat down all the time, there’s a sense of holding the sound picking it up from below, holding it transferring it from beats to be because the sound between the beats is as important as the beat itself. Another aspect was about accepting that orchestras play behind the beat. That doesn’t particularly matter when they play behind the beat. Because if you have contact with that sound, you can just keep going and bring it bring that sound with you.

Chaowen: 0:50
Hey there, welcome to The Conductor’s Podcast. I’m your host Chaowen Ting, a conductor with over 20 years of experience working with professional symphony orchestras, opera houses, new music groups, and vocalist. I’m also founder of Girls Who Conduct and has mentored hundreds of conductors from across the globe. I created The Conductor’s Podcast to share all the behind the scenes secrets with you, while I interview conductors, musicians and business gurus from around the world. This is a space created for conductors, conducting student musicians and non musicians who are curious and interested in learning more about the profession, craft, industry and business.

Chaowen: 1:37
Shy away from the real talk? No way. Money, hardship, growth and the roller coaster of conducting career are all topics we discuss here. I will give you a simple actionable step by step strategies to help you take action on your big dream. Move through the fear that’s holding you back and have a real impact. Now, for our proceed, make sure you’re closing and get ready to be challenged and encouraged while you learn.

Chaowen: 2:11
Hi, there and Happy Thursday. Welcome to another episode of The Conductor’s Podcast, and I’m your host Chaowen Ting. I’m so glad to welcome you to today’s episode, as this is one of the very, very best interviews that I’ve had so far. My guest today, Alice Farnham, is someone that is very special to me personally, and I’ll tell you why, after our conversation.

Chaowen: 2:39
I have known her for about six years now, because she was one of the very first people who started conducting training programs or workshops, only for women conductors. Back then, she first partnered with the Morley College in the UK, and has two sets of programs. Phase one, as she called them were for beginner conductors. They got together for a weekend around the UK. They have programs in London and Oxford, in Belfast and so on, to learn about conducting techniques, leadership skills, score, study, of course, and how to use your body well.

Chaowen: 3:21
She also had those phase two programs that she called, are for experienced conductors, to learn more about specific things in conducting a field, such as choral conducting new music, or opera and ballet conducting. I was really fortunate to be admitted into both the ballet and opera conducting programs, while I eventually only went to the opera conducting workshop, which was partnered with the Royal Opera House in London. And we worked with singers and repetiteur from the young artists program, which was such an awesome experience.

Chaowen: 4:07
I didn’t get to meet her actually in person during that program because she was away conducting somewhere else. But later that year, when I visited London again, I reached out to her and asked her out for a coffee chat.

Chaowen: 4:24
In today’s interview, Alice will share with us her story of coming from the church musician background, going to conducting study in St. Petersburg in Russia to with the legendary master teacher Ilya Musin and how this path led her to conducting ballet opera and symphonic repertoire around the world. We have a lot to cover. So that’s dive in! Welcome to the show, Alice. I’m so thrilled to welcome you to The Conductor’s Podcast, and I can’t wait for you to share your story and experience with my audience.

Alice 5:10
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. So wonderful.

Chaowen: 5:13
So before we get started, will you please give everybody a just a brief intro a little bit about your background and how you get to where you are right now.

Alice 5:23
Now I’m working as a conductor I have been for the last 25, 30 years. I came from initially, I suppose a church music background, I was an organist, but I was also a trumpeter. And I played in lots of orchestras and as a student and at school and as a student as well. And so it was a combination of the two really, I had to conduct choirs is a organise that was part of my sort of duties when I was a student, but I also playing in orchestras a lot.

Alice 5:56
I really love that big orchestral repertoire. And then I worked in, I worked in London as an organist. But it gave me a chance to had a venue for putting on concerts. So I used to do lots of concerts while I was there. And then, in the 90s, the late 90s, I went to study in St. Petersburg with a great Ilya Musin, who we’ll be talking about later. And then, increasingly, I was really, really interested in opera and conducting opera. And whilst I do a lot of symphonic conducting, my real love is opera, and where I particularly feel most useful as a conductor. And now I work. I conduct a lot of operas but I also do a little bit of ballet as well sometimes and share my time between that and some symphonic repertoire, just say, it’s probably more orchestra opera than quite a lot more than symphonic and also quite a bit of teaching as well.

Chaowen: 7:09
So knowing you from a few years ago, I am always the most amazed at how you just went to St. Petersburg and study with the legendary teacher, Ilya Musin. And can you share a little bit about how his teaching was? And what was the program like and how that has influenced you and your teaching now?

Alice 7:30
Yeah, I mean, everything about it was extraordinary, really, I don’t see myself as particularly extraordinary going to St. Petersburg that’s particularly not at that time. By the late 90s. He had become really famous. Ilya Musen was, he was born in Tsarist Russia. He was a year older than Shostakovich, can you believe and he really was the most pioneering conducting teacher of the 20th century. He really figured out how to teach conducting, he wasn’t satisfied with saying, Oh, it’s just a thing that you can’t really teach, you have to have the talent. And otherwise, you have to be a good musician, of course.

Alice 8:13
But he, he felt that there was more to it than that, that there were things that could be taught, as in anything, really. But underlying that was a great musicianship and and a great, a great artist. And so although he was teaching a technique, it was very much in order to express yourself musically, it was never just technique for technique’s sake. And he became he was very revered in Soviet times. As a teacher, he taught people like Valery Gergiev, Semyon Bychkov, many of these great conductors of who’ve come out of Russia, in the 20th century or studied with him.

Alice 8:59
But he actually became famous at the end of the world towards the end of the Cold War, Sian Edwards, a fellow English conductor, British conductor came to study with him in the 80s, so right in the Cold War time, so very different time, difficult time to go and study there. And when she went there, she she came back, the Cold War ended, she did very, very well, people were amazed that this wonderful technique that she had that hadn’t really been seen in quite that way in the West, and also conductors like Gergiev and Temirkanov and people were doing really well.

Alice 9:46
So people began to sort of hear about this, this great pedagogue and so, when I went to study, there were a few Western students. I mean, I realized it was a little window of opportunity because it was really, he died in 1999. So it was really that last moment that we all had to study with him. And I was very lucky. I had two years with him. I stayed three years. But I did have two years of study with him before he died. Age 95. So you had a good life. But yeah, it was an amazing time to be studying. In Russia, it was an amazing time to be living in Russia as well, because it was it was a very different era. Politically, obviously, very different now, but very different to before as well. It was this amazing time where everything felt very free. It was very chaotic. It was a difficult time, I think for for Russia, but it was also an exciting time.

Chaowen: 10:55
So it sounded like the pedagogue was a combination of teaching techniques, but also musicianship development. And I’m always curious, because we sometimes see, particularly orchestral or symphonic orchestra conducting workshops, advertised as you know, following the great teaching of the amusing. And what is that losing school is about like, are they? Are they following a particular way of training techniques, for example? Or can you tell us a little bit about what do you think?

Alice 11:31
I think it’s really important to remember that, to think about conducting technique as not, as not separate from the music. Because I think very often people say, Oh, well, I learned a very good technique, and then then you add the music to it, but the music is the technique. Otherwise, what’s the point, we can all be time everyone can learn to beat time. And you can do that very quickly. But how to beat time, which includes the sound and shows the phrasing, shows, the character shows everything in in that that can be done. Of course, it has to come from from a little extra something, it’s very hard to describe that. But what he was able to do was give, give a set of language really with your hands that express not just holding the orchestra together, making sure they play together, but also making sure that they created the right sound and the right energy, and all those things and, and so it is quite hard to explain it in one in one thing, but I would say that there are some very basic things that have to do with picking up the sound.

Alice 12:49
So the sound is something rather than it being rather than you hitting the beat down all the time, there’s a sense of, particularly in slow music, there’s a sense of holding the sound picking it up from below, holding it transferring it from beat to beat. Because the the sound between the beats is as important as the as the beat itself as the click itself.

Alice 13:17
And then another another aspect of it was that it was about accepting the orchestras play behind the beat. And this, again, is something that that varies from country to country. So in Russia orchestras play very behind the beat, not not in fast music, but we’re talking about a slower, slower music. Orchestras play behind the beat in in the UK, they play quite behind the beat as well. I think in the US, they play less behind the beat, it’s much more on the beat. I think what Musin was what you’re able to do with with that is if you if you pick up the sound, if you have contact with a sound and you move it from beat to beat, then you don’t need to be you. It doesn’t matter if the sound comes late, because you’ve got hold of it already. And you’re in.

Alice 14:12
So what I find, and I still I use this technique is all the time, it’s part of the way I conduct but what I find is if I’m with an orchestra, the first rehearsal or the beginning of working with the orchestra, they play more behind the beat. And because they’re sort of waiting, they’re just trying to figure out exactly what you’re wanting. And as they get to know you a little bit better. They play a bit less buying the beat, but it doesn’t particularly matter when they play behind the beat because if you have contact with that sound, you can just keep going and bring it bring that sound with you. And where, where a particularly young conductor will often really come a cropper. They’ll really struggle, we’ve all done it is when you work with a orchestra a professional orchestra for the first time and they play behind that beat. And you wait for the sound and they wait for you and you wait for them and they wait for you. And it just gets slower and slower and slower. And it’s just the most horrible feeling in the world. And I think all conductors, they might not admit to it, but I think they’ve all experienced that at some point early in their careers. And it’s, it’s very scary. But But Musin’s technique sort of helps with that, because, because you think, okay, the sound is coming later, but it’s okay, I’ll just keep moving to that next beat. And you never jerk away from the sound. So you if you flick your hands away, then you lose contact with a sound.

Chaowen: 15:39
Yeah, what you were describing was just like one of the most horrible things to young conductors. Like, yeah, you give something and it feels like 1000 minutes has passed, and there was no sound and was so scary, and you don’t know what to do. And don’t wait. And then they look at you like, why are you waiting? And, you know, you should keep going, when you kind of lost the pulse already. Do you have any thing else that you can tell your conductors that they can think or be prepared for that situation, in addition to skip moving their hands, which is sometimes really hard?

Alice 16:19
Well, I think it’s moving your hands but not jerking away from the sound. So I think if you think of sort of analogies off of picking up something, and in this case, it’s the sound, which is not visual. But if you imagine you are picking something up like some sand, and you’ve got that sand in your hand, and you want, you need to move it to the next beat, you need to transfer it. So if you imagine you’re holding it, so you, if you were holding something, you wouldn’t move your hand really quickly, because if you moved it quickly, it would all fall on the floor. So it’s the same with the thing. So it’s, it’s about it’s not slow, as in slowing down the tempo, but it’s just not jerking between the beats. Don’t jerk the sound between the beats, because that’s when you’ll lose it. It’s easier said than done in the panic of a moment. B

Alice 17:09
ut I find what I reverted to a little bit was as an organist, I was used to, organists, we have this very strange instrument that we have to play. And sometimes we have, we have a console keyboard, and the pipes are miles away sometimes from the console. So you’ll be playing and the sound will come out later. Or that’s with a you know, perhaps an electric organ where there, there’s electric connection to the pipe. So rather than an immediate mechanical action, but if you’re, but let’s say if you’ve got the pipes right by you, so they’re immediate, but you, you’re in a big church, and you’ve got a choir or congregation quite far away. So the sound that you hear from the choir is late. And if you start waiting for them, then it will slow down and slow down. And that will continue. So I remember that feeling as well as an organist does a young organist, I remember accompanying singers and just thinking, why are they getting slower, and they were waiting for me and I was waiting for them.

Alice 18:26
And I quickly learned that you have to just keep moving. And a new use to begin with you feel Gosh, this is really unmusical because I’m playing in one speed. And then there’s this sound happening later. But as you get used to it, it feels very, very natural. And it’s not, it’s just something you you just need to get used to. And then I actually got to the point where the organ where I would sometimes the church while I was organist I’d sometimes get a trumpet or into play for me, and they’d be right with me, instead of down with the congregation, and then I’d find it quite off putting because they were playing on my beat, like, what are they doing. And the same with the orchestra that if they play too much on my beat in slow music, then I get quite frustrated because I feel like because the good thing you see about playing with an orchestra that plays behind the beat a little is that you can lead it. So if you want to slow down, you’re ahead of them. So you can show them what you want before they play it. If they’re on your beat, and you slow down, they’re going to be ahead of you very quickly. And so I actually find I mean certainly in this country in the UK, it’s maybe a student orchestra will be a little bit like that sometimes and I’ll have to ask them to just relax onto it a little bit so they’re not on my beat on the front of my beat too much.

Chaowen: 19:59
So we will be talking about orchestras playing behind the beat. And how does that work?

Alice 20:08
Well, you just it’s the same with all of them, you just have to be you just have to be ahead. I think the orchestra know when to play and it is slightly behind the beat as and the singers do as well. So, with with singers, I don’t change my technique to work with singers, they, they’re able to follow that same thing I sometimes use my left hand, when I’m conducting singers just to if they get behind if they get really behind, rather than just playing slightly. See me behind the beat. With singers, I sometimes use my left hand to encourage them to keep moving.

Chaowen: 20:48
I wanted to come back to what you’re talking about, because I didn’t know you’re a trumpet player. I knew you’re an organist. So you say that you first started your career and church music. And what happened? So what was the pivotal moment or experience that prompt you into conducting?

Alice 21:09
Well, I found that I mean, I had to conduct the choir at the College at Oxford University at St. Hugh’s where I was an organist, I had to conduct them and because I initially I found that very nerve wracking, I didn’t really enjoy it, but then I then I started beginning to enjoy it. And then the Music Society at the college, in the second year of the music course, the the music students at the college at sent us, we would run them. We ran the Music Society. So we would take it in turns to conduct the orchestra and I and it fell to me to conduct for a requiem.

Alice 21:58
And I’d had I mean, at the time, it was the year before the year above or a couple of years above me was my, at the time boyfriend and I was in he he wanted to be a conductor. And he was very, very ultra confident. And I was very impressed by it all and, and, and also a little bit envious of the fun he seemed to be having. So I decided I really wanted Well, I secretly wanted to do it. But I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. And but anyway, when I started rehearsing this for a requiem, and I found that I enjoyed it more than playing the organ, I found that at the end of the rehearsal, I felt really good. I felt like I’d got some good stuff done, I’d worked with the seniors, I got them singing better than they had at the beginning of the rehearsal. And I thought, I thought, Gosh, actually, I’m quite enjoying this. And I found that my hands I had, at that point, no, really no training at all really and but I just sort of saw people doing it and just had to go this is a very Oxford, very Oxford way of doing things people just anyone can conduct a concert if they want to, there is not probably the best way of, of, well, in a way, it’s a very good way of studying because it means is a good way of starting because it just means you’ve got you have got to make a group of people do what you want. You’ve got to galvanize that group of people. And rather than being afraid and thinking, Oh, no, this is something I’m not ready to do, I’m not worthy of doing. It just sort of made me think, Okay, I’m just going to do it anyway. And so that was actually quite a kind of, it was quite a good way of starting out. And then I found that it went really well. And I found I was reasonably good at it.

Alice 23:55
And I enjoyed the orchestral side, and it was the repertoire really that I’ve been playing in orchestras as well as the trumpet era. And I really loved that repertoire. And for for quite a few years. I was an organist still and I was still doing some of that church music repertoire but it it wasn’t quite enough for me I wanted to be working. I started getting more interested in opera and and as well so I just found that whilst the church music and I still love it very much it I needed more and the aesthetic kind of thing. I found church music, a little bit too reserved, really and I wanted to explore the whole area of Western classical music of symphonic and operatic repertoire that is just so thrilling.

Chaowen: 24:50
So coming from a church musician and you went to St. Petersburg to study conducting a you came back and now you’re conducting everywhere in the world and also teaching, I think one question that I wanted to ask. And I think that’s a lot of the young conductors also asked me is like, how do you find opportunities when you’re just starting, you had no connection or no big things yet to prove that?

Alice 25:21
Well, it’s really difficult, isn’t it? I mean, I think what the good thing about conducting is that there is no one way there’s no one route there. There’s the route of doing competitions and winning a competition or getting quite quite far in the competition. There’s many more competitions now than there were, I did a couple in my time, in my, my 20s, I suppose, around the time I went to Russia, and just after, and I found them quite difficult. I didn’t I got so far, you know, I got through one or two rounds, but I didn’t. I didn’t enjoy them as a way of, I didn’t enjoy that way of having to impress everyone very quickly and instantly. So I sort of felt quite early on that probably wasn’t for me. I did have my own orchestra in London. You know, as I said, I had this when I was an organist, I was able, I had a venue and I had friends who still wanted to play in concerts and things, and I did concertos and stuff.

Alice 26:30
And I just created my own opportunities. I found that really stressful, actually, but then, after, I mean, Russia was great, because we had an orchestra every week to practice on. So and I did some concerts, I got the British Council to, to sponsor some things. I’ve got some businessmen to sponsor some concerts with a local orchestra. And so I, I did have some good opportunities there. And then I got a job. In a Opera House in Gothenburg Opera, I was a chorus master there, and an assistant conductor. And in a way, I mean, I really needed I really needed a job. So but I also went on tour with a small opera company. It I have to say it was not easy at all. And it’s not. It’s not something that that people should go into lightly. I mean, I think I don’t know. Because I think things have changed quite a bit.

Alice 27:35
But I think if you really want if you really, really want to be a conductor, you have to be prepared to have not very much money for quite a long time to work very hard and to be prepared to fail quite a lot. Unless you’re very lucky. And it depends on the sort of person you are whether you’re a whether you’re a late developer or somebody who is very fast track conductor. But I wouldn’t call myself that, I’m more of a slow burn conductor. But that’s worked for me.

Chaowen: 28:16
And I found that you worked a lot with vocalist, as you say you started working with the Oxford College Choir. And then you were choir master for opera companies. And of course, when you’re conducting opera you work with a good load of vocalist from different experienced and ability. So can you talk a little bit about how you approach or even given some tips for young conductors, if they are working with vocalist from even band or orchestral symphonic tradition?

Alice 28:50
Yeah. I think I think it’s interesting because because I was coming from the church music background, I did quite a bit of repetiteuring and chorus master and that kind of thing. So I knew I was quite comfortable working with singers. I mean, initially, I think there was that thing of understanding the difference between choral singers and an operatic singers and that soloistic element, even if a chorus in opera chorus. They are trained soloist and professional opera choruses, full of trained soloists who need to be able to really sing otherwise, their voices get squeezed and it can be very uncomfortable and weren’t created good sound. And that whole dramatic way of singing. I found it really exciting, but it was it was thrilling for me and I think, I think it’s really good for if you if you come from a symphonic background, and you want to conduct opera, the good thing is you’ve got a really good conducting technique.

Alice 29:56
And actually conducting opera is really hard. I mean, opera like La Boheme, require a really good technique to conduct they’re very, very difficult to conduct, actually. But they also require this knowledge of how the singer works. And so you’ve you, if you come from a repetiteur background, if you’ve accompanied singers quite a lot, then that is, that will massively help you. If you’re not a pianist, I mean, you know, as an organist, primarily, but of course, I play the piano as well. But if you’re not a pianist, so you don’t come from that background, then there are ways of learning about the voice.

Alice 30:39
I mean, I, I mean, listen, that, nowadays, it’s so easy, because you can listen to so many different recordings, you can hear the all the traditions that have been handed down, over the decades and centuries, of how certain pieces are performed. This and to live recordings, as well as, as studio recordings, the live ones quite often a more realistic way, more realistic, that kind of thing.

Alice 31:05
But also, I think, the most important thing is, is the text and the language. And so, if you so Italian is the obvious thing, that’s the that’s the language that you most need to understand. For opera in particular, but putting in some work into how to pronounce, making sure you understand absolutely every single word and the nuance of that, because that will give you the answers to everything, they will give you the answers to the Tempe, the phrasing. Any time when I’m looking at a piece of music, so for example, I conducted Norma just before the pandemic and all of that, that music can sound so similar. The accompaniment can often be a sort of bomb dee, dee dee, boom, bow bow, and loads of that. And so deciding on the tempo is it’s the text that will help you and then singing it.

Alice 32:16
I mean, I’m not a very good singer at all, I, I did a lot of singing at school, but I’m really not a very good singer, but, but singing the line singing in Italian, will really, really help you realize about when breaths need to happen, and that kind of thing. If you’re able to, if you’re so for example, if you’re a student studying in a conservatory, then if you’re able to get to work with the vocal department, and maybe if you’re a pianist, playing for singing lessons is a good way of offering your services perhaps for free. But being able to sit in on on a singing teacher, I think that’s I learned a lot of doing that. Also working with Italian coaches, as well, language coaches, generally who, who coach singers in singing in Italian or singing in French, or, and, and really using them rather than just a friend who speaks Italian because it’s not the same. So there are lots of ways that you can if you don’t come from that background, but I do think it’s incredibly important to always go to the text, it’s the first thing I do when I’m learning an opera, is think about the text.

Chaowen: 33:40
So when you’re learning a new opera, say that you have a new engagement, to conduct an opera that you had never done before or never studied them. You start with a text, you learn the text, try to memorize or single line put things together, and then you go to the language coach as well.

Alice 34:02
Well, I mean, I don’t I don’t go to a language coach anymore, because I don’t really need to but although I do always listen to the language coach and what they’re doing, but yeah, I always learned, I learned, I start with a text first. I mean, I think when you’re learning in opera, there’s so many different aspects to learning in opera that is easy to get bogged down in one thing. So I always start with a text I always start with reading the libretto and then and then I do a mixture of lots of different things to keep it will pop them in he has to keep it interesting learning it but so I of course I’m always looking at the vocal line, but then I might just sit at the piano for hours on end and just play the harmonies and have the orchestral writing and then look at just the orchestral writing on its own.

Alice 34:54
But I usually, in an opera, usually come to the orchestral symphonic writing later in the process. As of learning it, just because you, there’s so much to absorb in an opera, it’s quite hard. Particularly I mean, if it’s, if it’s a classical opera or if it’s Mozart or something or even, even, even something a little bit later that it’s it’s not so complicated. But with something like Puccini, there’s a lot of orchestral color that you need to understand, or I mean, recently, I did L’heure espagnole, Ravel. And that that was there was a whole. Yeah, I mean, that took me a very long time to learn actually.

Chaowen: 35:37
Yeah, Ravel, that that one is a great piece. So rarely done specially in the United States.

Alice 35:45
Is it not? Well, is it not done very much in the United States?

Chaowen: 35:47
No, in the States, from what I am seeing, the Italian repertoire is still dominant, the opera houses, seasons, and now a few houses are starting to do more new works, either as part of the mainstage production or as a separate, smaller production for budget reasons, which we understand. But since your work so much an opera and and you also said earlier, that you felt you’re the most useful in opera conducting, and we know that there are so many joint in production that you have to, to work with? And can you talk a little bit about how you manage to work with so many aspects? And how do you work on your musical vision? If it’s different from say, the staging direction or like sometimes things happen? And you can’t have things go? In your way in particular?

Alice 36:52
Yeah, I think I think with, I think with opera, it’s very much a collaborative, it should be very much a collaborative experience. And I to make it all work, it requires that I would say, that’s paramount, because it involves so many different artistic disciplines, set design, stage directing, tend to be hand in hand, and sometimes the music and the set the direction will come into conflict. But I don’t think that’s necessary at all. I don’t think there ever needs to be that conflict, I think, I think, and that is about the way you approach it as a conductor. And I would urge any young conductor if they want to work in opera to to be very much present, be very supportive and create, with your director, a conversation. So let’s say a director wants to do something that actually just You think I don’t think that’s going to work? It’s going to create problems, rather than just going in and say, no, no, no, that’s ridiculous, that that’s just a ridiculous thing to do. It’s not going to work, it’s gonna be a disaster. Just say, Well, let’s try it, shall we, um, I’m not sure. I think that might not work. But let’s try it because you never know. And you try it. And maybe it does work. And you were wrong. And that quite often happens to me or, but what you’re doing is allowing the director to try their ideas, because they have to be able to try them.

Alice 38:31
But also, and depending on their experience, if you have a very experienced director, they probably understand quite a lot, what works and what doesn’t, if they’re less experience, you want to be supportive of them and give them that. But also, I think, keep that conversation going. It’s not that you, I think, as a conductor, you are in charge of the music and you want, you need to be careful, that doesn’t get undermined. But the way to do that I really believe is to, to be supportive and keep a conversation. And I like directors that challenge me with certain things and sort of say, well, why don’t we do this? And you know, your instinct might be No, but then you try it and you realize, actually it works really well or No, it doesn’t work, but you’ve given that director the chance to try it.

Alice 39:21
So I, I think conversation and collaboration is absolutely essential, rather than I think the danger and I have seen it many times before is a conductor who doesn’t engage with the director at all. But then when it comes to it, they don’t like what they see. And then they just say, no, no, no, that’s awful. It doesn’t work and then they get across and that becomes that sort of tends to be that battle between the two people in charge. Which is really counterproductive. And the worst thing about that is it makes the singers feel really insecure. Which is the last thing they Need, because they need they’re doing something incredibly difficult. They’re moving around a stage with lots of challenges, often singing in a foreign language, doing lots of things, wearing difficult costumes, all sorts of things. What they don’t want is, is, you know, even if even if I’ve worked with the director and maybe some of the directing I haven’t particularly liked I, I don’t say that. Because I don’t want the singers to feel insecure, it’s not going to help them.

Chaowen: 40:27
Yeah, totally, I think keeping an open conversation and be supportive to your colleagues. And as I say, it’s the most important thing is just support your singers, because they are the people who need to the most much more sometimes, than the orchestra musicians. They are they’re very exposed.

Alice 40:47
Fully exposed, very, very exposed. And I think, I think if you don’t go in with that, if you don’t understand that, then you probably shouldn’t be in opera, really, you shouldn’t work in opera, because you’ll find it frustrating. Because you do have to make compromises. Sometimes you might have an idea of I’d love it to go there. It just is not going to work. It might be you know, it might be because you got to a singer who can’t quite do the tempo that you’d like, because it just doesn’t suit their voice. Well, what what do you decide to do? Do you decide to take it at that tempo and destroy them? And make them look stupid? And make it sound really not very good? Or do you take it at the tempo that works for them? And of course, it’s the latter, I mean, but that comes also with a bit of experience as well, because you have to understand I’ve worked with singers for so many years now. I can feel when things are difficult for them. And that’s, that’s quite a hard thing. And I’ve learned the hard way, by singing singer coming up to me afterwards say, Why did you take that tempo. But hopefully, those days are behind. Yeah,

Chaowen: 41:58
I’ve had singers, when I was a student, and they were also students less experience, they were not comfortable with a certain tempo that I wanted. And they felt bad, because I was a conductor, they felt they should try to accomplish what I asked for. I also learned the hard way, and also with also the staging. And also the all the actions they had to do. I, yeah, later, much later realize, okay, at that, in that circumstances, was impossible to ask for that sort of Tempe, just because I felt that that’s what the music needed. But, but there wasn’t really a lot of learning.

Alice 42:39
And I think it’s also then about keeping an open conversation as well. Because if you keep talking about these things, then the if you if you create an environment where a singer is able to come to you and say, Look, I am struggling a bit with this tempo, it’s just a bit too fast, or is it just a bit too slow? If they feel they can come to you with that, then that’s great. Now, the danger, of course, is that you do get some singers who just everything is, you know, they just complain all the time. And if you if you let, if you kind of, you have to just be a little bit mindful of that. Because sometimes, there were some singers who kind of need a bit more of a, of a, not a firmer hand is the wrong word. But you know, they need they, they need to sort of know where they are.

Alice 43:29
Having said that, and I think that’s where experience really helps, because you can hear you know, if they’re saying, Oh, that that’s really difficult to implement, you’re right, but actually sounds great, you know, then then they feel comfortable. And I think the the the best friends for you, your absolute best friend, just as in a in a, well, it’s also in an opera. But the concert master is you’re the leader of the orchestra is your is your friend in orchestra, the repetiteur is your friend in an opera, or maybe an assistant conductor or both. But get make sure that they’re on your side. And they will they will also be able to say Tempe wise, or whatever. No, that’s, you know what, because, you know, there’ll be moments, you know, even today, I think, Gosh, was that a bit too fast that I take that a bit too fast? And then the repetiteur, who I respect will say no, no, no, that was fine. It sounded great out there, you know, out in the auditorium or whatever, you make it you have this team around you. And you should really use them. And when you’re a young conductor and you’re assisting then you, you’re that one who is that supportive friend of the conductor, and you’re there to really support them and learn from them and, and that, I mean, that is the best training you could possibly get. And that’s what I had many, many years of doing that. And that was amazing.

Chaowen: 44:54
Thank you so much Alice for all you have shared. I’m going to put this in the show notes, but I want to them to hear from you. Can you tell my listeners where they can find you if they want to get in touch?

Alice 45:07
Yes, of course. Yeah, my website is alicefarnham.com. And my handle for Twitter is @BatonAlice.

Chaowen: 45:19
That’s a really powerful one. Thank you so much again. Here you go, my friends. And I hope you love this conversation as much as I did. Alice is just one of the most genuine and authentic people that have that I have never known. And the way she shared about her journey, and her experience is just really heartwarming for me. I love how she talked about the feeling of waiting forever when the ensemble is behind the beat. And it’s really such a drowning and terrifying emotion that when you’re beating and being there, there is no sound, the tempo was not right, everything was going wrong. And process with experienced, it will get better as you get used to the sound and the pacing, and also have more skills working with the ensemble.

Chaowen: 46:21
And if you remember from the beginning of the intro, I say that Alice is a very important person to me, and actually to my career. And I’m going to tell you why. So I told you already that I finally met Alice, the second time when I was in London visiting and we went out for a coffee chat. And I asked her about her background, her experience and why she wanted to start a program helping only women conductors. And through that conversation, Alice introduced me to the Dallas Opera of Harts Institute for Women Conductors program, and I became a fellow the next year, which opened a lot of doors to me, such as an engagement with Opera Philadelphia Conducting for a workshop for their conduct composer and resident program.

Chaowen: 47:17
So Alice is really someone that had changed my career, or large, opening this operatic door to me as someone who is not a repetitive repetiteur or not even a good pianist coming from that vocal coach and pianists route. So that’s why I found it girls who conduct because I am very much and inspired to help more women and actually, any young conductor wanting to learn and to navigate this profession better. I’m really passionate about telling your all the secrets that I wish I had known and hope to save you a little bit detour in this journey. As always, I’d love to hear from you. If you have anything that you want to share with me. You can always DM me on social media or you can email me at theconductorspodcast@gmail.com Great, I will see you next week at the same time, same place bye for now.