35: LIVE: Assistant Conductor Positions with Michelle Di Russo and Michelle Rofrano (CUT version)

Show Notes:

In today’s episode of the Conductor’s Podcast, my guests Michelle Di Russo and Michelle Rofrano provide an elaborate rundown of what it’s like working as an assistant conductor, how to land jobs, their experiences collaborating with agents, how they turn down opportunities and their definition of a great assistant conductor.  They also answer questions from our audiences! You wouldn’t want to miss out on timeless nuggets of wisdom with this episode. 
  • Many opera houses in the US have young artist programs that you can audition for – but not for assistant conductors. 
  • Preparation is the key. 
  • Time management is essential.
  • When working, try to be observant. Look for ways where you can help the conductor.
  • Don’t forget to be ready at all times. There might be instances where you need to jump in and help the conductor. 
  • If you have to decline an opportunity, be tactful. Be polite, and be professional. 
  • Being a good assistant conductor is having the mindset of wanting to help and provide value to the conductor. 

Links Mentioned in Today's Episode

Chaowen: 0:02
Hi, everyone, this is Chaowen recording in May 2023, after finishing the first season of The Conductor’s Podcast, I have decided to give this podcast project, a dedicated website with more user friendly functions. So now we have a brand new website called theconductorspodcast.com. Straightforward, right? And now we also have its own Instagram handle. It’s also the same, @theconductorspodcast. So all the show notes have been moved to the new side. And I invite you to come check out all the resources and happy listening.

Michelle: 0:49
You know, when you’re starting out, and especially if it’s your first time getting contacted by a company, like, of course, you want to make it work. And of course, you’re worried like, Oh, it’s my first time getting contacted by them, like some Obviously not, you know, the top of their list. I’m new to them. So they need someone right now. And if I can’t do it right now, maybe they won’t call me. And so I mean, you try to make things work where you can, but sometimes, if something really doesn’t work for you, you know, you have to turn it down.

Michelle: 1:15
And then it makes sense to try to keep in touch with that organization, like reach out to them again next season, or even tell them like I can’t do something next month. I’m so sorry, I would have loved to, but my fall is open. You know, you can suggest something like that. Don’t hesitate to suggest something like that or keep in touch with people. It’s not good to pull out of gigs because you find something you’d like better. Like it’s not good to be known as someone who just takes the better thing and it’s flaky. Occasionally you’ll have a situation where it makes just sense to do that.

Chaowen: 1:46
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 have 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: 2:32
Shy away from the real talk? No way. Money, hardship, growth and the roller coaster of a 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, pull up a seat, make sure you are cozy and get ready to be challenged and encourage while you learn.

Chaowen: 3:01
You probably knew already that I’m the founder of Girls Who Conduct that’s an organization supporting women identifying and nonbinary conductors in various stages of their training and career. And one of the programs that we do currently is a joint fellowship program between Girls Who Conduct and Georgia Symphony Orchestra. We took six fellows for this entire year, they are invited to Atlanta for three weekends for residency, where they observed the GSL rehearsal and concert and to conduct a workshop. And we do a lot with the training program on zoom as well. And this was one of the Zoom events that we had provided for our fellows, which was again, open to a lot of other people like almost all our event.

Chaowen: 4:02
And my guests are the Michelle, Girls Who Conduct, Michelle Rofrano and Michelle Di Russo. And we had a discussion about assistant conductor positions in opera and Symphony Orchestra fields. And I thought this is such a wonderful conversation that we had and also some really great questions from our participant. So I had their permission to edit this out as the number 35 episode. Without further ado, I’m going to let you listen to the conversation. And again, please check out any programs that we offer through Girls Who Conduct and anytime if you have any questions or just want to share just have things that you want to talk to the we’re here for you reach out to me you can always DM me on social media or send me an email at theconductorspodcast@gmail.com Just one word, theconductorspodcast@gmail.com.

Chaowen: 5:06
And I’ve said it a few times on the show. But again, if you can leave a review on Apple podcasts, or subscribe or tell a friend about this show, I’ll be really, really appreciate it. Thank you so much. And here we go. Welcome, everyone. And thanks for my colleagues to join us at this early morning time. I know Michelle Di Russo was always an early person, I never I don’t start functioning well. until much, much later.

Michelle Di Russo: 5:37
No, I’m actually I’ve turned into a morning person lately. So that was about 6:30 or seven. So?

Chaowen: 5:43
Yes. All right. So I will start by asking my colleagues to introduce themselves a little bit about their background and how they get to where they are. So which one of you want to start with?

Michelle Di Russo: 5:58
I can start out, I’ll talk briefly. And if you all are interested in knowing something specifically that I’m talking about, or brushing over, I’m more than happy to go deeper in anything that I’ve, I’m gonna say. Basically, my background is very different because I started as a performer, as a dancer and performer in musical theater. And that’s what I thought I wanted to do. And that’s what I had been doing since I was three years old. I was barely starting orchestra conducting at the university. And so until I really was in front of an ensemble, I didn’t decide that that’s what I wanted to do with my life. But that day, being in front of one as a law changed my perspective completely. It also coincided that I was doing six months season with a musical theatre company in Argentina. So I was doing like eight shows a week and a lot. And I was not loving it. I was feeling I didn’t have any control on the artistic product. And I was very frustrated by that. So then that’s how I decided to switch completely into orchestral conducting, and finished my degree my undergraduate in orchestral conducting and then came to the US to pursue my masters in at the University of Kentucky and then Arizona State University for my DMA.

Michelle Di Russo: 7:10
And then, the pandemic had exactly when I graduated. So my 2020, that was exciting. I thought I would never get a job. But But I was wrong. I got a job, February 2021. That would be as Interim Director of orchestras at Cornell University. And I also got a assistant conductor position with North Carolina Symphony, which I currently have as well. So next year, I’ll be leaving Cornell and heading to North Carolina for my second year of assistant conductor. And thankfully, this year, I got an agent so that really changed things because I started getting other kinds of gigs that alone I was not getting, and I’ve been covering for St. Louis symphony. And so I’m covering for Minnesota on Sunday or coming up. And I was also connecting, like the my other two colleagues at the Dallas Opera, and I’m a colloquium fellow with she goes, I think that was very long. I’m sorry. Thank you.

Michelle Rofrano: 8:10
So hi, everyone, I’m the second Michelle of Michelle squared. We have a fun joke of we are like similar age both Well, Michelle, the same way we are, shall do so is Argentinian Italian. I’m American Italian. So you know, Michelle squared.

Michelle Di Russo: 8:27
R, don’t forget the R because in the beginning, we were gonna do M.R., we’re both,

Michelle Rofrano: 8:34
Love it. Hi, everyone. I’m Michelle Rofrano. I live in Brooklyn. I grew up playing piano and was a piano major in college. And I became interested in conducting around high school age, I grew up listening to classical music and to a lot of Italian opera with my grandfather, who was from Sicily, and had moved to United States. And I always really loved it. And I grew up playing piano and I actually never really loved performing solo piano. So I never thought I would be a professional musician because no one in my family knew much about the career paths of a professional musician. So in my mind, I was like it was either a solo pianist or I wouldn’t do music.

Michelle Rofrano: 9:10
And so when I was later in high school, and I was deciding what to study in college, I thought, you know, I would really miss music if I stopped. And I really love opera, and I love orchestral music, despite just playing the piano and not always be needed to play an orchestra. And so I, you know, got the idea, oh, well, I really love the internet, like interpreting music and that side of things. Maybe I would like conducting. So I did my bachelor’s degree in piano while starting to study connecting, and the more I studied it, and the more I got projects together with my friends and took conducting master classes and everything, the more I really fell in love with it. And so then I did my master’s degree in orchestral conducting at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

Michelle Rofrano: 9:52
And during that time, and right after I, you know, started to get some freelance gigs, you know, but a lot of those gigs were opera Like I started to seek out opera opportunities as assistant conductor, or conducting with small companies. And no matter what I did, I always found I enjoyed the process of opera the most like it’s it’s a different process than orchestral rehearsals. And I do love orchestral repertoire. But I just, it’s a longer process for opera because you have the stage element. And you know, you work with a director to interpret the story. And you work for a long time, like several weeks to several months with a cast and a director and an orchestra for the whole project together. And I just really love that process. And I love the storytelling aspect of it. And so, I have pivoted from doing a variety of things to mostly doing opera now, I do have one, an ensemble I founded in New York called PROTESTRA that is an activist orchestral ensemble. And we have several concerts this season, but I mostly am a freelance opera conductor, and I’ve worked with Glimmerglass Festival, Spoleto Festival USA, Florida Grand Opera, Juilliard School, I’ll be heading to San Francisco Opera soon to be a cover conductor there. And, yeah, it’s a lot of fun. It’s kind of every year is different, because it’s more freelance. So I kind of go from one project to the next. But it’s a lot of fun. And I love it. So I’m so happy to answer all the questions you have any.

Chaowen: 11:09
So just, to reiterate, if you have any questions, please send me my way through chat, you can just say, Hey, I have a question I want to ask, or if you want me to read the question for you, then just type it out. But I will get started with Rofrano because I think a lot of people are curious about the selection process, like how you get the gigs. That’s a very big topic. But as we see, I will ask Michelle Di Russo, the same question because for the North Carolina gig, she actually there was a job posting and you apply and you go through a sec selection process. But we don’t see a lot of assistant collateral for our for us. So can you talk a little bit about how that is like.

Michelle Rofrano: 11:51
So opera career is very much not straightforward. And I have only taken a couple of auditions in my life. Most of the jobs I’ve gotten were because I it was like a recommendation from someone I had worked with. So I’ll tell you, like early on the first couple years after grad school, I did a couple festivals, a big one that helps me to make a lot of contacts in opera industry and to get a lot of experience and that led to a lot more opportunities was the Glimmerglass Festival.

Michelle Rofrano: 12:21
I was a young artist conductor there for two summers and festivals in upstate New York. And it’s interesting because most opera houses like I don’t know if any, if you know about young artists programs, but opera in the US will often opera houses in the US opera festivals will often have a program that you can audition for, as a singer or as a collaborative pianist or rehearsal pianist. And you can take those auditions and then it’s kind of like a fellowship young artists situation with that opera house or Opera Festival for the year. And so that’s usually that’s the path that a lot of singers and collaborative pianists take when they want to get into opera.

Michelle Rofrano: 13:01
But most companies don’t have a position just for assisting conductor. Sometimes they’ll have a position for like a collaborative pianist, rehearsal pianist who also is the cover conductor. But most don’t have a position just conductor. Glimmerglass Festival does have a position for just a conductor. And I am a pianist, but I don’t work as a pianist anymore. Like it’s a great skill to have. But I don’t play in rehearsals anymore. I just conduct now. So when I left festival, a couple other gigs I had, I did you know I got those opportunities. And I worked really hard at them. And I’m happy to talk about like opera assisting, conducting, you know, what could be really helpful as an opera assistant conductor and how it’s different from symphonic conducting. But you know, you’re you’re a member of the music staff. So you’re, of course, assisting the conductor and covering them and but you’re also a really important member of the music staff like to help the singers and to get the production off the ground, because there are so many elements of an opera.

Michelle Rofrano: 13:49
And I always just worked really hard with every opportunity I could to be as helpful as possible to conductor and I was also never afraid to talk to the administration of the company or talk to the conductor and just sit and be like, Hey, I loved working with you. Like do you have any opportunities for next season? Or I’m currently looking to fill my fall schedule? I don’t have anything like Do you have any recommendations? I’m looking for work for the fall. I particularly love Italian opera, like just telling people you know, and if you are helpful, and a good colleague to work with opera world is really small. And the majority of my jobs have been recommendations from mentors or from conductors I’ve assisted.

Michelle Rofrano: 14:24
I’ve also reached out myself to several companies, just you know, oh, I am so and so I’m based in New York and assisting conductor I just came from working on this production. You need an assistant conductor for any operas in your fall season. Like I would be interested to work with you. Here’s my resume. And a lot of times you don’t get a response, but sometimes you do and sometimes you get a response like two years later when they’re last minute looking for a replacement. And that’s happened several times to me. So I know that’s not really straightforward. But on the one hand, it’s also nice because you of course can’t ever control what comes your way but you can control how much you put yourself out there and you can control. You know how good you are to work with and how hard you work at a job. And that will, you know, indicate if people want to hire you back, of course. So that’s not very straightforward, but it’s definitely different.

Chaowen: 15:16
That’s great. And Di Russo, can you start with I know you have some other like cover contracting jobs since you get an agent, but kind of backing up to how you get the North Carolina position? And can you tell us a little bit about how you apply? What was the selection process like, and I think a lot of people were interested in that. Thank you.

Michelle Di Russo: 15:35
Yeah. So I started applying for jobs. One year before I was meant to graduate. And I was a little concerned because I was not making the cut on any of the orchestra connector positions. I think it also coincided that that there were many big ones like Philadelphia was opening up. And I don’t think I was ready for those positions. Now looking back, but in the moment, I was like, Oh, my gosh, I’m applying to everything and getting rejected. So I was like, a bit concerned. Like next year, I’m graduating, what am I going to do? You know? So the following year, I just kept applying, I really worked on tweaking my materials to see what worked and what didn’t for my summer applications. And so when I kind of understood what I was sending, and what was good, I tried to get good videos. The North Carolina position opened up I think, like, December. Yeah, this summer, like 2019. And so I applied, and now I was like, Well, I hope I get an audition, but you never know, you know, that kind of thing. And then they did call me and I was like, Oh my gosh, it was like my first assistant director position to do anything. And so the best thing about this auditions is that they don’t pay for your traveling expenses. So they don’t pay for your flights. They don’t pay for your hotel. And it’s a big expense, at least for me being students, I couldn’t really afford it. So it was a stretch. But I was like, Okay, I need to do this. And you know, also I was in Arizona, so flying from Arizona, to Carolina, that was quite expensive as well.

Michelle Di Russo: 17:04
And so then they had a first round. Some orchestras usually just have like a one person thing. And that’s it. But North Carolina has, every orchestra has their own process. And however they want to select people. So in this case, I had to go once. And then it was, we were already it was a lower number than the usual they have because he was a longer audition. We were already like, five, not very many people. And we were all meant to conduct 30 minutes, we had our list of repertoire that were mostly kind of excerpts. And we were supposed to manage our own time. So you had 30 minutes and you had to go through one except to the other. In between our thought you had to do two little switches that were meant to be one minute long, one for fourth graders, and one for adults introducing the pieces that were coming next. And they also let us know which pieces we needed to rehearse and which ones needed to be run. So like Beethoven five first you need to rehearse, then, you know, the case of Waltzer you couldn’t rehearse, which is a very tricky one.

Michelle Di Russo: 18:14
Then you had Tchaikovsky you know Violin Concerto movement. One, you don’t meet with your soloist you just go no rehearsal, Debussy, Prelude, you know, an excerpt, no rehearsal just go. So basically, they were trying to see if you could run through things and you know, eventually not jump into that job, because it’s part of our job, right? If somebody gets sick, you just jump in, and you have to be able to conduct the orchestra. So I think that the time management was also crucial, because there were like 12 or 15 excerpts, and only 30 minutes. So if you didn’t know how to move on fast, you could screw it up very easily. So after that, there was an interview, it was only 15 minutes, each person with the CEO, and part of the Committee of the musicians, and the education team.

Michelle Di Russo: 19:01
And they ask you several questions about like your background, if you have experienced during educational concerts. I had very interesting questions from them. Actually. One was like, Where do you see classical music going? Or what are the trends you’re seeing? Which I thought it was interesting. Another one was, what makes you special that we should hire, basically. And I was like, oh, so those kinds of questions and then I felt that was fit and no, I got a call from the CEO and they were like, Okay, now we’d like pare it down to two. And you need to come in March one week to do an educational concert and covor for the week for the music director. And I was like fine, looking back same thing on like, they only paid for my hotel traveling expenses, right? I worked for free for a whole week, let’s be honest. But do you know we do it? It’s part of the experience. And I was I got this I’m losing money. So of course I want to do this right.

Michelle Di Russo: 19:55
And I took a week off from school. And the funny thing is that I was very sick but it was The week that the pandemic started. So I flew in a Monday and Tuesday 10am was the education concert with no rehearsal. And you need to prepare your own script. So same thing I needed to know, what’s the timing? What the thing? What were the things that could work for a concert like that, and, you know, be as clear as possible in my conducting because I had no rehearsal and to orchestra. I was like, Hi, oh, man, I get no, you haven’t seen me. And it was very, very weird, stressful. I felt like, oh, my gosh, it’s gonna be a whole disaster. Like, how would they risk something like this? But I don’t know. I guess they believed in me. So anyway, I just did that and then covered for the week. And well, my audition got cut short because of the pandemic. But that was the process.

Chaowen: 20:46
That was an awesome story. So I was curious, do you still remember how you answer the question about? Why should we hire you? What’s special about you?

Michelle Di Russo: 20:55
I think I played my Latin female card, to be honest with you all. I was like, Yeah, well, sometimes you have to, you know, I was like, I know that. But this is what you you need to do, right? You need to do research on where you’re going. And I did research that demographic population, to see if they had like a Latino community if there’s people that spoke Spanish. And so I did say that I felt that I could connect with a different audience from different backgrounds, or maybe they have enriched before. And I would be more than happy to bilingual things in Spanish and English, and I, you know, or Spanish educational concerts. And I also said that I thought that I had a very particular background that is usually seen in good nothing. And I felt that that was enriching for the experience of me working with the orchestra. That also usually backfires. Me, just so that you know that you should say like, well, if you haven’t played in our guests during the how do you not? I’m like, Oh, my gosh, here we go. So I’m used to getting those questions as well. But yeah, that’s, that’s it.

Chaowen: 22:06
So for your audition, you did an educational concert, which is a very common task that is given to the assistant conductor or conductor, in blend words, whatever the music director doesn’t want to do, that’s very often lends to the assistant conductor, no matter its parts, or education, or sometimes the music director is very keen to those kinds of things. They do it themselves, and then you go back to assisting or whatever you do, whatever the company and the your boss needs of you. So coming back, we don’t really learn a lot about educational concerts in schools, at least I didn’t like kind of going from repertory from what you say, and how, as you say, how do you put pieces together so quickly? So what was the important things that you know that? Or do you learn through the process of preparation?

Michelle Di Russo: 22:59
Yeah, I think that, for me, the most challenging thing is like, I was doing, like my doctoral degree and all of this stuff, right. And so they asked me, like, for each base to explain our music concept. So I had to explain harmony or rhythm, simple stuff. But I was like, rhythm is the way that you, you know, if you get into this academic mindset of giving you this definition, and it’s like, kids don’t care, you know. And so I think that was the biggest finding for me to understand how to talk to children about music. And so I think I did like 10 scripts, where I had ideas, and I talked to my mentors, and I asked them what things worked, what things didn’t. So I think that it really helped me to have the actual experience of being in front of children, and asking them, what are the things that work?

Michelle Di Russo: 23:45
So those I incorporated those in my script, but I think it’s keeping it short. Like your little speeches are no longer than two minutes in between each piece, right? I was lucky that I did an educational concert at school that I created myself. But now looking back, same thing. I thought it was really lame. I read from the script the whole time, it was terrible. But I think it was a good first approach, you know? And then I think that the engagement part like you always need to be engaging with your kids, otherwise, they fall asleep, and they don’t care. So by now, I think I know how to get them really rowdy. It’s kind of funny. And then I have always kids that say, No, you know, you’re expecting nuance, or something. I always have something and they are supposed to say yes. And I always have one kid in the audience that says, No. So I usually point that out.

Michelle Di Russo: 24:33
And I’m like, Well, I’m really sorry, but we’ll have to move on. And so addressing those things, knowing how to manage things that happen in the moment, or, you know, maybe if your audience is not engaging, change things in the moment I’ve done it before, or if I know that I’m running behind, maybe speed up or shorten some speeches, but I am still at the point that I need to write my full speech and I need to learn it by heart like as if I was thing, of course, I change things and I paraphrase things. But the signature is not my first language, I get very, very nervous speaking in public. And I think that reading from a script is not as engaging. And I like walking on stage and doing that kind of stuff. So I’ve, I’ve read, it takes me a lot of time, but I really memorize it. And I think it works really well. So I would suggest doing that, although it takes a lot of time.

Chaowen: 25:24
So coming back to Rofrano, and I was just curious, because now the opera world tends to be doing more similar outreaching, kids version of opera productions, and that, do you have any experience or like doing such things or if you wanted to talk about what your usual tasks are throughout the many, many weeks of working on a project as assistant conductor?

Michelle Rofrano: 25:53
Sure. So opera companies are definitely starting to do more outreach things where I actually haven’t worked with a company, an opera company, I’m going to schools, I have education concert experience as an assistant geographer and orchestra because I worked for like a children’s orchestra, a little orchestra society in New York City for the first year after my master’s degree, and did kind of similar things to what Michelle Di Russo was just talking about. I have worked with singers, as an opera conductor on preparing them for some of the outreach things that an opera house will do. So for example, I was the assistant conductor for level one at Florida grand opera. And then the cover casts were all young artists, singers. And then they also learned like a shortened version of it in English. So it was kind of a pared down story they would bring to schools, but a lot of times, just like a small school production, singers will learn it’s like, you know, half hour condensed version of scenes, just like in English, instead of Italian or in the native language of the population of the school. Usually, just like the pianist will go with them, you know, to the singers to do this outreach thing.

Michelle Rofrano: 26:53
But I have as an opera assistant conductor, given pre concert talks about the opera, this was when I was a young artist conductor at Glimmerglass Festival. There are these pre concert talks in the tent, and the music staff of each opera production. There’ll be the conductor, the assistant conductor, and then the head coach, the head vocal coach who plays the majority of the rehearsals, and who coaches, the singers. It’s kind of open ended what we can talk about. And we have to talk for like, at least a half hour to 40 minutes about anything we want in the opera. And so I would do a variety of things of you know, I would play some excerpts at the piano to give people a heads up about what to listen to.

Michelle Rofrano: 27:31
So for example, one summer there I was the assistant conductor for Janáček’s opera, The Cunning Little Vixen. And that opera is very known for having very specific themes for each character and animal. And so I think it makes it more interesting, of course, for the audience to be able to listen to, like, you know, the different themes that resemble or that represent each character or each emotion. And so I would play them on the piano so that going into the opera, they could listen to that and say like, oh, the fox is coming, I can hear the Fox Theme, you know, then I was the assistant conductor for a lot.

Michelle Rofrano: 27:59
Traviata, my second summer there. And I talked a lot more about the historical aspect and context of the opera. And that’s a very famous opera that a lot of opera audiences will already be familiar with the music. But people don’t necessarily know like, it’s actually quite interesting. The composer was actually kind of ahead of his time, they didn’t have the word feminist back then. But you know, he was very supportive of his wife and very pro supporting and respecting women. And it was kind of ahead of his time, and his female characters are very strong. I talked a lot about like, how his life and his beliefs tied into his writing of the opera. And so that was always interesting for me to do. But so that was a fun. I’ve done those things as an opera assisting conductor.

Michelle Rofrano: 28:38
But I mean, if you want me to talk about just the general opera assistant conductor duties, it is a range, of course, you know, you have to learn the opera to be able to cover at anytime like step into the conductor, but also there’s a much longer rehearsal process. So you’ll have anywhere from a couple of weeks to a month of staging rehearsals prior to you know, being in the theater with both the orchestra and the singer. And the staging rehearsals are for the director to you know, tell the singers where to move and how to act while they’re singing the opera and a pianist plays an orchestra reduction in the staging room. And so since there are so many rehearsals, a lot of times, you know, maybe the conductor will have a conflict for a couple of rehearsals or a week or just like, we’ll be tired, because it’s a really long day. And they’ll say, Hey, I’m kind of tired. Can you connect this last stage in rehearsal, and you just have to be ready to conduct any of the reversals. And it’s most helpful for the cast if you can really pay close attention to what the conductor does, and really try to conduct it the same way. And so sometimes it’s frustrating, because if you don’t agree with the conductor, like I really don’t like their tempo there. But it’s going to be the most helpful for everyone if they can get used to what the real conductor is going to do.

Michelle Rofrano: 29:44
You know, if I came in and did things different in rehearsals, and they would get used to my Tempe and then they’d be kind of confused when they went back to the conductor. So no two conductors are the same and no, you’re never going to conduct exactly like another conductor, but just to try to be observant, you know, their tempo is or their beat patterns or the artistic choices they’ve made. If they give a note to a singer that they want something interpreted a certain way, or they want a breath here, that I’ll note it in my score. And if the singer forgets that when I’m covering the rehearsal, I’ll remind them because I want to make sure they’re getting the same information, the whole rehearsal process. So it’s an you know, the head coach should also be thinking the same way, the pianos on that opera production. So it’s really like a team effort to be on the music staff of an opera production, and everything just runs a lot more smoothly. And it’s really helpful for the singers, when you can think like that, I also very frequently have to rehearse a cover cast.

Michelle Rofrano: 30:34
And so you know, a lot of opera houses will of course, hire a cast to cover the main roles in case someone gets sick, especially in these COVID times, but always, I mean, it’s very easy to have a cold and not be able to sing, you know, I as a conductor can get up, I have a cold, but a singer can’t necessarily sing. So the cover cast has to be ready again to step in at any moment, like the cover conductor has to be. And so I will try to, I would spend most of my time rehearsing with the cover cast, and again, sharing the information of Oh, in the staging rehearsal, the director is going to ask you for this and the conductor will ask you for this. And if they have to step in, I want to make it as easy for them to do as possible and make sure they’re super prepared. And so I frequently rehearse the cover cast. And then some opera houses have either a final cover sing through and the covers are usually like young professionals, young artists, maybe they have a small role in the opera, but they’re covering a bigger role.

Michelle Rofrano: 31:27
Sometimes there’ll be a final cover sing through or a cover run, just for, you know, in a rehearsal room just to show the music staff and the conductor that they’re prepared. And you know, I’ll conduct that. So I do those types of things in terms of covering and rehearsing. But then also to an opera production is so big, and there’s so much going on, there’s so many moving parts. There’s the crew backstage, there’s the creative directing team. And of course, there’s the orchestra in the pit. And it’s really helpful for the conductor to have another set of eyes and ears throughout the hall. So right now I am the assistant conductor for the spring opera at Juilliard, and we actually have opening night tonight. And so I’ve spent this past week in tech rehearsal in theater, the theater there is very interesting, like the acoustics are actually quite challenging. Every theater is different, the acoustics are different. And what the conductor is hearing in the pit might not be how it sounds out in the back of the hall. In the case of the theater I’m working in right now, there is a lag of sound from the pit to both the stage and the back of the hall. So the singers really have to rely more on sight of watching the conductor than on listening, or they will be singing behind from the audience’s perspective.

Michelle Rofrano: 32:29
And also, the sound sounds very dead in the pit. And so the players want to play very loud, because there’s not a lot of reverb in there. Like why am I why is my instrument sound so quiet. But actually out in the hall, the sound kind of goes up and back. So it’s very loud in the back of the hall. And so if the orchestra players play loud in the pit, they’ll cover the singers in the back of the hall as an audience member, you won’t even hear the singers. And so you have to tell I’ve been getting feedback all week week to the conductor of Oh, in this spot, like the brass really need to play quieter, because they’re covering the singer. Or the strings are playing a little behind your beat, but by the time against the back of the hall, it sounds really behind the beat. It’s not together.

Michelle Rofrano: 33:03
And so I’ve been kind of running around the theater all week giving feedback to the conductor and going backstage, you know, to ask the singers like, Oh, can you see the conductor? Can you hear the conductor and just being another set of eyes and ears? Oh, and also to another thing you’d have to be ready to do is the very first day we were in the theater, the conductor, everyone was telling the conductor Oh, the sound is very different on the back pass. And he was like, Really, it’s that different? Are you sure. And then he was like Michelle, for the last 15 minutes of rehearsal, I want you to conduct a bunch of stuff. And I want to go back to the hall listen. And so I’d be ready at visits proba, of course, to just jump right in and conduct a bunch of stuff from the pit where the sound is different players were confused. So the conductor could go listen, and then give his feedback. And I was prepared. And that all went fine. And but you know, so you just kind of have to be ready to help with whatever’s needed, because there are so many moving parts.

Michelle Rofrano: 33:48
And it’s interesting because I was talking to another group of young conductors recently. And they were saying, oh, you know, this is introductory in an opera production? Do you really have a say? Is it really like an important role? Or do you just kind of like there until you’re asked to do something? And I was like, no, it’s actually such an important role. Like, it’s so important to have that supportive role to the conductor and to the singers to like, give them feedback, let them know what’s going on. Like the conductor often doesn’t hear everything. If they’re busy focusing on the substitute horn player that we have, they weren’t paying as much attention to the singers. So they can’t see on stage if they’re not directly looking that we can’t hear a singer at one point because they’re accidentally singing upstage and balance is bad, but I and the audience taking notes can say oh, and the singers facing upstage there that’s why we can’t hear them. I’m gonna give them that note to sing out. You know that’s kind of like a lot of you know running around and being eyes and ears and a lot of directions but there’s a lot to do so that’s my role just a lot of jobs.

Chaowen: 34:44
That sounds Oh like the reality in an opera houses. But before going further, I wanted to ask a technical question to the both of you. We hear the terms sometimes used interchangeably. Cover conductor, assistent conductor, sometimes your conduct and fellow doing, cover conducting, do you see them? Sometimes if you get a gig that it’s saved differently, does it really mean that you do different work, or it’s pretty much the same, we’ll start with refund Oh, since you’re here in a spotlight.

Michelle: 35:17
So first of all, my job hasn’t really been different based on the title I’ve been given, it’s been just different based on the Opera House and how much music staff they have. So if it’s a smaller house, and there’s less music staff, the assistant director kind of helps with everything from conducting the chorus rehearsals to being the cover to everything. Now, if it’s a bigger Opera House, there will be a different chorus master to deal with the chorus. And there will be several vocal coaches to give notes to the singers. And so my job is more so covering the conductor. But to that extent, like, you know, bigger houses, more music staff, I have a couple of contracts coming up the big houses, and one of them is to be a covered conductor, and one of them is to be an assistant conductor. And my role is similar for both. So it’s kind of interchangeable. There are several big houses that might have several music staff, and they may have a main cover conductor and another assistant conductor or like someone who’s a rehearsal pianist, plus assistant conductor, who will serve as another member of music staff. And if the conductor were sick, like the cover conductor would go on. But that’s only if there’s a lot of music staff. So I know that’s not very clear, but it’s kind of been interchangeable. In my experience so far.

Michelle Di Russo: 36:20
Yeah, in my experience, it’s been that if the orchestra already has a position for an assistant conductor, then if you go there just for a week, because then you’re the cover, because you wouldn’t be the assistant director because they have someone there on staff that is regularly their assistant conductor. So that’s why you’re a cover conductor. So for example, if somebody comes to cover me, North Carolina symphony, I’m the assistant conductor, so they would be the cover. And same when I go to an so or, and so it’s particularly weird, because they don’t necessarily like to events, they’re still calling everybody a cover conductor, you know. So that’s my experience when I’m acting acting fellow. It depends on the organization, but it means that they’re usually not paying you much or at all. So I think that in that experience, like it has a money component this summer, like the connecting fellow and assistant conductor of Napa Valley Festival. And that’s the reason for that is because I am the Assistant actor, the only one, but I’m also conducting fellow because it’s part of an award. So they’re giving me extra money as part of this fellowship that they have. So it’s not really because, yeah, it’s really good. Actually. It’s not because I’m like, you know, just learning or whatever. It’s because they have this specific fellowship. And it’s part of our program like that.

Michelle Di Russo: 37:44
But, for example, Chicago Symphony, I’m a conducting fellow, it means that, like learning, they’re not paying me anything. Maybe they pay me my flight to go do things in Chicago, for Dallas opera, same thing, they do pay you a little. So it’s actually really good. But it means that you’re like in this learning process, right? And that’s why it’s a fellowship. I think, I don’t know if you agree with this. But yeah, so

Chaowen: 38:11
My experience is sometimes if you if they already have an assistant conductor, and then they want someone else to cover, they’re usually for two reasons. One is their assistant conductor has to take a leave there, this is a conductor might be having a gig or connecting somewhere, or to the you’re on their radar, they want to see you conducting or kind of see if you’re a good to work with. They are some big orchestras. They have like so many tiers. They are associates, first assistant, second assistant, but sometimes they are all busy. They were just bringing someone that there was recommended to them just kind of do to meet you, in a sense.

Chaowen: 38:48
But now talking about money. I had a question for the two of you. I was wondering if you had experience that you ever had to turn down an opportunity, like a gig maybe for covering or assistant, no matter for whatever reason, maybe the dates don’t match, or it’s not a particular repertory that you’re good enough to jump in very last minutes or some other things than a negotiation broke through? How do you handle it? And do you fear that they won’t call you back? If you say no, what?

Michelle Rofrano: 39:20
I can answer that and like yes to all of those things, like, you know, when you’re starting out, and especially if it’s your first time getting contacted by a company, like of course you want to make it work. And of course, you’re worried like, Oh, it’s my first time getting contacted by them like so I’m obviously not, you know, at the top of their list, I’m new to them. So they need someone right now. And if I can’t do it right now, maybe they won’t call me. And so I mean, you try to make things work where you can, but sometimes if something really doesn’t work for you, you’d have to turn it down and then it makes sense to try to keep in touch with that organization like reach out to them again next season. Or even tell them like I can’t do something next month. I’m so sorry. I would have loved to but my phone

Michelle Rofrano: 40:00
All is open, you know, you can suggest something like that, don’t hesitate to suggest something like that or keep in touch with people, it’s not good to pull out of gigs because you find something you’d like better. Like, it’s not good to be known as someone who just takes the better thing and it’s flaky. Occasionally, you’ll have a situation where it makes just sense to do that, it’s happened to me a couple of times that I’ve done that, where, you know, I had something, and it was just another opportunity that it was like, I couldn’t say no to, or it was really so much more money, or it was, you know, what I mean, something that can add something I had been trying to do for a while. And you just have to make that choice where you’re like, okay, the company that I am gonna withdraw from, like, it wasn’t a week before, like, it was for sure a heads up, but it was still like, you know, but it was a choice to make where I was like, um, that company, like, they might be mad at me and like, not call me again. But it’s like worth it for this thing. And you have to, that’s not good. Like, you don’t want to do that if you don’t have to, or ever, but sometimes it does make the most sense to and it also like does happen.

Michelle Rofrano: 40:57
So I think you just have to be honest and tactful if you do have to withdraw from something for a reason. Like I have always offered a suggestion of like, you know, I would suggest like these people to call instead of you’re trying to take something that you have a slight overlapping conflict of like a couple days or a couple of weeks, and you want to make both gigs work. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Like they might say no, but it doesn’t hurt to ask them. Sometimes they’ll really try to make it work for you. Like I have had companies make it work for me where I got a leave from something for the first few days so that I could go late, and they could still have me work. And I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t ask, you always have to try to be tactful and honest. And weigh the fact of like, yeah, it is a reality that sometimes if you get a big opportunity, you won’t get it again, like that’s the reality. But also the industry is very small. And so becoming known as someone who’s like unreliable or who’s going to drop anything at the drop of the hat for something better. Like that’s not it, that will also like get around if you do a lot.

Michelle Rofrano: 41:53
So you always have to weigh your decision. And it can like really be a bummer to say no to something that you would have loved to do. But you have a conflict, you just have a conflict. And it is what it is. And it’s a good position to be in to be in high demand that you have several opportunities. So remind yourself of that, you know,

Chaowen: 42:09
Do you have something that you want to add.

Michelle Di Russo: 42:11
I totally agree with Michelle Rofrano, I know and I’ll give a very, like, real example that happened to me a few months ago, I had to turn down a cover conductor week with New York Phil. And my agent got it for me, it was very last minute, because of course it was last minute, the bottom of the list. So as Michelle Rofrano said, And they told me on a Friday. And it was for Monday, right. And I had already committed to covering AZ Ballet that week, four months ago. And I’m a loyal person. And I think that’s important to me. But also, I was going through a lot of like burnouts. And I was like I cannot for the life of me learn this wrap in a weekend, I cannot and I don’t want to, I need to rest and I was going to Arizona, my family’s there. So I was gonna get to see my family, I was going to get to be with people that I know that I you know, I lived there for a couple of years. And I’m alone in it. I kinda was, you know, I was feeling really lonely as well. And also, maybe they also I knew that the conductor there had had a thing with his side. So I really needed to be there because we didn’t know if he was able to connect. Right?

Michelle Di Russo: 43:27
Those are very real situation that they needed me there. It was not just I’ll be sitting around. And so I said no. And I don’t know, they haven’t called me back, I’ll let you know I say to my agent managed it. But I think I regretted it for like a month. But I think I did the right thing because after that week, I was feeling mentally better. And sometimes your mental health is worth rejecting, I gave you know, I needed to be with my family I needed to be in my second home. And also I felt you know, New York feel they don’t know me, it’s just one cover week, it could go somewhere. But it could also not go anywhere. And they never call me ever again. But AZ ballet, I know that they haven’t, they have been calling me consistently. And now I found out that they might give me a few Nutcracker performances in December next year. And so it’s like, Okay, I think this will pay off or so my family’s there. So I do want to keep our relationship with Arizona and not burn that bridge down. So it was a very hard choice, but you will face those choices. And I think that being loyal, maybe it doesn’t pay off immediately. But I think it pays off in the long run. And I would like to be known as the person that commits to something and dusted and not just you know, flakes out. So I don’t know that’s one real example that happened to me. That’s awesome.

Chaowen: 44:41
And since you mentioned agent, I wanted to ask both of your experience working with an agent and I know a lot of people are curious like how you find an agent and it’s it’s funny because this morning I just got an agent contacted me but they wanted me to pay them to do the work for them. I was like no, I don’t Think that’s what I need, I don’t think I will want that any given time because if I felt if I need to pay an agent to find work for me, I’m probably not there or not ready for that. That’s not a good fit. But this is how I feel. But we’ll start with Di Russo. Because I know since you’ve been working with this particular agent, your career had broughten up and a sense of but just tell us a little bit about, kind of go back to the beginning of how they came about.

Michelle Di Russo: 45:26
I was just lucky to be honest with you, because, she’s the mentor of Chicago Symphony, the and this agency contacted her and said, we’re starting this new program for young conductors. Who do you have? And of course, she gave the name of all of us, right? It’s not like she picked me. And then out of all the names, they contacted me and one other person. And I went through a series of interviews, it was quite intense. It was like three rounds. And yeah, it was very, very intense. But well, they eventually signed me and I felt very comfortable from the beginning. I love them. I love all of them. I usually work specifically with one person, but then, depending on the game, so like east coast or west coast of Midwest, they have different people assigned to it.

Michelle Di Russo: 46:14
So I talked to other people. And they’re all amazing. I think that whoever you signed with, you need to sign with that really, with someone that really believes in you and in your future and your potential. So one of the questions I thought it was crucial for me to ask them was like, So where do you see my career going? Or where would you like me to be in the future, right? Or where do you want to take me. And if they don’t have a clear image of that then move on. Because they need they’re the ones vouching for you. They’re the ones that got me this kicks being like, I promise you, she’ll be amazing and blah, blah, blah, like, I know that, you know, something that is against me, apparently, right now is that I didn’t go to a very well known school. And so usually there’s some like, doubt about hire me or whatever. But eventually they got it from me. And it maybe they hadn’t insisted so much, they wouldn’t have gotten me this gigs, right.

Michelle Di Russo: 47:04
So you want someone that will really go for you the extra mile, otherwise, it doesn’t work. If you have to pay, I wouldn’t do it. To be honest, I would just not do it. My I agree. I know, that’s the thing. I know too many agencies that charge a retainer, I’m not gonna do that. Also look at their roster, if they have too many conductors, know for sure that they’re not going to focus on you, unless you’re like, that’s the thing, some agencies pick them that just that are already on the top of her career, right, and then they’re not doing much for them. So if you’re like just starting, and they have 20 connectors, and rails don’t know that they’re not going to be actively fighting to get you a job, right. So in my case, we’re only three. So they’re very dedicated to us to finding jobs. So that’s my experience.

Michelle Rofrano: 47:50
Michelle brings up a lot of really good points and my experience working with an agent. So I actually don’t have an agent right now, my first agent I worked with, I think I signed with him when I was 27 or so. And so to Michelle’s point of, you know, talking about like, well, they prioritize you and put you out there and like where do they see your career going? Like, that’s all, you know, so important. So I had the experience of an agent who, you know, I liked as a person, and they were a smaller agency and worked with a lot of opera directors. And that’s actually how I got in touch with them. Because there were just a lot of opera directors that had, you know, good careers that I respected, I had worked with a few of them. And one of my director, colleagues recommended them recommended me to this agent, because they were trying to expand the roster and add a few opera conductors.

Michelle Rofrano: 48:37
And at first I was wary because I was like, Oh, well, they haven’t really worked with a lot of conductors before. So they know the industry, but do they know what conductors need? But on the other hand, if I was going to be one of their few conductors, I was like, well, they’ll prioritize me. And I asked, like several vendors, I have an industry about this. And, you know, people said, well, you know, if you get a good feeling from the agent, like, you know, and it seems like they’re in your corner, like, try it out, see if you’d like working with them. Like it’s in a relationship, and you don’t have to stay in a relationship if it’s not working for you. But like, you know, why not?

Michelle Rofrano: 49:05
And so I started to work with this agent, and they were very supportive of me. But I found over time, like, didn’t know enough about what conductor’s needed in terms of, you know, an opera, and also to, like, weren’t putting me out there enough necessarily, like, supported me, but like, weren’t doing the work of putting me out there. And so for like, two years, I was the one who got all my jobs. I think they made a couple connections for me, but it was like, mostly me, like, all the work I was getting was because of me. And then I was paying them are you having to worry, you know? Well, so the thing is, like most of my because I told you like most of the jobs I’ve gotten were from connections from me. So it was like a recommendation that someone just recommended me for something because of the work I did. But you still have to pay your agent because they like you’re on their roster. You know.

Michelle Di Russo: 49:50
Lots of things, in my agency that don’t because very transparent and honest. And they think that at this point in my career, it’s not fair for them to get 15% of anything. One that I get by myself. And so they Wow.

Michelle: 50:03
Yeah, that was very, very,

Michelle Di Russo: 50:05
it’s very special.

Michelle: 50:07
I was gonna say, I don’t think a lot of agents do that. No, no, we didn’t go in agreement that if it was under a certain amount, they wouldn’t get a cut, because I am early in my career, but there were plenty of things that like, they did not like I got the gig from a recommendation of someone and I paid them like, you know, yeah. And so it turned into a situation where just like, I, they weren’t doing anything for me. So I’m not working with them anymore. So right now, I don’t have an agent. And on the one hand, like, it would be nice to like, I’m hoping to find an agent I can work with, who, you know, I get along with who will be my advocate, who are like, have a lot of respect for musicians on their roster. But I’m also like, not to stress about it, because right now I’m getting work, you know, and I don’t have to pay anyone to kind of it. So, you know, I think you have to, like really trust your gut asked the questions like, you’re for sure. interviewing them, I would never pay a retainer. Like, you know what I mean, if your agent isn’t gonna be getting you extra work, then it’s just going to be you losing money, like to be honest.

Michelle: 51:06
And like some people say, Oh, we will take you more seriously, if you have an agent, like, yeah, if you’re on a roster that’s like, well respected people will like have some respect for that. But they won’t take you more seriously, because you’re on any roster, because a lot of people are on a roster and like pay money to be on that roster. So people will have respect for you because of the artists you are and the work that you do. And like the end, you know, so right now I don’t have an agent. And I’m fine. And I’m will probably work with another one in the future. But I definitely learned a lot about like how to be discerning. And like what even more pointed questions to ask, because I didn’t know much. And I signed with my first agent. So it’s an interesting subject for sure.

Chaowen: 51:44
I totally agree with what my bulk colleagues have saved, and I just want to say, sometimes, the only time I wish I had an agent was when I had to negotiate or had to turn down a job because I felt it’s less personal. If it’s coming from a third party than coming totally say, hey, I can’t work with you, as opposed to someone kind of negotiating on my behalf. But of course you pay for the service. And all that. Then since now we talked about agent and finding works. And of course we learned that recommendation is such an important thing. So I wanted to ask this big question to both Michelles. What is one thing or a several things that you felt was so important when you’re assisting? As opposed to when you’re the boss, you’re the music director, you can do things more of your way. But what have you learned in your journey that you thought that’s such an important thing to note for our audience member here.

Michelle: 52:48
For me, the biggest, the big thing that I think sets an assistant conductor apart and that I tried to do and that I think makes me a good assistant conductor is to be very proactive, and know that your role is to be like a supportive role. And a team player, it doesn’t mean you don’t have an important role, like you have a really important role. But there are some assistant conductors and I have had assistant conductors who kind of like made it a little about them, you know, like trying to get attention or sucking up to the conductor or maybe giving a singer or players notes that like you didn’t tell them to give. And it’s kind of like, they’re not necessarily thinking of like the group as a whole. Whereas a good assistant conductor will first of all be like, proactive, like if your assistant conductor can hear a problem or see a problem or like give you information that you don’t know. And that will make the whole job that will make the whole thing better than like that’s incredibly useful. Like that’s so priceless. And so I try to be really proactive in not only telling the doctor, hey, there’s a balance problem, hey, this is a problem, but like solving it like, hey, so balance is a little tricky here. And I think it’s because the brass sound really hot. So like rather than tell the whole orchestra to be quiet, like maybe just the trumpets can be a little lower there. And guess what it solves their problem and the conductor’s life is easier, and their performance is better, and they’re going to be more likely to call me again to assist them because they’re like, you helped me do my job better.

Michelle: 54:08
But being a team player, like thinking ahead about what’s needed to fill gaps before people have to ask you like being just so ready to help and, and yeah, and like knowing that, like, yeah, your job is to be a supportive role and just like be there to kind of make the whole thing run more smoothly,

Michelle Di Russo: 54:27
Yeah, no, I totally I agree with everything you’ve said. I think that not being in a way is a very important one. Also doing whatever is needed just make the performance be better do it even if it’s not your job. I was gonna say said orchestra stuff because you’re there just for a week. It’s sometimes it’s hard to connect with the conductors. And don’t worry about it. Sometimes you don’t connect with some conductors did some chemistry thing as well, and sometimes some conductors won’t like you, and that’s fine as well. But yeah, I would say like, don’t put pressure on this relationship. You’re both trying to get something out of it. Otherwise it doesn’t work. And you don’t want to be like, you don’t want to seem desperate either. So I think it’s also reading the situation in the moment and asking a few questions here and there and see how it goes and take it from there.

Chaowen: 55:13
So looking at time, I’m going to open the floor to anyone here wanting to jump in with question. I didn’t get any question through the chat. But if anyone wants to just unmute, I think we can take a question or two. So if anyone wants to unmute and speak or if you want me to read a question for you, you can send me a chat. It’s a very quiet morning.

Michelle Di Russo: 55:42
Michelle, what are you assisting on San Francisco, whatever?

Michelle Rofrano: 55:45
Well, I am assisting. It’s called The Dream of the Red Chamber. And it’s by composer Bright Sheng, and it’s a contemporary opera. And Chaowen, that’s

Chaowen: 55:56
That’s a Chinese. It’s a Chinese literature. Did you read it?

Michelle Rofrano: 55:59
Yes. Yeah. So I’m very excited. It’s um, yeah, it’s a Chinese folktale, right?

Chaowen: 56:07
The not really it’s not a folktale. It’s one of the legendary literature. But it was it was written in an old Chinese form. It’s a great piece.

Michelle Rofrano: 56:20
Michelle? Darrell Ang is his name. I believe he’s Singaporean. I haven’t worked on him before. But no, I’m really excited. They premiered the work a few years ago. So this is like the read premiere of the work. So Bright Sheng edited it and made some revisions, and then they’re repairing it. And I have the vocal score that I’ve been studying. And since edits have been made, I still don’t have a full score. And I’m going there in two weeks. So apparently, it’s going to be finished this week. And I’m going to be frantically marking my full score next two weeks, so I can get ready. But I’m excited that it’s a good piece.

Chaowen: 56:55
All right, we have a question from Maria. And she was asking about taking note. So can you tell us what, when you’re assisting? What kind of notes do you take? We’ll start with reconnaissance. I know you have a lot more parts to cover in opera production.

Michelle: 57:11
What kind of notes do you take? So that’s really good question. And it’s kind of funny, because like, everyone comes up with their own system, I am like, I call myself the queen of post its and like, people are gonna tease me and my book is like my exports. But so these are the types of notes. So some will be just like general notes for singers like early in the process is the singer is just like, hasn’t ever misses a word like you prompt them, you correct them, because they’re obviously like, maybe still getting off book, right, they’re still learning it later in the process. Once they know the role. Maybe if it’s just like a pronunciation thing and diction thing in a foreign language, or if they keep missing a line, then you’ll give a note. So I’ll keep kind of tabs on notes for singers. And you of course, try to gauge what is something they need correcting, or what’s something like they messed up once, but like, they know, like, you don’t need to tell them something, they know their stuff. So keep track of singer notes.

Michelle: 57:58
And then I will take just general orchestra notes, like, Oh, I think we should check the notes there. And the part that horn note keeps being wrong. Or I think we should give the notes to players like check intonation there or something or, especially during a tech rehearsal or dress rehearsal where time is like really pressing with both orchestra and singers on stage. You know, the conductor will been doing a run through of the show for the dress rehearsal, and then maybe you have a half hour at the end for a couple of notes. And so I will try to flag the spots that were like the most emergency to go back to so that once they are done correctly, the opera they’re like tired and needed water or something I can be like, okay, my show these are like three spots, I noted that I think ensemble could probably use a review.

Michelle: 58:40
And I tell them that information and you’re never telling the conductor what to do, but you’re trying to share helpful information so they can do their job better. And so I’ll kind of give them my list at the end of a dress rehearsal of like these are I think the main spots like prioritize before then prioritize for them, like just my own notes. And then they can choose, like, you know, to go back to those like, you know, help jog their memory of like what’s needed. And then I take general balanced notes when you’re in the theater of just like trumpets quieter here like I couldn’t hear the oboe solo, they’re like, can’t hear the cello. Bass is there the hall the acoustics are weird. And so it’s yeah, it’s like general notes for rehearsal for the conductor. Because time is pressed notes for the singers. And then balance notes. And sometimes balance notes will also apply to the chorus. And I’ll also share them to the chorus master to tell the chorus.

Michelle Di Russo: 59:27
So you give it the notes to the conductor, do you put like page number or what do you?

Michelle: 59:32
That’s a great question. And I always ask the conductor how they want their notes. Because some conductors just want you to take notes in your own score from the back of the hall during a run and then run up and sit behind them and the front row of seats and then like there’ll be right in front of you in the pit, and then you can like tell them but others are like please write the list down for me on a piece of paper and give it to me and others have requested like please write the list down for me with the score page number with the score rehearsal number so they can very quickly like efficiently gets the orchestra. So honestly ask your conductor what they want. Because some really want involvement from their assistant conductor and others are like, No, I remember the spots I have to go back to, it’s fine. And they’re kind of like more chill and like, don’t need you as much. So honestly, just ask people what they need, like everyone’s different. Good question.

Michelle Di Russo: 1:00:16
That’s a great point. Michelle,

Chaowen: 1:00:17
do you want to add something about taking notes?

Michelle Di Russo: 1:00:22
No, I usually use posted because I’m a visual learner. So whenever I put the posted, if I go back to it, I remember what happened. But sometimes if I wrote it in a separate page, I don’t. So I’ve had the problem that they see my score, and it’s full of posted and they get freaked out. And I’m like, No, and I have to explain, you know, so I’m trying to find a way that I don’t freak them out. Because I also pick the most important spots. I’ve had to like, just tell me, you know, I just want general stuff. And that’s fine. Yeah, give them general stuff that I had someone that said, I want to I want to know everything. So, yeah, it depends. But you need to develop a good system. I think I’m always changing it and finding what works best. I don’t think I have a set one right now. But I do use post its

Chaowen: 1:01:12
Dan asked the question about social media and referral. I would love to answer in the chat if that’s okay. Yeah, but next question. I was sent to me from Amit. And it was asking that they’re from Australia, and the music thing is rather small. And they were wondering if you had had any international gigs or contract? And if so, how did you make the connections?

Michelle Rofrano: 1:01:36
I don’t have a ton of experience, to be honest. Like, I’ve done a couple of Opera Festival things in Europe, but it was like through connections here, and like, largely run by are involving people from the US. So I don’t have a ton of experience there to be perfectly honest.

Michelle Di Russo: 1:01:53
Yeah, same here. But I know that the thing that makes it the easiest is if your paperwork is clear, right? So for example, I have double citizenship. So whenever I apply for stuff in Europe, I tried to make that clear, because I know that they want how to run a visa for me or anything like that. So if you have any kind of advantage like that, I want to make sure that it’s clear when you’re applying. But I don’t have much experience to be honest. Yeah.

Chaowen: 1:02:19
Here is a question for Rofrano. Are you also a pianist? And do you find that opera companies look more for coaches who want to conduct or not so much,

Michelle Rofrano: 1:02:31
it truly depends on the company. I’m also a pianist, I did work as a rehearsal pianist for like a few productions here and there when I finished school, I don’t enjoy being a rehearsal pianist. And I don’t think I’m a great rehearsal pianist to be honest, like, I’m an okay pianist, like recruiting singers. And for my own skill set, I’m honestly not great at like set reading or following a conductor. And it couldn’t be really worth it, you know, to have, it’s really worth it to have those skills. And if you’re good at those skills, or if you want to get better at those skills, I would say there are more opportunities in opera houses around the US for coaches. And then sometimes they make those coaches assistant conductors, especially like mid level houses, like where they don’t have as much music staff, like a lot of B or C houses don’t have the budget for like an assistant conductor, but they always have like a coach or they might have a young artist coach. And then a lot of times we’ll have that person do both roles. So if that’s the route that interests you, and also you learn the repertoire really well, and you’re the assistant when you’re the coach because you’ve played it. So if that’s a route that interests you, I would really suggest going that route.

Michelle Rofrano: 1:03:29
And for me, it was like I started going that route, but I kept just getting more jobs as a conductor. And I took a few auditions for piano and I like never one the auditions I took as a pianist, and I kept getting the things I did as a conductor. So I was like, okay, clearly, I’m like, kind of great enough pianist, but this is like where I shine. So I just didn’t pursue that route as much. But it’s like a great route to pursue if like, that’s your strength. That’s what I would say,

Michelle Di Russo: 1:03:50
Especially in Europe, right? Oh,

Michelle: 1:03:52
in Europe, actually, you have to that’s a good point. Michelle, in Europe, you have to like their eye, you know, you’ll they’ll have like the Kapellmeister at like a lot of German opera houses like you wouldn’t be hired as just an assistant or cover conductor. If you don’t play piano, like you’d be a member of music staff, you would coach you’d play rehearsals, you’d leave the chorus, you would do it all. And that’s a great way to get in with houses in Europe. But in the US, it’s really a mixed bag, like there are companies that I won’t be working for probably anytime soon, because all of their assistant conductors, like are also coaches and pianist and I probably won’t get hired there until I’m like hired is just the main conductor who doesn’t have to play. But they’re conducted. There are a lot of companies that have different roles for those things in the US. So

Chaowen: 1:04:32
Yeah, and I just want to say it really depends on the company and a lot of company. It’s more about convenient for them. So like I’m conducting an mainstage job, right? And I asked about assistant conductor then they say, Oh, we don’t have the money to hire an extra person. So your Chorus Master would be your assistant? Yeah, yeah. So the next question come in from Laten if I’m saying your name correct. The question was, what was or is the hardest challenge that you over? Kim are still working now, when you first started conducting and how you overcome those challenges,

Michelle Rofrano: 1:05:06
The hardest challenge, I have a couple of answers for that one is just like learning all the music, and like learning how to budget, your time, and it’s the thing I still work on. And I still find challenging, especially if you have a freelance career that you can’t totally control. So it’s like, sometimes I’ll have like a couple of offers I’ve already done. And so I need to review them, but I already know them. And I’ll have a lot of space in between gigs. And I’ll be like, I’m not getting enough work. I’m not that stressed about music design. And other times, like this year, the next few months, I have literally so much music to learn every opera I’m doing is new or new to me. And I’m kind of like how am I going to learn all this music and like you have to learn how to learn things quickly. And well. You have to learn how to prioritize like, you’re not going to be memorizing every single line.

Michelle Rofrano: 1:05:50
If you only have a couple weeks to like learn something you’re going to start with like the trickiest spots, the tempo changes the stuff that like the conductor is really needed to navigate. Like, you know what I mean? Like you learn just what to prioritize, and you then learn it as well as you can in that amount of time. And then also, if you have back to back gigs, like studying music for the next gig while you’re on this gig is like a thing that I continue to struggle with. Because I’m always like very invested in what I’m doing right now. And like budgeting the time for the next thing while I want to be doing well on this thing is like, always challenging for me, my my, my sunlight, my apartment just shifted here. So but so that’s, that’s something I find challenging. And then also, sometimes anxiety of like being a freelance performer and like not knowing what your work will be next year, like it was more anxiety inducing when I was first out of school.

Michelle Rofrano: 1:06:33
And I was like, Well, I have a career and I only have a couple of gigs this year, and will I get hired. And now I’ve kind of like, the past few years when I’ve been stressed and like, oh, I have a gap in my schedule that ends up filling up. I keep getting work, you know what I mean? And so next year, I have a lot of work, I’m still looking to fill a couple months, but like I’ve also learned to kind of trust the process of like, I keep getting work and people keep wanting to hire me and like that’s a really good sign. And so just like trust, the process of that, like you will continue getting work. But a freelance career can be a little the unknown can be frightening, you know, and you kind of just have to trust your skill set and keep putting yourself out there.

Michelle Di Russo: 1:07:07
I actually, management Yeah, time management is the hardest, has been the hardest since I graduated. And I have too much music to learn all the time as well. And I think that’s been the biggest challenge. So if you’re young, learn as much music as you can know that the seasons of the symphony orchestra isn’t there in the main symphonies? Trust me, they’ll come back. And you’ll have to know them. So I Yeah, learning repertoire. I think that’s the best. Yeah.

Chaowen: 1:07:34
So I think you both just answered a little bit about the next question from Maria. So she was asking about the process of preparing or studying a score when you had to do it very fast. What do you prioritize, Rofrano, said about tempo changes, transitions, can be anything else that you both want to add.

Michelle Di Russo: 1:07:52
The first thing I think is, you know, I’m gonna be the cover conductor for this production or, you know, this week. And if I need to jump in, can I conduct this thing, that’s the main thing that I focus on. So I study it in a way that is practical, and that if I have to, if the connector turns around, and it’s like, takeover, I can do it, right. So whatever it takes me to that goal, that’s my main goal. And then from that, I start, you know, going deeper into details and finding more, I always try to know about the piece though, like, where it comes from, how it was composed, all of that stuff. Historical context, I think it’s always really important. So don’t think that that’s that detail, but the structure of it so I would say that and then you know, learning the music and knowing how, what are the tempe what are the tricky spots? And yeah, I would say me that.

Michelle Rofrano: 1:08:45
Yeah, for me, like also and I my, my way of marking my scores is always evolving, but I have like, a system to mark my scores that really helps me if I have to conduct something last minute, like, not everyone does this, but I find it helps me for operas that I give like the main characters a different color that I can like highlight or underline and colored pencil, and so I know exactly who’s singing when and who to cue. Sometimes I’ll literally write like, if it’s just about, you know, oh, I know this. I’ve learned something very quickly. And I’m trying to memorize every single line and everything. I know, there’s a lot of mixed media in this spot, it’s gonna be tricky for singers, I will just write whatever I have to on my score, I will write big mixed meter changes, I will write the beat that singers come in on so I can cue them on beat three like sometimes it’s just a matter of like being clear and keeping dropping going. That’s not you know, the most musically deep like way to approach something and like you come in on three you’ve met but it’s also the practicality of it. Like people need to come in correctly. It’s my job to help them do that. So yeah, things like things like that, like come up with a system for yourself. So you can just navigate it. Like look at what people need you for and be able to do those things.

Chaowen: 1:09:48
The last question on my list is what are your thoughts, making connections and getting professional opportunities while working on the conducting degree? This is from Gabriella.

Michelle Di Russo: 1:09:58
I think that the biggest way I did any connections while I was in school was to try to go to rehearsals if you’re in a big city, just trying to get into rehearsals, and then all the workshops I did, I carefully pick which ones I did. And I feel like those also created connections for me. Yeah, I think that anything that you can do outside of school, to get you in touch with the professional world is going to be extremely valuable, right? So if it’s a workshop, with someone that is already working professionally, those are the things I would prioritize. And yes, maybe there are some teachers from academia that are really good, everybody’s starts with. But if it’s not a big one, I tried to avoid those and go with professional people, because that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to go into a professional path, right? So I focused on contacting those kinds of connectors.

Michelle Rofrano: 1:10:49
Yeah, to Michelle’s point, I would echo the same thing of like, know what it is you want to do. And that’s allowed to change. And you don’t have to know the exact specifics. But there are so many niche areas, like there’s a more educational route and professional orchestra and opera route. And, you know, they’re there. And the world is really small. So for me, like, I’m a big believer in just putting what you want out there, like being honest. And just like telling people your goals. For me, I got into grad school, like not knowing that I mainly wanted to do opera. But I knew I loved opera. And I wanted to do more of it. So I got to Peabody International Conducting program. And I got there and I said, I want to do opera. I’m really interested in opera, like, you know, I told my teachers, and I put together a recital of some opera excerpts, like with my singer friends, and I told the administration, and the teachers, you know, one of the teachers recommended me to work for a small company or in the area, and then the administration recommended me to assist at the bigger opera company in Baltimore.

Michelle Rofrano: 1:11:43
And then that was my first ever professional assisting job. And I told that conductor, like I’m new to opera, but I grew up listening to it. And I really love it. And like you do a lot of opera you ever needed assisting conductor anywhere else, they’d love to work for you. And he hired me somewhere else. And that was my second ever professional opera assistant gig and then I went back to work for that company. Again, later in the future, I still keep in touch with people at that company. So like, just, you know, be honest, and like, put yourself out there like what you want to do. And people be like, Oh, she wants to do opera, which you call her for that, you know. So that’s it not been for me.

Chaowen: 1:12:11
I want to thank the Michelle R squared team for coming in and joining me and also for those who weren’t here, thank you so much for making time. And I hope that’s what we have shared was useful or somehow encouraging sort of you there is no one direct path to the podium. That’s what we had Girls Who Conduct had been trying really hard to advertise and to promote the idea everyone has a unique path. And just, there are a lot of difficulties as we all know. And if you ever want someone to talk to you, we are here we would love to hear your stories you can reach out to us, to me personally or anyone on our staff is totally welcome to hear your story. And then thank you all very much again for joining us. And thank you have a good rest of the day or evening, depending on where you are.

Michelle: 1:13:07
Nice. Nice to meet you. Thanks for having us challenged to see you. So nice to see you.

Chaowen: 1:13:14
Here you go, my friends, I hope that our conversation inspired you if you’re a conducting student, or a young conductor, still working up the ladder. And if you’re an experienced conductor, that you found some common ground and our experiences, or that you share and agree with our visions, and helping the current and the next generations of conductors of color minority conductors or women conductors, I can only speak for myself, but I certainly don’t want to be the first and or the only women in my field anymore. I know we still have a long way to go before women can perhaps one day become the majority of the dominating gender in this field. But I’m really glad that we are working towards at least some gender parity on the podium. And it’s really comforting to know that there are a lot of colleagues, both men and women, white and people of color working towards this mission.

Chaowen: 1:14:24
If you haven’t already, I would really encourage you to check out the website of Girls Who Conduct and a lot of great organizations working towards more diversity, inclusion and equity in the field, including the one that Julia is involved with the Women Band Directors International. Again, I’ll put everything in the show notes and you can find things to add chaowenting.com/35 and I will see you next week at the same time, same place. If you’re loving this show, please don’t forget to subscribe and or leave a review on Apple podcast and that will be the best encouragement for me thank you and bye for now.