Conducting is definitely one of those professions where there is no equal opportunity. Studying it is expensive, getting opportunities to conduct orchestras is expensive, and no matter how talented you are, the stars just might be in the wrong position for you. Then there are those who come from influential musical families or who have no problem with money - and it seems the trend is those people are able to land jobs even without proper training! For a hard working conducting student it's a painful fact to accept.
I regularly discuss these topics with my colleagues and friends who have doubts about their choice of career. Conducting is such a difficult profession that it takes up all your time, but you need to eat as well - and what if you don't have enough work as a conductor? Some people take side jobs, some accumulate debt... Some just decide to live frugally - no talk about glamorous jet set life here!
For some reason many of my colleagues have found it helpful to hear how I found my own way to survive in this career. There was no sudden breakthrough for me at any point, but I have been doing it the slow route - sometimes much slower than I would have preferred. But I think the main point is that I never gave up - if someone closed a door on my face I went and knocked the next one. In Finnish we have a word "sisu" which encompasses the virtue of never giving up. Although I think in the modern Finnish society we have a serious shortage of it these days - but that's another story entirely. Now, here's my story in short.
My beginnings were modest even though I did not have start from zero like some of my friends have done. I was born into an artistic family in a country where the music education is well funded by the state. After I finished my school I first studied musicology for some years and then got a place in a conservatory to study cello. Everything was nice and easy thus far. It was only when I got the "conducting bug" that things started to get difficult.
In Finland we have only one university where one can study conducting - the Sibelius Academy. The class is small and very hard to get into - but once you get in it's all free of course. Well, I did not get in even after my third try, so I had to look for study opportunities abroad and managed to get in the St Petersburg State Conservatory in the neighboring Russia. The study fees were not high but I could not have survived without grants I got from certain foundations in Finland. I became a pro in filing scholarship applications in fact!
After two years of intensive study I got my first opportunity with a professional orchestra in St Petersburg. I had a demanding but popular program, a great soloist, and the concert was a big success. After the concert my professor came to me and said: "Congratulations. I think you are ready to embark on a professional conducting career."
That's it, you may think. Well, far, far from it! Actually, nobody had noticed my professional debut and nothing concrete ever followed from it! During the following years I took part in several competitions, showed my face on several master classes and tried to keep in touch with all my senior colleagues in hope that they would need a hand at some point. I offered my services to several smaller orchestras and semi-professional opera companies in Finland but nobody had the slightest interest. I started to run out of funds to study in St Petersburg and applied one more time to the Sibelius Academy, and finally got in. I was back in Finland, with a secure, free study place and could finally think what to do without panicking about money.
For the following couple of years I had just an occasional concert with a professional orchestra, and most of the time I was working hard in the educational front to make the ends meet. I was in charge of four different music school orchestras which took quite a lot of my time. Anyway, I kept applying for every possible competition and audition I could find. Don't ask how much money I burned to the application fees, flight tickets, hotels etc. A lot! Most of my classmates were skeptical and even amused by the fact that I was trying so hard, but I kept going.
Then two good things happened. First, a prize in a competition (at last!) and secondly, winning an audition in Paris to become Kurt Masur's assistant conductor. That's it? Well, still not. Neither of these nice events made slightest impact to my conducting career. Seriously! Even the job in Paris made much less money than my music school orchestras! Nevertheless I quit my other jobs and moved to Paris for some time to take the full advantage of the chance to work with Masur and see all the big name conductors who never ever visit Finland. Those who have been following my blog have a pretty accurate picture of what I have been up to ever since (and those who haven't can dig it out in the blog archive).
So let's fast forward to the present. For the past year I have been busier than ever, conducting in Europe, in the US and in South Africa. I am about to start my first ever full-time conducting job as assistant conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra. I have an agent. Sounds pretty good, and in fact, that's what it is. For the first time I have job security for the next two years and guest engagements lining up even further. So how did I get here?
What's the secret? Besides working hard and having talent and passion for the job of course. In my opinion the secret is the same for everyone. It even is the same for those who have less talent and work less hard - the people I mentioned in the beginning of this blog entry. All my key engagements I have acquired through personal relations - and nothing wrong with that, since I had to convince all those people that I know my stuff!
My first opera engagement happened when a conductor I used to take lessons from suddenly needed an assistant. The next one came about because the correpetiteur of that company had seen me work on a master class where he himself was studying conducting. It actually happened more than once that a more successful colleague offered me a concert with his orchestra after we studied together on a master class.
Soloists. It happened after some collaborations that I became the preferred conductor of the soloist, and he or she helped me get more engagements. The musicians I studied with when I was still a cellist - many of them are now working in Finnish orchestras and those who played under my baton during their studies usually put my name forward if they happen to end up in the artistic committee of the orchestra. Even audience members - my engagements in South Africa all begun because of one person who came to my concert in Finland, liked it, and ended up on the same train with me after that concert (another benefit of not being jet set). I could tell dozens of stories like this - even the events leading to my audition in Cleveland can be traced down to a suggestion by one dear colleague of mine on a music festival which at the time seemed like waste of time!
Let's just face it - the conductor these days needs to be a people's person. It is as essential in getting the job as it is in keeping it. Even when you guest conduct the orchestra often votes afterwards whether they want you back or not - so you better be prepared and take care to treat the musicians with respect that they deserve. So my advice to my younger colleagues is: network, keep in touch with your mentors and colleagues, be open minded and helpful to whoever approaches you, be honest, work hard, try competitions, auditions and master classes but don't just sit in your room studying - get to know the people around you, be patient and most importantly...
Never give up.