Where do you go to study conducting? Not the USA…

Where do you go to study conducting? Not the USA…


norman lebrecht

May 17, 2015

Caleb Young, a conducting student at IU, has sent us a short reflection on a loss of leadership in conducting faculties in the USA. He has a point. Baton students these days head to Helsinki, St Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin and elsewhere. Has America lost the beat? The headline and preamble are written by Slipped Disc. Here’s Caleb’s thoughtful article.

caleb young


A tidal wave of change is coming to conducting pedagogy here in America.

Ambitious young conductors come from all around the world to study conducting in the United States. For decades our schools have sported internationally renowned Maestros, who have passed along their experiences and wisdom, lab orchestras and a plethora of performance opportunities. But is this golden age of conducting pedagogy coming to an end? From my standpoint the future looks uncertain.

The death of the great James DePreist at Juilliard started a domino effect in the American school of conducting. Curtis, well steeped in producing excellent conductors, has struggled to fill Otto-Werner Mueller’s shoes. The stern, yet lovable, Victor Yampolsky is still manning the helm at Bienen. But for how much longer? Peabody’s lionized Gustav Meier is still flying from Ann Arbor to Baltimore to teach his talented class of budding maestros, even in his 80s.

Then there is my guru, David Effron, at Indiana University. From Cologne, City Opera, Eastman, Curtis, Brevard, and finally the Jacobs School, the winds of change are passing through Bloomington. (In fairness Jacobs will be in great hands with Maestro Arthur Fagen…)

These are big shoes for deans to begin to start thinking about filling. We will see a drastic change in the next 5-10 years in the way conducting is taught in the USA. There will most certainly be arguments for this being both a negative and positive passing of the batons. The USA has become an epicenter of conducting pedagogy that students flock to and it will be interesting to see how our craft will evolve. As I shared a long lunch with my own guru yesterday, I felt honored to have been part of this legacy of the great American school of conducting. But as with all art, we must take our sacred traditions and grow them into new and ever evolving ideals.


  • Victor says:

    I don’t think that one can see this particular academic shortfall as an isolated incident. One must accept and acknowledge that the USA is no longer a desirable place for study in many disciplines, but particularly in the arts. How can a society that has relegated the role of the arts to mass market entertainment, where arts education programmes have been tremendously cut in primary and secondary schools, still remain a leader in higher level arts/music education? It simply wouldn’t make sense. The average US teenager, or adult for that matter, has hardly any understanding nor appreciation of the arts in general. It’s true that the same could be said for other countries nowadays, but it has reached particularly low levels in the US. So low, that in recent surveys US high school students were, in the vast majority, unable to name two famous composers, or two famous painters. The majority also weren’t able to identify the location of the European continent on a world map. This mass ignorance at a national level has to have an impact on higher education in the USA and explains why the country is becoming a backwater for arts/music education and it will sadly only get worse in the future as the country continues its decline.

    • Patrick says:

      A curious comment from Victor.. I guess I can see his point, though the tremendous number of extraordinarily gifted musicians graduating for US conservatories and universities would seem to contradict his observations. Also, re: “The average US teenager, or adult for that matter, has hardly any understanding nor appreciation of the arts in general.” Sadly, the average teenager anywhere has any appreciation for the arts.

      • V.Lind says:

        Except, judging from the finalists in virtually every competition, South Korea!

        Although I sometimes wonder, having been there and seen the rote style of education that seems to afflict parts of Asia, whether trained-from-the-womb talent, years of disciplined practice, dedication in the ambition to succeed in a competitive field, has much to do with appreciation of the arts.

      • Evelyn says:

        I don’t see anything “curious” about Victor’s comment and agree with most of it. As far as, “the tremendous number of extraordinarily gifted musicians graduating for US conservatories and universities would seem to contradict his observations.”, we must remember that in the vast majority of leading U.S. music conservatories, the ones churning out the “extremely gifted musicians” that you hold up as proof of the system’s superiority, more than 50% of the student body are from either China, Korea, Taiwan, or elsewhere in Asia and approximately 30% are from Europe, South America or elsewhere than the United States. The U.S. schools are more like finishing schools for the most gifted foreigners. As these Asians return to their countries and start to take up posts in their national conservatories, the relevance of the U.S. in training and perfectioning talent will diminish, as the best trained musicians will be in China, Korea, etc. and Americans will then need to travel there to get a top flight music education.

        • Patrick says:

          But Victor says….

          “One must accept and acknowledge that the USA is no longer a desirable place for study in many disciplines, but particularly in the arts.”

          So why do all the students from those other countries study there? I just don’t see the logic.

    • Henry says:

      Complete and utter nonsense.

      Just take a look at the Queen Elisabeth Violin Competition taking place right now, where the American violinists are dominating – 6 out of 12 finalists study in the U.S.

  • AZ Cowboy says:

    I cannot understand this obsession over conductors. In my 60+ years I have played under many and watched many more at work. It doesn’t matter one whit whether they went to a big school, a small state school, a conservatory – there are some good ones, mostly bad ones, but very few great ones. And I’m convinced it cannot be taught. Read the bios of the greats from the past. How many of them studied conducting as their primary mode of music making? In the past, all you needed was solid musicianship on whatever instrument you play, a good ear, an understanding of the music and the ability to lead. Herman Scherchen’s book was all the instruction you needed. But now, very few younger ones have that background. All they want to do it grow a head of hair they can whip around, stomp around the podium like Bernstein, look pretty on cd covers and have everyone think they are the equal of Reimer, Monteux, Walter, Ormandy, or countless others. By far the greatest I have ever played with studied in Europe and worked his way up through the opera houses. His ability to communicate, to inspire passion and drama cannot be learned listening to CDs and working only on the symphonic stage. There are just too many conductors out there who are all style and no substance, and sadly, in our commercialized, sexualized society, the public no longer knows better.

    • Johnny00 says:

      Cowboy, times have changed. We now live in an era of pops, educational and runout type of concerts. These are mostly done on ONE rehearsal, the day of the concert. Even masterwork concerts are being put together with 3, 4 rehearsals. The day of Celibidache having two weeks of rehearsals for a concert are long gone. This demands a level of technique that can only be taught by physically conducting, not by reading a book. It’s comparable to learning to cook without being in the kitchen. Julia Child is only part of the equation! The school of conducting is a necessary one in today’s multifaceted concert season.

    • Michael Endres says:

      AZ cowboy, thank you for your commentary.
      You hit the nail on the head .
      Some top orchestras nowadays play technically perfect, but listening to their actual music making ,being waved at by some soulless Teflon-coated conductors is about as inspiring as watching paint dry.
      So one can only go back to some of the old recordings and wonder why and where it all went south…

    • James of Thames says:

      I must concur with AZ Cowboy. It doesn’t matter where they study. Most conducting students today go to school to study the art before they have gained any significant experience or maturity as performing musicians. They have no idea how to fix basic matters of ensemble or tuning, no sense of the instruments’ capabilities, and no firm musical ideas or convictions beyond what they have learned from listening to recordings. Whatever success they enjoy is largely due to the quality and experience of the musicians in front of them.

    • Glenn Hardy says:

      Absolutely! Well said AZ Cowboy. Thanks to the “professionalization” of all the arts, it is now just assumed that anything can be taught, provided you can produce the six figures necessary to participate in entry-level academic arts programs. Neither conductors nor composers can be created. Sure, the craft of these disciplines can be taught, but you have to actually be a conductor or composer before you can benefit from instruction in craft. How many have questioned the sudden appearance (over the past several decades) of thousands of conductors and composers?, all geniuses, of course-it says so right in their resumes. (BTW, the above also apply to MFA programs in “creative writing.” Just imagine what Proust could have done with an MFA!)

      The sadder fact is that all these “emerging” conductors and composers are emerging into a fantasy bubble kingdom inflated and sustained by a corporate-funded niche world in the process of becoming utterly obsolete. When it’s gone, they’ll all be standing around scratching their heads and asking things like “How can we get young people into our concert halls?”

      Oops, I forgot that we live in a different world now. Guess I’m just another old fogey who missed the bus. Party on!

      In the meantime, we can continue to say it ain’t so by quoting the astonishingly robust subscription ticket sales of this or that orchestra/opera/chamber music organization.

      • Nick says:

        Totally agree with AZ Cowboy. Most of the finest conductors even in the recent past studied in Europe and came from a strong opera house background. Being a repetiteur and house conductor may not be the most satisfying job for a young aspiring conductor – but what a way to learn!

  • Caleb says:

    I just wanted to clarify the purpose of my article. It is meant only to highlight the change of command in our pedagogy. I stand behind my decision to study in the States and I’m proud of what I have learned here so far!


    • Robert Baldwin says:

      Caleb, unfortunately, your article, was prefaced (not by you, I assume) with words meant to cause sensation and mislead the reader into thinking something is wrong with conducting education in the U.S. [redacted] The facts you present are indeed accurate facts. But you miss the fact that these teachers have a huge legacy in the students they produced–some of the finest, I’d wager. Many of those students may indeed be tapped to head programs and continue the tradition. That, in my opinion is what a musical legacy should be about. And that is the challenge for these music schools to go find and convince these successful students that it is time for them to give back to the profession.

    • Pedro says:

      Although the economic reality is a simple truth. When you think about it, Europe has excellent Conservatories and Universities with excellent programs and great professors. I think it’s a matter of deciding were to study and looking for the opportunities to be able to perform a carreer. I am a conductor from Puerto Rico and I’ve had the opportunity to study masterclasses in Europe which makes me consider to study a Masters in Europe than in the US. Right now, in the US there are just about two well known and respected teachers of conducting which are Gustav Meier and Kenneth Kiesler who also gives masterclasses in Europe; I’m actually more interested in jumping to Europe and studying there looking for good opportunities than going into debt in the US. Indeed I think it’s very important to study with the best teachers there are nowadays and not accept the first program that says “hey, you’re in” just because you want a title!! This is just my perception!

    • john kline says:

      Hello Caleb,

      This is an interesting article, but I have difficulty accepting as de facto that there is a sweeping change given that your article only mentions a handful of schools. As you focus on the passing of a few conductors – are you arguing that these posts will not be filled? Or that they will be filled with lesser conductors or teachers? Or that they will be filled by conductors with different nationalities? And – whichever point you are making – what does that specifically mean for conducting pedagogy – which you claim will change drastically in the next 5-10 years.

      Or, are you really just saying that fewer people will be studying conducting in the USA? Is this really true? If so – can you quantify this? And elaborate on where they are going? And are we talking about American music students? International? etc.

      I am very interested to hear you unpack this statement:
      “We will see a drastic change in the next 5-10 years in the way conducting is taught in the USA”

      Again – are you saying the pedagogy will change because a new generation of conductors teaches the discipline in a new way? If so – please elaborate on this very interesting hypothesis.

      Seriously – I am keenly interested – as we are a publisher who has just created a new conducting pedagogy web-based text. http://mywebtext.com/music-conducting

      • George A. Martin says:

        John Kline asks very good questions. And I am afraid I see no substantiated evidence about any of the claims made in this article by Caleb (which, as John pointed out, is based on observations of very few schools). Caleb says “The death of the great James DePreist at Juilliard started a domino effect in the American school of conducting.” But, James DePreist was already retired from teaching at Juilliard for nearly two years before his death. By that point, Alan Gilbert had already been director of orchestras for almost two academic years, so the claim that DePreist’s death started a domino effect is nonsensical. Given the lack of any facts or evidence here, this written “reflection” seems to stem from uninformed personal perceptions…

  • Novagerio says:

    Once there were Reiner in Curtis, Koussevitzky, Bernstein, Leinsdorf, Ozawa in Tanglewood, Monteux in Hancock Maine, Sixten Ehrling in Julliard, Gustav Meier in Peabody….all trained in the Old World, so now, it’s reverse: thd US youth seek themselves to Europe. It’s the law of nature…

  • Bodra says:

    the Solti Foundation US (soltifoundation.us) has given significant financial support to young American conductors since 2004. In the yearly applications received, it is clear that as fine as U.S. conducting pedagogy has been, there is serious lack of experience in opera!! In a pilot program begun by the Foundation in 2014-15, the Foundation hopes to address this important facet of a conductor’s education.

  • Bob McCauley says:

    Conductors Christian Macelaru and James Gaffigan were recent students at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music – studying with conductor Larry Rachleff. If Larry is still taking students there, he gives a LOT of opportunity for his students to conduct new works and major works on orchestra concerts – Larry does do the big pieces with the orchestra though.

  • Markand Thakar says:

    I’m pleased to be able to write, paraphrasing that great American man of letters Mark Twain, that the report of its imminent death has been greatly exaggerated.

    And by “it” I mean the teaching of conducting in the US. While it’s true that a generation of venerated pedagogues will be exiting the scene in the coming years, there comes behind to fill the gap a number of bright, dedicated, committed teachers with a great deal to offer.

    But can conducting be taught? It can as much as playing the viola can be taught, or the piano, or yodeling, or cooking. Just as can a teacher of any of those other pursuits, I can set standards for my students and show them how to meet them…in the case of conductors, it’s standards of musical understanding and physical control. Just as students of those other pursuits, how accomplished they become is a function of their talent and hard work.

    Speaking for myself, in addition to serving as Co-Director of Graduate Conducting at Peabody where I teach close to half the weeks, I run not one but two annual conductor training programs with the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, attended by some 25 conductors from around the world. http://www.thebco.org/conducting. If you watch the video you’ll see one Caleb Young extolling its virtues.

  • Mark Stringer says:

    Interesting point by Caleb, which touches a point I’ve noticed for a while, and also incidentally mentions me by class if not by name. If I may add a thought: leaving the States to study in Europe no longer means abandoning the U.S. conducting tradition. I am American and a Juilliard/Jorge Mester product; I became Leopold Hager’s successor as conducting teacher at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna in 2005. For much of that time, the other leading Austrian conservatory’s conducting class (the Mozarteum in Salzburg) was also led by an American Juilliard/Jorge Mester product, Dennis Russell Davies (quite a legacy for Mester!). In Germany, the American Scott Sandmeier, an MTT protege, has led the conducting department in Freiburg-am-Breisgau, and is one of the very few expats to be asked to bring his teaching talents back to the States, starting a conducting program at the San Francisco Conservatory. In the UK, Manchester’s unparalleled conducting program is headed by the American Clark Rundell. The globalised cross-feeding works both ways, with the Americans studying in Europe being welcomed back to work in the summer in Aspen, Colorado, the Monteux School, etc. This summer alone, by coincidence (and talent), 40% of the conducting class in Aspen will come from my class in Vienna, including an American who came to Vienna specifically to mix the cultural heritage gained in this city with my U.S.-inspired teaching method. No longer do you have to stay in the States to study with Americans. The world of conducting studies has become as globalised as the rest of the world, and this is a good thing.

    • Allan Brick says:

      The fact that 40% of the students attending Aspen this summer come from your class in Wien only shows that the world of conducting, and conducting training, works by who-you-know and who-are-my-friends-who-can-help-my-students, and not by only talent and skill. Talented musicians are trained around the world to be conductors in world-famous and not-so-well-known institutions… some people trained in the earlier are more likely to get big international careers because of the connections they mentors there can provide them with than those who attend not-so-famous schools, even when often they are as, or more, talented and better trained than their colleagues at the famous.

      I have met extremely talented conductors trained in the small and obscure Musikhochschules in Würzburg and Nürnberg, at the Royal Welsh College of Music, Kunstuniversität Graz, Bard College Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati–College-Conservatory of Music, Meadows School of the Arts, CUA-Benjamin T. Rome etc. that are more talented, knowledgeable and skilled than those from Juilliard, Curtis, Mannes, Wien, Mozarteum, UdK Berlin, Royal Academy of Music, Sibelius, Royal Northern College of Music etc.

      • Johannes W. says:

        BOOOOOM! Allan Brick has made an excellent point. And I don’t think Prof. Stringer should boast about the number of his students attending Aspen; acceptance on those courses are 10% talent and 90% political connections (and I have been to Aspen during David Zinman and Murry Sidlin).

  • Mark Stringer says:

    And two additional comments:
    1. there are just as many brilliant Europeans coming to study in America, for instance the German Christian Reif, who studied at Juilliard, works with MTT in Miami and will be a fellow in Tanglewood this summer. This “Autobahn” has two lanes!
    2. Perhaps (in my view) America’s strength has shifted from the conservatories to the summer or postgradual programs in Aspen, Tanglewood, Monteux School, and Miami (New World Symphony). There are no remotely comparable European programs. Having said that, any conservatory with Gustav Meier on its faculty must be considered Mecca, and the Fellowship program in Ithaca led by Dr. Jeffery Meyer, modelled on Rundell’s Manchester Fellowship, has quickly become The Place To Go. The landscape in the US has simply shifted, not disappeared.

  • william osborne says:

    It does matter where one studies conducting. Talent or not, it’s an art form with concepts and techniques that need to be learned. And conductors need a rich orchestral landscape to develop their talents. The Sibelius Academy in Helsinki does an excellent job of teaching those skills, and Finland with 5.5 million people, has the highest ratio of orchestras per capita in the world. So this tiny country has three conductors on the world stage: Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, and Osmo Vänskä. If California had the same per capita ratio, it would have 17 conductors of the world stage. The USA would have 58. Instead both have zero.

    The language of the comment reveals some ironies: “The stern, yet lovable, Victor Yampolsky is still manning the helm at Bienen. But for how much longer? Peabody’s lionized Gustav Meier is still flying from Ann Arbor to Baltimore to teach his talented class of budding maestros, even in his 80s.”

    Ah the patriarchy of stern and loveable old lionized father figures manning positions, and the worship of Maestros as “gurus.”

    From this perspective, the gradual decay of the “The Maestro” might be a measure of a country’s social and cultural progress. Along with the on-going death of orchestras, it might lead to forms of intelligent, artful music-making more in line with the modern world. The success of classical music in Scandinavia might be because they are the last countries in the world so bourgeoisie and uniform that they can embrace the art form without a certain amount of embarrassment.

  • Mark Mortimer says:


    I’m a predecessor of yours in the conducting Faculty at I.U. I studied there on the Masters Programme in the late 90’s.Tx for your article- interesting.

    I know David Effron well- although he wasn’t my principal conducting teacher at the time. I’m glad that you’re learning good things from him.To be honest- the conducting faculty was fairly weak during my time there. We didn’t get enough time in front of the IU orchestras and the teaching could have been much more inspirational, although it was based on very solid- mid European conducting/Kapellmeister tradition.

    There are probably much better places to study conducting in the US- such as Peabody, Curtis Institute or Juilliard. In England- we do not train conductors at all well- there are so few institutions offering it in the first place. The ideal are the European centres of excellence such as Helsinki, Vienna, Berlin and probably still St. Petersburg. The only reason being is that these places have excellent pedagogues, who’ve thought long and hard about how to nurture and train talented young podium aspirants.

    Any experienced conductor will tell you that, whilst they might have learnt a bit about conducting at conservatoire- baton technique- score preparation etc, they only really learnt their craft through working with both professional/amateur groups in the big wide world and making a helluva lot of mistakes along the way.