Name: Duncan Ward
Duncan Ward is a conductor, composer and musician, who at 22 has already worked with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic with Sir Simon Rattle, and the National Youth Orchestra. Duncan started out in his first years of secondary school composing and conducting a production based on Alice in Wonderland. He now works on a variety of projects, as well as composing, and running the WAM Foundation which he co-founded to teach classical music across India.
Hi Duncan. So, you’re a conductor…
Yes, I’m involved in conducting a variety of orchestras, opera, choirs and instrumental ensembles in a variety of places and contexts around the world. At the moment my typical week might look anything like going to Germany for an engagement with a top orchestra like the Bamberg Symphony (working for a few days in rehearsal on a Mozart programme and then giving a concert), directing cutting-edge new works with the International Contemporary Ensemble in New York, or leading workshops and recording sessions in my work as music director for Streetwise Opera’s next production. Streetwise are an amazing UK-based organisation who stage critically-acclaimed opera productions starring homeless performers, using music to help them move forward in their lives. We currently have 150 homeless people around the country working towards a big new production next year, as well as performing in a major event at the Royal Opera House this summer as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
How did you end up doing this?
Good question. I come from a big multi-talented family, but not a musical one by any means, so it wasn’t an obvious choice. One of my sisters was given a keyboard one Christmas and I think I started having some lessons as a result of spending more time prodding it than anyone else! The pivotal figure for me came at my secondary school with head of music Simon Hayward. He was a great guy, a real livewire and gave me a lot of encouragement. He would set me little composing tasks, and when I came back with ideas he would say 'ok now let’s try that out with some musicians'.
So it turned out that in the first summer of my secondary school life I went home and decided to write a full-scale musical based on Alice in Wonderland.
When I got back to school he had a look and said ‘Great - I won’t have enough time, but if you direct it and organise it all, we’ll put it on’. So aged thirteen that turned out to be my conducting debut, plunged in at the deep end combining orchestra, big band, choir and soloists, a pretty steep learning curve.
I was interested in all sorts of musical performance at this stage, but one realisation that I was perhaps a budding conductor came whilst sat at the back of orchestras as a French horn player. I was never particularly brilliant because I was more interested in what everyone else was doing, thinking ‘wouldn’t it be nice if the cellos were phrasing like this here’, or ‘isn’t it interesting how they’re doing that’, always thinking about the bigger picture rather than purely what I was supposed to be doing! I took my first official conducting lessons with Andrew Morley at Junior Trinity, a Saturday music school in Greenwich, which was really great, and there was also some opportunity for classes at the National Youth Orchestra. From a young age I was also ballet dancing and artistic roller skating, and I think that experience of choreography and thought about body gesture and expressiveness must have also helped develop my conducting skills.
Later at the University of Manchester, I was selected along with one other as conductor of the student symphony orchestra. To be able to work with the players so regularly and program all sorts of interesting repertoires was a fantastic opportunity.
The big challenge young conductors face is having people to conduct. There’s only so much preparation you can do on your own, so this was an ideal training ground.
I made sure I was videoing what I was doing, so I could watch it back and work on improving, but I also found that to enter for competitions and opportunities to perform with symphony orchestras around the world you have to send off videos of yourself conducting, and it was only really a few years back that I sent off a batch of applications and several came up trumps. So the first professional orchestra I got to conduct was the London Symphony Orchestra in a masterclass with Valery Gergiev, which was just amazing. Suddenly these incredible musicians are responding to your every gesture without you having to say anything.
Typically in these opportunities I was one of three conductors chosen worldwide, and often the other two were much older and more experienced, so it was a real privilege. Each time I was learning what it was all about, with guidance from great conductors such as Daniel Barenboim or Pierre Boulez.
Is conducting a common choice for young musicians?
Lots of young musicians do really want to be conductors but it’s a very competitive field. In an orchestral context there’s only one conductor (unless you happen to be doing Stockhausen’s Gruppen which requires three), so perhaps alongside being a solo concert pianist it’s one of the most competitive fields, and one of the more elusive to try and get into.
That’s not to discourage it, because it’s more than possible but it’s very much a matter of trying to find your own way, because there isn’t a set route at all.
Lots of young conductors find setting up their own orchestra or ensemble is a good way to do it. Or if you happen to be handy on the piano too, then starting by working as a repetiteur training the singers in an opera house can also be a great way to gain experience and find a foot on the ladder. I’ve been lucky in that from the many different sorts of projects I’ve been involved with, word of mouth has led to other opportunities. One of the top classical music agencies took me on at the end of last year (Askonas Holt). An agent’s job is to help you find more engagements and generally manage your career, also assisting with things like arranging your contracts, travel and accommodation, so that you can focus more on what you’re doing musically.
How does it work out as a ‘job’? Who do you work for?
At the moment I’m mostly doing freelance guest engagements – typically for a week at a time – where I work for a particular symphony orchestra or opera house somewhere. The work with Streetwise Opera is a long term 1.5 year engagement, with patches of more concentrated involvement within that period but not usually amounting to more than a few days a month.
Opportunities to assist other conductors are also hugely valuable at this stage, and last week I was working with Sir Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic on Wagner’s Die Walküre, which was incredible.
In the longer term the plan would be to get appointed as Music Director or Principal Conductor of an orchestra or opera company where that’s your main attachment for five years or more and you do a certain number of concerts each season with them in addition to guest engagements. That’s great because in working with the same group of musicians a lot, you can really build on that partnership and relationship, enabling you to realise greater ambitions together and make performances that are more artistically rewarding for everyone.
Education or experience?
It’s always a matter of maintaining a healthy balance. You have to be extremely disciplined as a musician and put in those hours of private practice time, but it’s just as important to immerse yourself in the cultural surroundings - opera, concerts, theatre, art exhibitions, literature, and of all different origins and nationalities too, or even just hanging out with other creative friends.
There are musicians who can become too isolated and practice-obsessed, and in the end it can mean that the music you produce is technically fantastic but lacking a bit of real life and inspiration behind it.
Music’s an absolute and pure art form but it’s inevitably always wrapped up in the culture surrounding it. It’s important to do that stuff as well!
From the conductor’s point of view, what goes into putting on a big performance?
It involves probably a few years in advance discussing what the programme will be, what music you want to perform, although it’s generally by no means a blank canvas. You’ll be working with the orchestra management and artistic planning team to fit in with their season and the things they’re interested in you doing. Their practical considerations often have to go into your choice of music too, how many players would be involved, do you need an extra soloist, who will it be, all those sorts of things. Then if it’s a piece that’s new to you, or even one you’ve done several times before, there’s a lot of studying to do.
You really have to know the works inside out, what every single instrument is doing in every moment, but also developing a grasp of the entire structure as a whole, even if that’s four hours of music.
Then you arrive at the rehearsal period. How long you get depends on the country. The Brits are renowned for their sight reading ability, so in the UK rehearsal time with professional orchestras is extremely limited, it might be something like four hours and a dress rehearsal, so really very short. On the continent you might get a week’s rehearsal time. That’s your time with the orchestra, and they’re responding to what you’re doing but you’re also listening and seeing the way they do it. It’s a collaboration, everyone’s listening and watching. They are great musicians but as individuals they could each have a different view on the way this masterpiece we’re playing should go. Your job is to help them play as well as they can for you, but also unite each member behind your interpretation so they play as a single organism. And hopefully that’s fun! There are of course cases where the particular orchestra/conductor relationship doesn’t work so well. That’s not necessarily a reflection of either that’s just a normal human relationship thing.
Then you’re ready to do one or a number of concerts, and the beauty of the music as a live art form is that anything could happen! If the ingredients are right you can continue to spontaneously sculpt your interpretation in real time, a thrilling experience for everyone present.
What takes up most of your time?
Learning scores does take a long time even if you’re quite fast at it, though it’s always a stimulating process. There’s also inevitably a certain amount of admin and emails and things. And then almost every day even if I’m not actually physically conducting an orchestra that day I will have gone to see a concert or opera or seen a rehearsal or met some musicians or perhaps an orchestra manager about a new project. There’s no such thing as a free day.
If it were mid season and I was off conducting somewhere then another thing you spend a lot of time doing is travelling, between hotels, airports, concert halls.
I love that aspect too though, you might not always have a chance to see the tourist sites but it’s a great way to discover new places and cultures.
What challenges do you face?
I think one of the biggest challenges in the role of a conductor is in the social dynamics. When you’re there with an orchestra, somehow bringing everybody enthusiastically on board behind a vision of the music whilst also keeping the support of the other people surrounding the orchestra is a big responsibility. As a young conductor, you’re sometimes working on brand new pieces but often with works that were written 200 years ago and have been done a huge number of times by great artists since then in so many different ways, and you’re then working with an orchestra who collectively have thousands of years more experience than you. Negotiating the psychological side of that and coming not with new ideas just for the sake of it, but bringing a fresh perspective on what already has such tradition is an exciting challenge. Not a burden but certainly a challenge.
You’ve also got nothing to hide behind as a conductor, not even a piccolo. Your body is your instrument and so you had better make sure that your gestures are true to yourself and not copied from someone three feet shorter or taller than you!
How much do you work?
All the time, but in a good way in that frankly this is what I would want to spend my time on even if it wasn’t called work.
I’m not always very good at giving myself plenty of sleep, but there’s really nothing else to complain about.
I live and breathe my ‘work’ I suppose, but whether I’m standing in front of an orchestra realising some Debussy, or sat in the garden on a sunny day looking at a score of Janáček, I can’t imagine a better profession.
Who would make a good conductor?
Someone with a deep, deep love of music and a keen ear of course, but also with a natural energy for bringing people together behind a common goal. Confidence is pretty fundamental, though that can grow with experience. You’ve got to be able to communicate musical ideas with your face and body gestures, so you don’t rely on words.
What’s the best part of your job?
Meeting and working with inspiring people all the time. Whether that’s a celebrated singer or instrumentalist or working with students in India or the performers at Streetwise, I’ve met so many incredible people who share a passion for music.
And what’s the worst bit?
Emails. I know it’s important but I do find it draining sometimes. If I sit there doing a couple of hours of admin I just think ‘I could have been playing the piano’! But it’s crucial to stay in contact with a huge range of people.
What advice would you give to a budding conductor?
Grab every opportunity you can possibly get, and even if it seems a bit strange or uninteresting or isn’t at all financially rewarding or doesn’t even look very musically rewarding, it will be a valuable experience of some sort. You never know who will be there, what you’ll learn and what you’ll get out of it.
Don’t say no!
Is there anything you’d change about your job?
Is there anything you hope to achieve in your career?
Many things…perhaps above all to bring classical music to as many people as possible round the world. Pretty much on a daily basis I am presented with yet another example of the power it has to change and enrich lives.
I think there will always be more artists that I would love to work with, across a number of different disciplines too, and new music to discover and old music to perform better. There are some pieces which are so special and big that it would be a journey to get there, things I wouldn’t feel I have the experience or gravity to attempt yet but I will in due course.
But as a composer too, perhaps the epitome would be to write a major opera and be involved in performing it, somewhere good!
Is it about who you know not what you know?
Yes inevitably who you know does work alongside what you know, but that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a good idea to go round networking. I’ve found that actually it’s been the times when I‘ve just been purely focused on what I’m doing musically and having fun with a particular project that someone's come along and happened to have seen it and said hello. Those have been the moments rather than desperately going round trying to meet people who might be influential.
The best recommendations you can get are from word of mouth of someone who’s seen you in action.
Can it be a short lived career?
If you’re unlucky it could be. If as an excitable young conductor you took on too much too soon, so that you didn’t have space to really develop as you should or ended up sometimes performing to less than the best of your ability, it could be easy to burn yourself out and stop receiving invitations. On the other hand, if things do turn out well - and that doesn’t mean being ridiculously famous, but if you find some ensembles you love working with that happen to also love working with you - you could still be doing that in your 80s.
What’s your backup plan?
I’ve always been very interested in literature and languages, and food actually. Yeah, maybe I’d become a chef!