"Every time someone starts to sing or play, get in front of them and wave your arms."
--Donald Barra on how to get started as a conductor
Getting a start as a conductor is no easy task. And once trained in the conductor's art, landing an orchestra is even more challenging.
"The conducting field is very, very competitive," said Prof. Donald Barra, head of San Diego State University's graduate conducting program. "Several years ago, the Santa Barbara Symphony advertised for a new conductor and received more than 500 applications. They interviewed 50, saw 11, and finally invited four candidates to conduct the symphony before they made their choice."
But, despite the odds against landing an orchestral post, and the traditional bias of American symphony boards against American conductors, some young musicians are eager to enter the fray.
SDSU's graduate conducting program aims to prepare them for musical combat. For the last three years, Barra has guided the program, which leads to a master of music degree in conducting.
Other faculty members work with students who wish to specialize in musical theater or choral conducting, but Barra's tutelage of students in orchestra conducting is the heart of the program. Barra not only conducts the SDSU symphony, but is now in his sixth season as music director of the San Diego Chamber Orchestra, the area's only professional chamber orchestra.
Barra said some people start out conducting a church choir, which is one of the easier ways to obtain experience, or by coaxing friends to form some sort of instrumental ensemble.
"I was lucky, because, when I was a high school student, my teacher gave me the junior band to conduct."
Once bitten by the conducting bug, Barra never put down his baton. He pursued his conducting studies at Eastman, Juilliard, and Columbia University. He wrote a book on conducting, "The Dynamic Performance," and came to SDSU as its orchestra conductor in 1983.
Before Barra accepts students for the SDSU graduate program, they must have demonstrable conducting ability. Prospective candidates are videotaped conducting the SDSU Symphony; then Barra reviews the tape and the candidate's resume.
"Many of our candidates are teachers who conduct ensembles in middle schools or high schools, but others have professional orchestra experience."
Violinist Navroj Mehta, Zubin's nephew and one of Barra's four proteges this year, had just spent a year and a half as concertmaster of Miami's New World Symphony. A graduate of Indiana University and the Juilliard School, Mehta had pursued his nascent conducting interests at summer music festivals.
"I came to SDSU because of the assurance of podium time," said the 26-year-old musician. "There are not many places to study conducting, and the few places tend to be difficult to get into. In the larger schools, the training orchestras the conducting students have to work with are so terrible musically that 50% of the time you do get is of questionable value."
Barra also listed the opportunity to conduct the University Symphony as the program's greatest attraction. On the University Symphony's opening fall concert, for example, Mehta conducted Charles Ives' Variations on "America" and his fellow graduate student T. C. Tomaselli conducted a Stamitz viola concerto.
By contrast with her orchestra-conducting colleagues, Mimi Dominguez, a graduate conducting student specializing in musical theater, has had a generous portion of coveted podium time. Last semester, she conducted an early Mozart one-act opera, "Bastien and Bastienne," on a music department program, and this fall she was music director for a production of the Rodgers and Hart musical "The Boys From Syracuse."
"That was kind of a dream project," said Dominguez, "I not only conducted and coached the singers, but I even auditioned every cast member. With 10 performances of the work (in SDSU's Experimental Theatre) I had a lot of time to make this piece work. The orchestra conductors have just one chance, just a single concert performance for a whole semester's work."
Barra noted that the conducting students' access to the orchestra is also restricted by a continually diminishing number of string players. With able string players in short supply, those recruited for university orchestras become increasingly unwilling to spend precious rehearsal time with peers' who are still learning the basics of podium demeanor.
"There are just not enough string players, and the situation is not getting any better," Barra noted. "There are very few string performance majors out there, which does not bode well for the future. This appears to be a result of the lack of music education in the public school system. Some 10 to 15 years ago, there were excellent student orchestras in the public schools. It goes in cycles in this country. Many of the best string players filling the ranks today are from the Oriental countries."
In recent semesters, Barra has augmented weak string sections of the University Symphony by inviting members of Zoltan Rozsynai's International Orchestra, most of whom come from China, to perform with Barra's orchestra.
"It may be ironic that Eastern cultures are emulating parts of Western music that we are neglecting," Barra mused. Some of his conducting students acquire podium experience in front of the university's wind ensembles, even though the repertory of these ensembles is not traditional orchestral fare.
The shortage of qualified string players may prove to be a clear advantage for an aspiring conductor such as Mehta. When asked what his next step will be after his SDSU program, he replied, facetiously:
"Probably as an assistant conductor in a semi-lousy orchestra. Actually, it's more likely that I would take a violin position under a conductor I know and respect and look for a youth orchestra in that city to conduct. While my overall goal is to conduct a major orchestra, building a conducting career is a long process. You can't rush it."
Besides practical experience in front of an orchestra, Barra's students analyze scores and study historical styles under his guidance.
"As an experienced conductor, Barra confines himself to given truths about conducting, which is 100% invaluable," Mehta said.
Since the SDSU program is a relatively young one, Barra said, it is too early to point to graduates who are now conducting professional orchestras.
"A Swedish student who graduated last year, Mats Ryden, returned to Sweden, where he is conducting, although we don't know where he is."