Women Conducting

(P1)This time two years ago, Marin Alsop was preparing to conduct the Last Night of the BBC Proms – the first woman to do so. On Saturday, she returns to conduct the Last Night, but she is still the only woman to do so in the Proms’ 120-year history, while it was only 30 years previously, in 1984, that Odaline de la Martinez became the first woman to conduct at the Proms at all. We’re making slow progress!

(P2) In the traditional Last Night conductor’s speech in 2013, Alsop said: “I want to say to all the young women out there, and as I say to all young people, believe in yourselves, follow your passion and never give up, because you will create a future filled with possibility.”

(P3) I graduated from university over 20 years ago and have been working across the UK, and from St Petersburg to Singapore, as a conductor ever since. Although female conductors are enjoying more success these days, they are still a RARITY. I have always wanted to be judged simply as a conductor, rather than a female conductor.

(P4) In a 2013 interview, I pointed out that very few women have chosen to become conductors, and this was unlikely to change unless we did something. Now was the time to normalise the idea of women in this role. I decided to become an ADVOCATE for women conductors and take PROACTIVE steps to inspire young women. I was inspired to create the Women Conductors program at London’s Morley College.

(P5) We ran a successful pilot course for 16- to 19-year-olds last year and are continuing and developing the course for this year. For 2015-16, we now have a two-phase program: the first is UK-wide WORKSHOPS for female music students, the second is for female musicians over 19, with no upper age limit.

(P6) Creating ROLE MODELS for women is important. Some of today’s most successful conductors have all agreed to run workshops. Women will see leading female conductors in action, which is CRUCIAL. When, 20 years ago, I first saw female conductors, it was such a relief – I could truly relate to them. My female colleagues have always been an inspiration. I saw Joana Carneiro conducting at the English National Opera recently, and it was THRILLING to watch her. She was in control, powerful, but also absolutely herself. Yet it struck me, thinking of the thousands of performances I’ve attended, how rare it still is to see a woman at the PODIUM.

(P7) There’s a core of women who know they want to conduct, and I’m delighted to encourage them. However, there are hundreds of qualified women who are still RETICENT about taking part in these workshops. Training to be a conductor is tough, because the real practical experience is so public. Conductors have to spend hours learning scores in private, and a certain amount of work can be done on BATON technique. But actually practising your “instrument,” which is the orchestra, has to be done in front of lots of people. When it goes wrong – which it will sometimes do – there’s no hiding. Are women more RELUCTANT to make mistakes in public than men are? Do they judge themselves, and are they judged by others more HARSHLY? These may be GENERALIZATIONS, but perhaps there’s some truth there.

(P8) My first experience of conducting, aged 18, was MORTIFYING – I was so nervous and had no idea how I was going to tell people what to do. It was the last profession I imagined entering. But I was forced to conduct because I was an organ scholar at university: organists are expected to VENTURE from the relative safety of the organ loft and wave their hands about in the front of the CHOIR. Some have more APTITUDE for it than others, but many conductors start their career as organists. It took me two or three embarrassing years trying to conduct the chapel choir and college music society before I suddenly realised I loved it. It’s less lonely and cold than an organ loft, and you can’t play wrong notes!

(P9) I don’t want to force anyone to conduct, and it’s certainly not for everyone. But I want to inspire young women and show them that conducting is an option – something that they may not have even considered before – and these workshops offer a safe place to HAVE A GO.

WORDS: 730



If you found the passage difficult to read or had problems understanding specific words or idiomatic expressions, please discuss them with your tutor. The following discussion questions should be answered in your own words and with your own arguments.

  1. Briefly summarize the content of the article in your own words.
  2. Have you ever been to a symphony orchestra concert?
  3. Conducting is a leadership role. Do you think that women are becoming more comfortable with being leaders?
  4. The author of the article, conductor Alice Farnham, suggests that women in general may be more reluctant to expose themselves to the possibilities of failure and public criticism. Do you think that is true?
  5. The author also suggests that the best way to FOSTER female conductors is “women helping women.” Have you seen examples of women helping women in your own life?


What do the following expressions mean? Practice using each expression in a sentence; extra points if you can use it in conversation.

  • Role model
  • Have a go

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