Accommodating the Guest Conductor: The Making of a Good Host

Many music educators will, no doubt, be put in the position of finding a guest conductor to work with their instrumental or choral programs at some point.  These types of “guest conductor” programs typically include: individual school districts, county, district, regional, state, honor ensembles, or any one of the numerous programs offered by schools and organizations today.  Regardless of the magnitude of the performance, the guest conductor should be made to feel as comfortable as possible and have the opportunity to create the best performance possible with the students.  There are many things that the host can do to afford the conductor the best opportunities for creating a successful experience for the students…

~Before the conductor arrives

One of the biggest problems guest conductors deal with before they arrive at their host’s school is the lack of clear communication between the host and the guest conductor prior to the arrival.  These problems comprise of many seemingly small problems, but these “small” problems frequently accumulate and turn into major disasters…

*What level or kind of program will the guest conductor be conducting?

Many times a conductor is not completely made aware of the level of prowess of the group they are to conduct.  The host can simplify this problem by giving the conductor ample information about the group they will be conducting in their initial conversations.  One of the most important things to consider when conversing about the group’s ability is that all bands (county, district, etc.) are not of equal playing ability from year to year.  The best policy is to be honest with the guest conductor (GC) from the start.  Many GCs have been surprised when they get to the first rehearsal and find that their so-called “great group” is not great as they have been led to believe and their selected music is too hard for them to play.

The exact opposite scenario may happen as well…. the music selected may be too easy and not enough of a challenge for the group.  The host can really help out the guest conductor by sending the GC sample programs and recordings from previous years.  This will allow the conductor to view and listen to the kinds of literature that was performed (is possible) by the group and the ability to adjust the selection of music accordingly.

On a similar a note, the guest conductor should be told if they will be responsible for selecting the music or if the host is making the selections (this does happen from time to time).  If the guest conductor is to select the music, make sure that they are clear on the expected program length and abilities of the group to be conducted.  If the hosting organization already has an existing literature library available for “cost reasons”, the holding list should be sent as soon to the GC as soon as s/he is chosen (Don’t forget that organizations need to support composers and the creation of new music too by purchasing music as their allowances!)

 *How formal is the festival/concert?

Most GCs will automatically assume that the event that they were hired to do will be formal and plan to wear very formal attire (i.e. Tux).  However, there are times when a lesser degree of formality will be accepted or appropriate.  Many inter-school programs held in a school assembly format will state that a suit or nice dress is acceptable and often times preferred.  Notifying the guest conductor from the on-set may settle some of their concerns.

*What is the instrumentation?

This is one of the most over-looked over aspects of communication with the GC.   GC’s will assume a standard instrumentation and usually -this is the case, but with smaller schools our county bands sometimes the lack of a particular section (or particularly weak section) can really surprise the GC.  What instrumentation will the guest conductor  be working with?  How many instruments or people will be on each part?  Is the ensemble heavy in trumpets and lean on the flutes?  Is it a well balanced ensemble?  Likewise for the choral conductor – Is the ensemble light in the bass section and overflowing in the altos?  Knowing these types of things “up front” will allow the GC to select pieces that highlight the strong sections and help minimize the problems of a weaker section.  For example:  What would happen if an instrumental guest conductor selects a piece with a soaring horn section soli, only to find out at the first rehearsal that they have horn players of nominal abilities?

*What is the rehearsal schedule?

 GC’s like to, well-in-advance, have the rehearsal schedule that their hosts will have the group following.  Will there be a lot of short sessions or will there be many long ones?   Knowing this allows the conductor to begin to formulate the approach they will take when they arrive with regard to rehearsing the program.  GC’s always appreciate the ability to have some flexibility with regard to the schedules.   This flexibility will allow for the GC to use schedules that they have found to work best for them or meet the needs of the group they are working with.

* Does the guest conductor know exactly how to get to your school and the accommodations that are being provided?

Often, something as simple as getting ACCURATE driving-directions to the guest conductor is overlooked….  Do they know what time they are to arrive?  The initial conversations with the GC should include information about whether or not the housing accommodations are being provided or if they are to provide their accommodations with money that has been included in their honorarium.  If they are to find their own accommodations, provide them with phone numbers, Websites, and addresses (possibly directions) to the hotels or motels that are recommended in the area.  Helping them with simple things such as directions, contact numbers, and accurate information will go a long way in establishing good relations right from the beginning.

* If the guest conductor is flying in, will someone be meeting them at the airport? What arrangements have been made if not?

~The arrival of the guest conductor

The guest conductor arrives, the host is nowhere to be found.  Thoughts of terror go through the conductor’s mind: “Am I at the right school?  Am I early?  Am I late? Where do I go?  Why isn’t anybody here to greet me?  I wonder where the principal’s office is, so I can find some directions?” Many schools will not even let them in to the door now with the security procedures now established… did you remember to inform the administration that someone was coming?

This type of scenario (above) has happened to more than one guest conductor, including myself.  The host should try to be as organized and in “front of things” as possible.  Make the GC’s visit both pleasant and worry-free.  The host can meet these needs by making sure some of these preliminary tasks are accomplished:

*Make sure someone is there to great the guest conductor upon arrival

Most guest conductors are not familiar with the facility they are arriving at and don’t know where the rehearsal area is (or anything else for that matter).  Many hosts seem to forget about this and assume that the GC will intuitively find their way to the practice area(s).  This is usually not the case and does not make a good first impression.  If the host is standing by or has someone else looking for the conductor upon their arrival, they can expedite the time in finding the correct area and remove any apprehensions the conductor may have when arriving.  It goes without saying, but cell phone numbers should be exchanged prior to the first day so communication can be established should anything go wrong with the arrival times. 

*Have an information packet available for the guest conductor

GCs appreciate when a personalized information packet is provided to them as soon as they arrive.  When putting together one of these packets be sure to include:

1. A school map

2. An area map (county or city)

3. School phone numbers (include the music office, etc)

4. Day to Day Schedule of the program or festival

5. Local Restaurants, Local Points-of-Interest, and directions to any off-site event

6. The printed concert program (multiple copies if possible)

7. Names of important people related to the event and their titles

8. The day-to-day itinerary

*Make sure the guest conductor has a printed itinerary

Giving the GC itinerary of the planned schedule is very important –the sooner the better.  This will allow them to plan their day and be where they need to be at the correct times (especially any adjusted rehearsal or concert times). When planning an itinerary, make sure that some flexibility is allowed for the GC.  The GC may decide that they need a few extra minutes to complete a piece or allow the students to go early after a great rehearsal.  Someone should be available to answer the GC’s questions at all times during the day.  Often once the rehearsal starts, the attending school directors disappear for long periods of time…

Some GCs  like to eat lunch with the attending directors, while others like to eat lunch with the students of their ensembles.  Don’t be so strict with the itinerary that there is no room for minor GC modifications or preferences.

*Don’t forget that the attending schools directors are responsible for the behavior of the students.

Although we like to think of the students attending a “honors” concert as the more “well- behaved and “serious” students, often some problems still appear during the event.  Don’t let a guest conductor be embarrassed by a few poorly behaved students.  Most guest conductors don’t like to have to take on the role of the disciplinarian (especially in more severe cases).  “Nip” these kinds of problems in the “bud” by making the students realize that the guest conductor is exactly that -a GUEST.  If there is a problem, take care of it immediately, don’t let it linger.

*Try not to add any surprises to the guest conductor’s schedule.

Some hosts assume that the GC will be able to provide an extra workshop or make a speech at a banquet or have a special dinner with the a local dignitary.  Although most GCs would be happy to perform a couple of unscheduled events, try to give them some advance notification ot them.   They will be very appreciative that they have had some time to prepare for the unplanned event.

~The main performance

The performance is two minutes from starting, the guest conductor is in the wings waiting to go on… The host is no where to be found and the conductor  is not sure which cue is their entrance…

The time of the performance is a culmination of the host’s work in preparing and facilitating this event and the work of the GC in preparing the music with the students.  This should go as “smooth as silk”.  There are a few things the host can do to make sure that this happens:

*Make sure the conductor has a place to change or prepare before the concert

A dressing room away from the students is always preferred.  Many guest conductors, even if they change clothes before they arrive, like to have a place to gather their thoughts and mentally prepare for upcoming concert (this place is also appreciated during the day(s) as well).

*Insure that they know exactly the events that will take place before they are to enter the stage

The host may have the head of their department give an introduction.  The dean of the school or principal may introduce the host.  The host may give a brief biography of the guest conductor.  Whatever the case is, make sure that GC knows the sequence of events.

*Check the sound system thoroughly before the event and inform the conductor of any special          operational procedures.

There is nothing more embarrassing for the GC and the host than to walk up to a mic and speak, only not to be heard.  The traditional “TAP, TAP, TAP -IS THIS ON? CAN YOUHEAR ME?” soon follows.  This sometimes can be avoided if the GC knows ahead of time whether or not they have to switch the mic on or if it will be controlled by the auditorium staff.  Many times a simple sound check before the house opens can solve a lot of the potential sound-related problems.

*Have water available off stage or near the podium.

Being under the lights, vigorously conducting can sometimes cause dry mouth syndrome. This problem can be solved by having water available for the conductor.  A conductor is better off taking a drink of water than sounding dry at the mic or even worse… passing out on the host’s stage.  Again, an ample supply of water/refreshments is always appreciated throughout the GC’s rehearsals.

*Decide ahead of time how the concert will close.

Deciding on the concert’s conclusion ahead of time will clear up any confusion after the last piece of music is performed.  Will the guest conductor say the closing remarks?  Will the host come onto the stage and congratulate the guest conductor?  Will the host make the closing remarks?  Will the guest conductor simply walk off the stage?  Will there be an award presentation?  Will the host come back on to the stage and bow with along side?  Many different situations may happen and the host may have a particular one in mind, but simply not inform the guest conductor as to which one… communication, communication, communication….

~After the concert is completed

The concert has ended, the curtain has closed, the host’s job has ended.  Not quite just yet!  There are few follow-up things that every host should consider:

*Is the guest conductor expected to greet the audience members on their way out?

Some hosts like their GC to stand out in the hallway/lobby and greet the parents and audience members after the concert is over. Make sure that you inform the guest conductor if you want them to meet and greet the audience at the conclusion of the program or their are any other “after the concert” requests.

*Make sure the guest conductor has all their needs gathered before they leave.

As host, one last farewell gesture that can be provided before the guest conductor leaves is to make sure they have all their belongings.  A GC can get things spread out over quite a large area during their stay.  Also, make sure that they know the best route to take to start their journey back home.  If arrangements have been discussed ahead of time to pay them at the end of the concert, by all means do so as soon as possible.   Don’t make the guest conductor linger around waiting for the “check”!

*Send a thank you note.

GCs appreciate a follow up thank you note as much as anyone else.  If there were any news related articles about the concert, include them in the note.  Many times the GC never hears whether or not the program was a success or how the community responded to their concerts – be sure to include comments about the concert and how it was received in the thank-you…

Putting it all together

As the host, do just what the title implies…HOST.  Common sense and most of all – common courtesy are the rule of the day.  Make the GC’s time with the event as comfortable as possible.  Good Information flow cannot be stressed enough.  The more information and correspondence between the host and guest conductor before, during and after the program the better the experience will be for all the parties involved.  Hosts have high expectations that their students will have a good experience with the GC; this experience is no different that the expectation that the GC expects to be provided to them by a good host.

I certainly haven’t covered everything in the post about hosting… it’s not intended to be host manual, but rather a number of tips and ideas for thought.  Please feel free to add your own comments about hosting below.  In addition, please share your experiences either as a host or guest conductor in the comment section below.

Joseph M. Pisano, Ph.D. is the creator of many education websites, a lecturer, clinician, trumpeter, and conductor. He is currently the Associate Chair of Music and Director of Bands in the Calderwood School of Arts at Grove City College in PA. He been named a TI:ME Teacher of the Year, received the JEN Jazz Educator Award and the PA Citation of Excellence. He is a past Vice President of the Technology Institute for Music Educators and the current Vice-President of the PA Intercollegiate Bandmasters Association. He also writes for DCI Magazine, Teaching Music Magazine, and is the Educational Editor for In-Tune Monthly Magazine; he has contributed hundreds of articles to various publications. Find out more at his website jpisano.com.
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