Our guest speaker was the absolutely delightful and dynamic Doctor Carolyn Watson. She is the current, and inaugural, conductor-in-residence at the Conservatorium High School. Carolyn told us that it was not originally her intention to pursue conducting but a welcome accident! She started out as an undergraduate at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music studying music education and playing the violin. Afterwards she went to study in Hungary at the Kodaly Institute and pursued further violin studies in Germany.
When Carolyn returned to Australia, she taught in the Sydney Conservatorium’s Access program for gifted young musicians and the music department of Sydney Grammar School, whereupon she became head of strings, and by default, began conducting student ensembles. Feeling that she needed to learn something about what she was doing, she undertook a Master’s degree in conducting, followed by a Doctorate. Lo and behold a hidden talent emerged! In 2007 Carolyn became a Fellow of the American Academy of Conducting at the Aspen Music Festival after which she went to Europe where she studied and worked with some of the great orchestras with pre-eminent conductors, such as Simone Young.
When Carolyn returned to Australia in 2011, she became the first Conductor-in-Residence at the Conservatorium High School, where she thoroughly enjoys working with our children. She says their intellect, musical skills and the variety of backgrounds they bring to the music brings her a lot of pleasure. Dr Watson has two main areas of work at the CHS: conducting the orchestra, and teaching conducting.
The School Orchestra
Carolyn puts much time and effort into selecting the music for the orchestral program. This music needs to be challenging and motivating for the students, as well as fulfilling particular pedagogical aims. It is important for young players to begin to think vertically rather than just about their own horizontal line, especially in chamber music. It is also valuable to experience performing whole works of music wherever possible. The repertoire changes since 2011 have been well received by the increasing concert audience attendances.
The programming has also raised the profile of the choir. The orchestra cannot cater to all students, especially the many pianists at the school. Singing repertoire chosen has been of the highest calibre, such as the Poulenc Gloria and Carl Orff’s’ Carmina Burana and allows the entire school to be featured at once.
Repertoire selection also looks for a diversity of styles, genres and composers rather than just the mainstream options. The next concert will feature the less familiar works of very familiar composers, who were also all piano composers.
Finally, diversity of ensembles, such as those seen in the last concert, is also aimed for where possible. This strengthens the link between chamber music and large ensembles. The skills for both are remarkably similar but students are not always aware of this.
Places in the con orchestra are based on the performance of orchestral excerpts in the auditions, rather than solo ability, and the ability to play with others and place one’s own playing in the context of the whole ensemble. These priorities are fundamental to the selection process in orchestral auditions anywhere in the world.
The school has also developed a fruitful relationship with Fine Music 102.5fm and some recorded works from previous concerts will be broadcast in the future, including Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, and John Peterson’s ‘Shadows and Light’.
Dr Watson’s free conducting classes are available and valuable for all students, not just those wishing to pursue a career in conducting, and are part of the school’s philosophy of producing well-rounded musicians. Experience in conducting gives insights valuable to all ensemble playing. She showed us a conducting exercise that demonstrated the influence of conducting over sound (powerful for both the conductor and the performer!) For the students conducting is a fantastic rhythm lesson. Internalising rhythm is a valuable skill and some people have natural body language, while others find it initially more challenging expressing themselves physically.
Junior classes, generally years 7/8, conduct each other singing in choirs, in 2, 3 and 4 part pieces (Friday afternoon 3.40-5pm)
Intermediate classes, years 8/9/10 who have done some conducting classes before, conduct piano reductions of orchestral scores (Wednesday afternoon 3-5pm)
Senior classes, years 10/11, conduct ensembles (Thursday 3-5pm).
Year 10 recently had the opportunity to conduct the school orchestra rehearsing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and we were shown videos of students conducting both piano reductions and the full orchestra with some amazing results. Conducting an orchestra at this age is a unique experience, and perhaps further in the future there may be an opportunity to conduct the orchestra sight-reading new music too.
The senior conducting curriculum is of a very high standard, not dissimilar to the SCM undergrad courses in conducting – a reflection of the CHS students’ interest and aptitude in this area. The classes are informal, not part of the music program, and are available to all students – the more the merrier and the better the conducting experience for everyone. However students attending do need to make a commitment to attend and notify when they will be absent.
Ian Barker pointed out that Carolyn as conductor-in-residence is also integral to uniting the children’s educational experiences, bringing conducting, aural and performance work, for example, into the classroom – part of the school’s ‘whole student’ learning philosophy. This is something unique a conductor-in-residence brings, as opposed to having a visiting conductor for a just a few weeks.