Creating Accountability – An Interview with Conductor Carolyn Watson

by James LeFevre

With her outstanding manner with players, high expectations, ability to deliver concepts concisely and insatiable passion for the music, it is little wonder that conductor Carolyn Watson is making waves in the American system, winning the 2015 American Prize for Conducting. In 2019 Carolyn will lead the ABODA Vic Summer Conducting School. We sat down to chat about her career, and advice on conducting training, repertoire selection and conducting bands vs. strings.

Looking back through your career a little you started out as a violinist and worked with the Australian Youth Orchestra, what happened after this?

I did music education for my undergraduate, with a double major in Music Education and Violin Performance in Sydney. I played for a year professionally in the pit for Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon in Sydney before I moved overseas. Then I was in Hungary for two years at the Kodaly Institute before I went to Germany and completed more violin study and played with some orchestras there.

What was your first teaching position?

I taught for a term at Sydney Church of Grammar School where I have just done the Vivaldi Gloria and then at Sydney Grammar School for nine years after this.

When did you start studying conducting?

About five years into the job working at Sydney Grammar.  I wanted to learn a little bit more about conducting and what to do with my hands.  I thought I would just do a Masters in Conducting with no intention of doing anything other than that, and then one thing led to another and here we are.

I’m always interested to know what you feel are the most important things for a beginning conductor to start with.

Anybody can be a conductor if they are a good musician, it is easy to turn a good musician into a good conductor, but it is difficult to turn a conductor into a musician.  The depth and scope of your musical training and knowledge is really where it is at, and the rest you can learn. Maybe also conducting technique doesn’t matter as much as we think it matters… that has been my experience, anyway.

As an experienced conductor, what do you see the differences being between high school orchestras and somewhere like Interlochen or what you are expecting at Texas State?

Obviously the context dictates how far you as a conductor can go. You may have the most wonderful gestures that reflect every nuance in the score, however, if you are in front of a Year 7 band, that may not be necessarily the most important thing.  That aspect of being practical, and being able to help the players with practical matters and logistical things, what I call ‘geographical things’ like “This is where we stop.” “This is where we go.”  “This is where you need to watch, this is what you need to watch, and this is why you need to watch.”  Obviously the more advanced the players are the more subtleties they are going to pick up on in your conducting.

It is the age old concept of being what the players need us to be.

That’s right.

There is often debate about Strings versus Band conducting and some say that music is music but perhaps there are nuances between the two. How they produce sound is different if nothing else. Do you have thoughts on this and are there differences? Perhaps there are differences within the sections of an orchestra? 

There are some differences. Working with young orchestras, I find I have to work much more closely with the strings and offer more many more directions and much more advice than with the wind and the brass generally.  I think there are a number of reasons for that, obviously the person that gets to be first chair oboe or second chair clarinet in a youth orchestra or even in a high school symphony, they have reached a certain level and are by definition a soloist, given that nobody else is playing the first oboe part or the second clarinet part. That’s a very different thing for a second violin section that might have 15 people in it. And each one of those 15 who would die on the spot if they thought that they had to play their part by themselves! There’s that sort of thinking shift – there is a big difference there. I’ve found also I have to give a lot more information and directives to the strings because I think to get young musicians on string instruments to sound good, there is a lot more involved, and it’s a longer process comparatively than with wind and brass instruments. I think we as conductors certainly working with high schools have to remember this and factor it into our approach and our pedagogy.

As far as conducting and ensemble direction goes, would you mind please sharing some of your most valuable pieces of wisdom?

Choose appropriate repertoire. That is probably my first one. I have done a lot of listening to young musicians and adjudicating at competitions with young bands and orchestras. I often hear young musicians working and playing very hard, and doing their best with music that is beyond them at this particular point in time, at this particular stage of their development. I think it is a wonderful thing to set the bar high and to push them, and to challenge them to be the best they can be, and even better.  But also at the same time this kind of approach has to be balanced with positive performance experiences and it’s about them going out onto stage with absolute confidence, that they can play together very, very well as an ensemble, and walk off feeling very proud that they have done a good job.

I’ve heard the 80/20 “rule” referred to before where 80% of the repertoire should be technically comfortable and 20% might be challenging. What are your thoughts on this?

I probably have a different philosophy to that because I tend to set the bar high and just a little bit beyond what the students think they are capable of.  When you say to them we are playing this piece and they go “oh no!”. Then you say “no I programmed it because I think you are good enough”. Straight away if it’s a piece they know and a composer they know or something that they have been dying to play, that gives them a lot of confidence. So you are instilling a lot of trust in their ability and as all of us that play an instrument know, when somebody believes in us you can achieve more that what you think is actually possible.

I guess that is also about making the musician accountable for their part and setting them up to understand that they are the ones in charge of the results. 

Absolutely, and it’s a team, it’s exactly the same as a sporting team and with someone sitting 5th chair, inside 2nd desk, 3rd viola part, they might not feel like they are fundamental to the ensemble, but I think it is our job as directors to get the point across that they are fundamental to the ensemble. Nobody else is playing that particular part and if they don’t play it then nobody else is going to play it. Like sport, for them to do well and do their best, everybody has got to go to training and just because you might not be picked to play that week, that doesn’t mean that you don’t go to training… it actually means that you train harder.

In your experience as an adjudicator, other than poor repertoire choices, what are some of common mistakes you see and hear?

For ensembles, stage presence is something. You can often tell how well trained a group is simply by the way they enter and exit the stage and the means by which they go about getting themselves ready to play. There is a level of professionalism that comes with performing, and performing happens from the minute you walk onto the stage.  How you look, how you walk out on stage, uniform, dress attire, a school uniform, a performance uniform, coordinated clothing, deliberately unco-ordinated clothing, it is all part of the performance experience.

From a conducting standpoint, having a conductor that is in touch with what the ensemble is doing is an important factor. Often I look and observe that the ensemble is doing one thing and the conductor is doing another, and they’re not necessarily corresponding.

The place of conducting literature – are there any conducting texts you found particularly beneficial?

At one stage I read every text that was out there, as I was writing my doctoral dissertation. But I think conducting is not something that can necessarily be taught by books. This opinion might be a difference between a kind of ‘American band-type approach’ and a more traditional operatic and orchestral focus, which is the realm in which my work lies. Of course textbooks are helpful for the basic information, but once you’ve got that there is a whole lot more. In terms of books or texts, the composer’s score is really where it is at.

It is like choosing a favourite child, but who are your favourite composers?

Whoever I am conducting, so at the moment it’s Bartok, Liszt and Kodaly.

You mentioned that nothing is a substitute for the score and a mentor.  Who have been your musical heroes?

My number one music hero is Carlos Kleiber, every conductor’s musical hero I think! And Bernstein ranks up there very highly as well.

If you could look across the world and see everything that is going on musically, and could pick your gig, what would you jump at?

Oh wow! I’m not sure that I’ve got the answer to that question actually. Most conductors would say the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic, but I am fairly adamant that’s not a job that I would embrace with open arms as it were. Often life chooses and has a way of putting people where they should be and you know yourself where you are at, and where you can be. With conducting it can be a big game of chance, and some people are fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and get opportunities and make the most of them, and their career goes from there. It is difficult to know if somebody else got a similar opportunity, whether that might have happened to them and whether their career would have developed similarly.  As to my ideal gig, I guess I have to say it is the one I am about to start.  I chose it didn’t I….!

As music educators, music advocacy is important and there are a few different approaches to this. What do you lead with when telling people about the joy that is music?

I don’t know that I have had to do too much of that in itself as I have been very fortunate in the places that I have worked as students have come to those places specifically for music and for orchestra. There are tests that say “yes if they do music that will do better in maths and science” which is all very well and good, but I don’t know if that is why we should be selling music.  I don’t think scientists are selling science as it makes better mathematicians. The media seems have a lot of stuff written about that, that’s a great thing.  However, music is of intrinsic value as of itself and that’s really what we’re about and hopefully that message can get out.

Growing up was there a piece that sparked your love of music or took your love to the next level?

“Go tell Aunt Rhody” from Suzuki Book 1.

To find out more about Carolyn and the wonderful work she is doing visit:

Want to work with Carolyn to improve your conducting? Register for the 2019 ABODA Vic Summer Conducing School now!

Register for the 2019 Summer School

Listening: The Foundation of Effective Musical Leadership

by Monte H Mumford

Often in the pursuit of improving our conducting skills, it is possible to expend an inordinate amount of time and energy focusing on addressing the physical skills of controlling time-keeping and physical gestures as if technical mastery of time and gesture actions forms the basis of the definitive act of conducting. (Looking like the music)

However, it has also been countered that the true definition of conducting is in reality a listening activity, from which the physical act of conducting derives its true inspiration. (Looking like the music, through your inner ear) In fact, informed, active, engaged listening should be considered a major factor in achieving successful, effective and musically satisfying proficiency as a conductor. The importance of focused, informed, and attentive listening is essential in at least two different ways:  One, the act of hearing the score and its potential interpretation, while the music still remains on the page; and two, the ability to hear the score while it is literally coming off the page. It is these two considerations, which I would like to examine in this article.

The first listening consideration has been addressed many times, and from many different angles. Most would agree that it is important that one endeavours to aim towards training themselves in effectively hearing the score, as yet unsounded on the page.  But, achieving this skill often leaves one frustrated, especially if the conductor’s piano skills are of a limited nature. A helpful analogy here is to remember that hearing a score in silence is much like using the skill of reading books silently to oneself.  How did we, as children move from reading aloud to the internalising of our reading skills?

The explanation is not difficult.  Obtaining effective reading and comprehension expertise in music reading requires the same mindful, or comparative repetition of basic reading comprehension skills, such as the mastery achieved through the application of vocabulary acquisition, spelling, pronunciation, and grammar usage.  Effective reading also requires consistent exposure to reading, including listening to someone read. It also includes aural modelling of pronunciations and the correction of definitions, and spelling errors.  It is important to understand that none of these learning activities were fast-tracked.  In fact, these activities required a careful, repetitive ‘time-on-task’ framework for achieving the mastery of silent reading over a period of time.

Learning to read/hear music in silence requires a systematic immersion in basic ear training and aural recognition.  These are essential skills that enable one to understand both the vertical and horizontal elements of music notation.  For it is one’s technical proficiency in rhythmic notation reading gained through internal pulse, counting and subdivision, and the capacity to hear basic harmonic progressions, identify and sing intervallic relationships, chord qualities, , and melody lines, combined with the ability to identify phrase structures through note-grouping relationships.  It is, after all these essential tools that enable one to silently read/hear the score as intended.  Another important factor in obtaining effective silent score reading skills is to be found in strengthening one’s visual and aural skills through sight singing, as ell as the exercise of engaging in personal music performance experiences on their principal instrument.

The second listening consideration is a bit more problematic, for it requires the conductor to hear, respond and adjust the music as it is literally coming off the page; all at the same time. This skill is of vital importance for achieving significant musical outcomes through effective rehearsal communication.  The process is dependent on three factors: seeing and hearing the music as it is being performed, intuitively knowing what the composer had in mind through systematic score study, and holding a personal interpretative understanding of what one desires to hear and wishes to change, thus enabling the ensemble to realise the conductor’s interpretation.  This process, of course requires that one already holds a firm belief in their interpretation of the passage, or work under consideration, knowing how they wish it to be performed, and has confidence in their rehearsal strategies, including appropriate gestures, metaphors and/or analogies.  

Inspirational musical leadership requires one to communicate the composer’s innate intension through understanding the emotional narrative and related connections with conviction, passion and confidence.  This includes understanding the historical, cultural, emotional and stylistic context of the music, along with its attendant set of descriptive, expressive instructions. For instance, why is a particular passage marked ‘forte’, or why is another passage marked, ‘allargando’? To fully understand expressive directions one must also appreciate the musical context in which they appear.  The music itself is always pleading with us to listen to how it wishes to be performed and these ‘directions’ are merely reminders of what the composer intended. I believe that it is imperative that physical gestures and body language be derived from deeply held convictions and understanding about the ‘character’ of the music, and how the notes and rhythms should be performed in view of communicating this ‘character’. It is difficult for conductors to expect their ensembles to respond meaningfully to their gestures if the conductor does not hold a personal commitment to an authentic interpretation, character and context.

Therefore, this second kind of listening calls for regular exposure to a wide range of significant music performances that feature virtuosic artistry, mastery and passion. It is vitally important to understand the correlation between regularly listening to a wide range of musical performances and appreciating their role in assisting one in forming opinions of what constitutes significant music-making in general.  This kind of listening can also provide opportunity and inspiration for the expansion of one’s emotive vocabulary of physical gestures and facial expression. Truly effective musical communication requires empathy, understanding, emotional connection and deeply held convictions about music performance, which can only be obtained through one’s personal exposure to great music and music-making. The benefits of listening and viewing significant music performance cannot be underestimated, for it is an essential ingredient in developing one’s inner ear towards the purpose of stimulating personal interpretation, as well as providing models of expressive definitions, which may include:  

  • tempi considerations,
  • dynamic contrasts,
  • articulations & inflections,
  • note grouping considerations,
  • phrase shape,
  • melodic/harmonic contour
  • tone colour /timbre

Conducting is certainly more than just knowing what is happening in the score, such as conveying a set of literal instructions; key signatures, tempi indications, meter, dynamic symbols, articulation markings, volume adjustment, fermata considerations, cues, etc. It is also about acquiring an informed opinion, and a conviction about the repertoire one is to rehearse/perform, while knowing how to effectively communicate their personal interpretation to their ensemble.  A commitment to engage on a regular basis to listening and watching significant musical performances will go a long way in both feeding and inspiring our musical souls.

Monte Mumford holds an international reputation as a conductor, adjudicator and clinician, contributing regularly to the field of music education and performance studies through conference presentations, publications, professional development offerings, and master classes. He is highly regarded for his musical experience, expertise, passion and effective teaching style. He is in demand as a guest conductor, music education consultant, and adjudicator, providing performance strategies and professional development for music educators, administrators and students alike.

Craig Kirchhoff: Selecting Repertoire – A Matter of Conscience

“The future of music may not be with music itself, but rather….in the way it makes itself a part of the finer things humanity does and dreams of.” (1)

– Charles Ives

Every year that we teach and conduct we are challenged by the inevitable process of making decisions about the repertoire that we will share and explore with our students.  The process is a daunting one because it challenges us to re-examine our values and our depth as music educators and musicians. Selecting repertoire is not about choosing pieces to play; selecting repertoire is about defining a curriculum and our beliefs about what music education should be for our students.  Selecting repertoire is also about commitment, exposure, and risk: commitment, because the music that we rehearse and perform defines our values; exposure, because we share this repertoire with our students and eventually with an audience; and risk, because the music we select may not always resonate with what students, parents, and administrators believe to be the purpose of a band program in an academic setting.

The Value System Behind Our Actions

Nearly twenty years ago composer Warren Benson asked an important rhetorical question at an international conference of conductors and teachers.  “What was it that brought us to music in the first place?” Warren’s answer has profound implications for our role as music educators.

“It is something in humankind that we find since the beginning of time that compels us to put an engraving on the handle of a knife, a design on the blade of an oar, or a configuration on the exterior of a ceramic pot.  It requires that we sing to be born, sing to die, sing to plant, sing to be together, and sing to be alone.” (2)

What Warren was describing is the creative and artistic spirit that is an inherent part of our nature; it is a part of the business of being human.   The purpose of music education, therefore, should be to stimulate, nurture, and enhance the creativity, the imagination, and the expressive spirit of our students, qualities that have been a part of their being long before they entered our rehearsal halls or classrooms.  Our goal should be to nurture a life-long love affair with music and with the creative process. To accomplish this goal we have to become evangelists for three essential beliefs that should guide our performance curriculum:


  1. The process of teaching and exploring music is more important than producing concerts or participating in contests and festivals.
  2.  The educational outcomes for our students must be emphasized over the residual   entertainment value that is often a high priority of administrators and parents.
  3. The long-term value of music education in the lives of our students is more important than the short-term rewards.

In addition, we have to diligently remind ourselves, and others, that the quality of our student’s music education is directly related to the quality of the curriculum they study and perform.

The Intersection of Aesthetic Criteria and Personal Taste

Every decision that we make as teachers, musical and extra-musical, is a reflection of our values.  In the case of repertoire selection, the critical balance of aesthetic criteria and personal taste defines that value system.  While aesthetic criteria may be more easily agreed upon, the issue of personal taste is more illusive to define, yet, may represent the most important component of this delicate musical eco-system.  

Aesthetic Criteria

Acton Ostling’s landmark dissertation, An Evaluation of Compositions for Wind Band According to Specific Criteria of Artistic Merit3 (1978) established important guidelines for the critical evaluation of musical compositions:

  1. The composition has form–not ‘a form’ but form–and reflects a proper balance between repetition and contrast.
  2. The composition reflects shape and design, and creates the impression of conscious choice and judicious arrangement on the part of the composer.
  3. The composition reflects craftsmanship in orchestration, demonstrating a proper balance between transparent and tutti scoring, and also between solo and group colors.
  4. The composition is sufficiently unpredictable to preclude an immediate grasp of its musical meaning.
  5. The route through which the composition travels in initiating its musical tendencies and probable musical goals is not completely direct and obvious
  6. The composition is consistent in its quality throughout its length and in its various sections.
  7. The composition is consistent in its style, reflecting a complete grasp of technical details, clearly conceived ideas, and avoids lapses into trivial, futile, or unsuitable passages.
  8. The composition reflects ingenuity in its development, given the stylistic context in which it exists.
  9. The composition is genuine in idiom, and is not pretentious.
  10. The composition reflects a musical validity that transcends idiom, and is not pretentious.


Good music, therefore, has form with a calculated balance of repetition and contrast that great composers manipulate to create and to break our musical expectations.  Predictability is the death of great music and so is music with little variation in orchestration and timbre. Good music is music that can hold the attention of its listeners and can be remembered through the creative use of rhythm, counterpoint, harmonic color, harmonic motion, melodic interest, and unique textures.   Good music is also music that can transport us to different emotional landscapes. Great music is music that makes us feel.

Every piece of music considered for programming should be evaluated using these criteria as a general guide.  Aesthetic criteria, however, have little meaning without the context of a distinct musical depth and a distinct musical intelligence that we, as musicians and artists, are required to bring to this process of decision-making.

Personal Taste and Musical Depth

Personal taste, musical depth, and musical intelligence are the result of our direct experiences with great art, great music, and great artists.  Being an artist in any field is much more than a prescribed level of accomplishment. Being an artist is a way of life, a way of thinking, a way of perceiving and sensing our reality and understanding the entire spectrum of human experiences, from the most grotesque to the most sublime, and from the most tragic to the most trivial.  The following questions may help to guide us on this journey of developing musical depth and personal taste:

  1. Are you in touch with the great musical monuments of our time and the past, from Claudio Monteverdi to Duke Ellington, John Harbison, Joan Tower, or Aaron Kernis?
  2. Do you attend live concerts of high quality by important ensembles and by important artists?
  3. Are you knowledgeable about music that does not directly affect your specific level of teaching but may directly affect your depth as a musician, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Libby Larsen, Henryk Gorecki, George Crumb, or Morton Lauridsen?
  4. Do you know as much about the most important musicians and composers of our time and the past as you know about the music for the ensembles that you conduct?
  5. Are you current with the repertoire written for your ensemble, knowing about the latest works from the pen of Michael Colgrass for middle school band, or the most recent publications from the BandQuest Series published by the American Composers Forum or the Windependence Series published by Boosey & Hawkes?
  6. Do you invest in the depth of your listening experience by continually expanding your collection of CDs and DVDs?
  7. Do you continue to make music an important part of your daily life?

The Publishers Reality and the Power of Choice

Every year 1000 new titles of band music enter the marketplace, yet the financial resources available to purchase music by educational institutions remains relatively static from year to year.  Statistically, this means that at least five hundred works from publisher’s catalogues will disappear from the marketplace every year to make room for the next year’s release. Our choices in the market place have an enormous impact upon the quality of repertoire that remains available for purchase.

The publishing industry is like any other business; it is market driven.  Our decisions, not publisher’s decisions, ultimately determine what works will remain on the shelf and what works will fall to the wayside. As a profession we are consumed by what is new, often neglecting a body of historical repertoire of artistic merit that our students should explore.  It is financially unfeasible for publishers to expand their new music inventory and to continue to publish those works considered to be standards in our repertoire unless there is a market for them. They will sell what we buy.

Regarding what we buy, Warren Benson elegantly expressed the following views in the 1998 WASBE Journal in an article titled “On the Role of Emotion in Music”

“…..I wish I could hear more wind conductors and instrumental teachers using better and larger vocabulary that relate to beauty, aesthetics, to charm, to gentleness, strength and power without rancor or anger, to useful tonal vibrance, live sound, to grace of movement, to stillness, to fervor, to depth of great age, the exultation of great happiness, the feel of millennia, the sweetness and purity of lullabies, the precision of fine watches, the reach into time-space of great love and respect, the care of phrasing, the delicacy of balance, the ease of warmth, the resonance of history, the susurrus of wind in the pines and whisperings in churches, the intimacy of the solo instrument, the kind weight of togetherness, and the rising spirit of creating something, bringing something to life from cold print, living music, moving music.”(4)

The Final Analysis

At some point along the pathway of our teaching, or perhaps on a regular basis, each of us should ask a very personal question:  “How many musical souls have been lost on our watch?” Was it because we placed too much emphasis on the product rather than the process?  Was it because we placed too much emphasis on entertainment rather than education outcomes for our students? Was it because we placed too much emphasis on short-term rewards rather than the long-term value of nurturing within our students a life-long love affair with music and the creative process?  Or was it because the music we selected represented a very narrow spectrum of human experience with insufficient musical depth and intellectual challenge to stimulate the creative impulses and the curious mind of an adolescent or an emerging adult?

The good news is that we have more music to choose from than at any other time in the history of the wind band.  We also have more delivery systems and technology, literally at our fingertips, to inform us about what music is available from what publisher, for what grade level, and for how much money.  H. Robert Reynolds, Director of Bands Emeritus at the University of Michigan expressed that “when you choose music of depth and substance you chose to reward the publishers and composers who produce quality repertoire, but more importantly, you will reward your students with the gift of a deepening musical aesthetic.”(5)

Selecting repertoire is much more than picking pieces for the next concert.  Selecting repertoire is the most important thing that we do as music educators.  We enjoy a very special freedom and a very special privilege because we are empowered as music educators to create a meaningful curriculum for our students.    With that freedom and privilege comes an enormous responsibility.


  1. Charles E. Ives, Memos, ed. By John Kirkpatrick (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1972), p.191.
  2. Keynote address, WASBE conference, Boston, July, 1987.
  3. University of Michigan, 1978.
  4. Warren Benson, “On Being Emotionally ‘Moved’ at a Band concert, Journal of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles, Volume 5, 1998,     p. 40.
  5. H. Robert Reynolds, “Repertoire Is the Curriculum,” Music Educators Journal, Vol. 87 (July 2000), p. 33.B


Craig Kirchhoff is professor of conducting at the University of Minnesota. Born and educated in Wisconsin, Mr. Kirchhoff brings to his position a wide knowledge of both traditional and contemporary literature. He has won critical acclaim from composers Warren Benson, Henry Brant, Michael Colgrass, Karel Husa, Libby Larsen, George Perle, Vincent Persichetti, Stephen Paulus, Verne Reynolds, Gunther Schuller, Joseph Schwantner, Steven Stucky, Elliott Schwartz, Chen Yi, and others.

Mr. Kirchhoff is past president of the College Band Directors National Association and is a member of the American Bandmasters Association, the National Band Association, the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles, and the Music Educators National Conference, and he served as the founding editor and principal advisor of the College Band Directors National Association Journal.

Professor Kirchhoff has appeared as guest conductor, clinician, and lecturer throughout the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Taiwan, Europe, and Scandinavia. Mr. Kirchhoff is a frequent guest conductor of the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra and has recorded with them on the Kosei Publishing label.