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16 December 2021

the art of conducting | Daniel Harding

by Jeff Schiltz

How does one get into conducting at such a young Age?

When I was 11 or 12 years old, I was playing in a youth orchestra and as the youngest trumpet player in, there were six of us sitting in the line. I was allowed to play in the loud parts, so I spent my whole time in the rehearsals counting. Count the bars, rest, wait for half an hour then just before I should play the conductor would stop. I had to find a way to make the evenings as interesting as possible. Obviously, we were not allowed to read a book while waiting but I discovered that you could read the score. So, I went to the library and borrowed the scores. For me that made these hours of doing nothing suddenly extremely interesting. I got a kind of curiosity about what the conductor was doing and why they would stop in certain places why they would ask certain things what difference that would make. The conductor is the one person in the room who's always involved in what's going on and that attracted me!


What important lessons have you learned from Sir Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado?

When I met Simon at 16, I had maybe done two or three pieces as a conductor. If you meet that strength of personality at any point in your life, they're going to have a huge influence on you, but if you're 16 years old and just discovering something new his influence on me was enormous. He's someone who has an amazing ability to analyze what's going on. He could look at me conducting and have practical and perceptive things to say about it. He was a huge influence on me as a personality but also a strong concrete practical help!

I met Abbado later, but I was still very young. I was 19 when I went to work with him. He would never say anything particularly focused or direct about my conducting. I learned from him much more from just being around and watching what he was doing.

They are completely different, and I think that to have spent time with either of them would be an amazing gift but to have spent time with both and two people so very different is an extraordinary gift!


How do you prepare the very first rehearsal with a new orchestra?

I was 20, when I started traveling and conducting full-time. During the first years you're going to a new city, standing in front of a new orchestra, and conducting a new piece. I think those are the hardest as a conductor. When I was 17, I studied entangled with Robert Spano who's been for many years the music director in Atlanta. He told me something very important: When he first went out to start a career on his own it was always said to him “be ready the first years are very lonely”. He said it's one of the best pieces of advice ever said to him, and it was very important for me that he told me that too. In the end the simplest advice is always the best one and that's again it's a Simon Rattle thing. You don't do anything until the break except let them play conduct, conduct let them play come back after the break and you'll know immediately whether they're on board or not. Then you can start doing your work!

How much do you allow you initial sound ideas to evolve though the rehearsal process?

There is an evolution for sure! I take more pleasure now in having all my ideas and all the things that I imagined before to be changed by what I discover when I come to rehearsal. I like that the ideas and the personality of the orchestra influences what I imagined. There is more pleasure now than when I was younger. I felt a real need to try and fight to create the ideas which were in my head before I came. I think that the joy of making music is the meeting between people between ideas between perspectives. It takes a certain confidence to say that I can allow a lot of the things that I imagine changing because the people I'm working with bring so much to the table. At the same time, I know that I can still form that into something that's coherent and something I believe in. So I don't think that's something that you can expect a young person to be extremely comfortable with and I think after 30 years I start to find my way with that but it can change a lot!


How did you get the idea to acquire your pilot license?

I flew a little bit when I was a teenager and then with all the wonderful things that happened to me with music, I didn't touch an airplane for a very long time. Coming up to my 40th birthday I had a very strong desire: I wanted to take a little bit of a step back from music for a short period to reflect on all the experiences I've had. I think that in those years from kind of 16, 17 until my late thirties I did so much and collected so many experiences and at some point, you need to stop. I thought about what I've learned and took some perspective on it. The other thing was I wanted to give myself the greatest gift which is to learn something new and just have a different challenge just for cleaning the brain.

I thought a long time about what I might do, and, in the end, I wanted to go back and learn to fly. I never did it properly and I would love to do that just for the pleasure and what attracted me is that you must learn a little bit about a lot of different things!

It activates the bit of your brain that works with mathematics. You need to re-think everything or find again everything you learned in school about physics. You need to learn about the weather. I thought it'll be good for me and the experience of being in the plane was fantastic but the experience of being a student was so fantastic. So, I didn't stop I got my private license and I said, “okay what's next” and I just went step by step until I ended up qualified flying the airbus A320 and then the guys with whom I qualified went off to fly their passengers around and I went back to conduct Mahler 8 at the Edinburgh festival!

I thought wouldn't it be nice if I could do both, so I applied for a job and I got a job and here I am doing both. Honestly it means that for me! Now I spend 26 weeks a year in an airplane and 26 weeks a year conducting concerts and I think it's the healthiest sensational balance!


Are there similarities between piloting an aircraft and conducting an orchestra?

Being an airline pilot today is so much about making good decisions and so much about dealing with the information that's coming at you. So, it is being a conductor. A lot of the skills that are required for both jobs are very similar, but the goal is very different: Standing in front of an orchestra you have 100 people playing. You're receiving that incredible amount of information you've got to be constantly in front of what's about to happen. You have a technique that allows you to deal with that whilst you keep complete awareness. With all these things going on you're keeping a sense of a priority and a sense of perspective that's very much like flying the airplane. In both jobs we must be very aware of and understand the question of risk in music. The wonderful thing I've learned from flying is how fantastic it is to take a risk in music making because that's where we find the real beauty and nothing terrible is going to happen!