“Focus on the process, not the result.” ~Robin Fountain
What is your current job title and how did you decide on this career choice?
My name is Scott Seaton and I am the Music Director of the North State Symphony (professional orchestra), the Principal Conductor of the Veridian Symphony Orchestra (professional orchestra), and interim conductor of the UCSB Chamber Orchestra (university orchestra). I’m also a frequent guest conductor of orchestras across North America and Europe. I have been conducting professionally for sixteen years now and have had a plethora of positions from my first position as conducting assistant with the Nashville Youth Symphony, to various university teaching positions, to leading community and professional orchestras.
I would say that getting to my current positions in California has been a combination of hard work and luck. I’m in a career that is based heavily on networking and obtaining work from others who have seen and respect your work. My first full-time position in conducting was as Director of Orchestras at Kent State University, which I wouldn’t have even been considered for had I not known the outgoing conductor. He recommended me along with a few other people to be interviewed for the position and I ended up being the successful candidate – again, a combination of hard work and luck.
My experience at Kent State then led to the acquisition of the Lakeland Civic Orchestra, a community orchestra in Cleveland. I worked hard to grow these orchestras and eventually got to a point where I felt I could move up to ensembles of a higher caliber. After applying to several positions, I eventually won the Music Directorship of the Minot Symphony Orchestra in North Dakota.
When you apply for orchestras of a semi-professional or professional status, the application process is quite rigorous. Assuming you have a body of experience to even be considered for a position, you send in an application along with – typically – 150 other applicants across the world all vying for one position. An application typically consists of video samples of your work, a detailed CV, references, and a detailed cover letter that describes your particular vision for the orchestra you are applying for. Once all applications are in, there are several rounds that follow; these usually include a “first cut”, an interview round of the top 10 or so candidates, then the top 4-6 candidates are invited to guest conduct the orchestra during the coming season. Once that process is completed, then a new Music Director is named. From the process of submitting an application to the announcement of the winner, the process can take anywhere from one to two years. You have to be incredibly patient to be an orchestral conductor!
That is the exact process that I went through with the North State Symphony and was fortunate enough to be one of four finalists invited to come work with the orchestra over a 10-day period. After I learned that I had won the position, I then relocated to California. This particular position especially appealed to me because the flexibility of the position allows me to hold similar posts simultaneously all over the country. Professional orchestral conductors can be very busy individuals and travel quite a bit – I know some conductors that hold three to four different posts, each on a different continent!
What types of qualities are important for this career choice?
To be a conductor of a professional orchestra, you absolutely have to love music. That’s a given, right? Well, you have to love music so much that you are willing to do whatever it takes to get to the place that you want to be in your musical career. Yes, you may have to hold many jobs during your training that have nothing to do with music, but that definitely will make you a more well-rounded person and will give you valuable life skills. When I was going through graduate school, I not only worked at Starbucks as a barista, but also for a non-profit environmental group that provided me with valuable fundraising skills that orchestras would look for when I began applying.
Being a conductor of a professional orchestra also means that you are the “face” of that orchestra. Because of this, orchestras also want to make sure that you are comfortable interacting with a wide range of people and are – well – an engaging personality. If you are not able to talk about and ‘sell’ your performances to people, then why would they hire you?
Here in the 21st Century where orchestras are dissolving all over the planet, orchestra hiring committees want someone who will strive to build audiences. They want someone creative, innovative, and a proven “out of the box” thinker. They also want someone who will invest themselves in the community around them.
What is a typical day or week in your position like? What exactly do you do?
One of the things I love about my profession is that there really is not a “typical” day. My week is a combination of meetings with symphony board and staff members, meetings with donors and potential donors, conducting rehearsals and/or performances, studying music scores in a café somewhere, creating promotional items for upcoming concerts, or even on an airplane or train traveling to and from gigs or meetings and catching up on emails or other random things associated with the job (like I am right now!).
Concert weeks are the busiest weeks of the year for me. In addition to all the things I just listed, concert weeks add things like television and radio interviews, having dinners with concert sponsors, preparing pre-concert lectures, handling orchestra personnel issues that might come up, and a variety of other random things.
What areas of study would you suggest for kids interested in your field? What path would you suggest?
First and foremost, you need to become as good as you can possibly be on an instrument or multiple instruments. You need to refine your skills as a musician before you even think about being a conductor. Sure, you can have a goal of becoming a conductor, but you absolutely have to focus on instrumental study first. My first two degrees were in saxophone performance, not conducting. Yes, I was studying conducting on the side, but I was also practicing my instrument for seven hours a day. It was not until I began work on my doctorate that I focused myself exclusively on the study of conducting.
Once you are serious about becoming a conductor, then you should go to rehearsals of other conductors and just observe. You need to go watch bad conductors as much as you need to go watch good conductors – you learn something from everyone, even if it is what NOT to do!
Additionally, to get into a conducting graduate program, you have to have conducting experience. Since you cannot study conducting at the undergraduate level, this means that you will be getting your friends together to play for you as often as you can – make sure you buy them pizza and coke!
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone interested in your field?
Conducting is not for the faint of heart – you get into it because you have an unexplainable love for it. You have to have thick skin to be a conductor as not everyone is going to agree with you or even like you or what you do. You have to stay true to your vision and trust that it is in the best interest of your organization and community. Always listen, keep an open mind, and invest yourself in your friendships.
What is one myth buster you would like to share about your field?
A conductor’s life is not always in the spotlight! Much of your time will be spent alone in a quiet room deciphering scores and figuring out how composers who lived hundreds of years before you might have wanted a particular passage to sound. Sometimes you get so busy that you wish you were sitting in a room studying scores. Being a community leader and an arts ambassador is the most significant part of this career and it takes a lot of personal investment.
Did you take a linear path to get here? If not, what were some pivotal points that changed your direction?
The path to leading a professional orchestra is far from a linear one, unfortunately. For better or for worse, I also had many diverse interests when I was growing up and when I entered college. I was actually a double major in music and mathematics. There came a time after my sophomore year of college that I was so busy and so stressed out all the time (because I was also studying conducting in addition to my formal math and saxophone performance majors) that I had to focus myself somehow. It was at that point that I did a major life evaluation and talked to every music professional that I had met up to that point. I ultimately came to the decision to cease the study of mathematics and to dedicate myself to the study of music. It was a great time in my life because I had finally achieved clarity of focus.
I should point out, however, that I had known I had wanted to be a conductor from sometime in high school. From the moments that I saw Boston Pops concerts on television as a young child to the times that I was able to lead my high school band, I knew that I had to be that guy somehow. It simply took several more years to acquire the focus necessary for such a profession.
What personal qualities have helped you succeed in your career?
I am super motivated and goal-oriented. I’m also incredibly stubborn. When I was in college, there was a professor that I wanted to study conducting with privately, but this person turned me down. That experience essentially fueled me to try even harder and to find a way to accomplish my goals.
I also think it’s important to be able to accept failure and grow from it. This is one of the reasons that I have valued the jobs that I’ve had outside of music. My fundraising job, for example, not only allowed me to become good at asking people for money, but also being told “no”, which 9 out of 10 people did every single evening that I went door-to-door as a canvasser for environmental issues.
What do you most enjoy about your career?
The people! From getting out in the community and talking to people about music to working with children of all ages in area schools, the human connection is the most amazing part of not only my job, but life. The limited time that I’m able to be with the incredible musicians of my orchestras in rehearsals or performances and connect with them is something that cannot really be put into words. It’s a transformative experience.
What kind of work experience as a student would be the most beneficial for this career?
Really, you should probably try to have as many different positions as you can, especially customer service positions and fundraising positions, if possible. If you can eventually find positions within arts organizations, that would prove immensely valuable as well.
What education or training is required, if any, to reach your position?
You probably at least need an undergraduate degree in music. Most conductors (depending on what level of ensemble they want to conduct), will need a Masters degree or even a Doctorate in conducting. This is especially true if you have any intention of conducting in the university system. You will also spend your summers doing professional development workshops/seminars and working with lots of different conductors in an effort to refine your technique and – more importantly – building relationships with and learning from colleagues that are striving to do the very thing you want to do.
If you weren’t in this career field, what other career would you be interested in and why?
I would most likely be doing something with mathematics. I’m a huge numbers nerd. In high school especially, I loved that we were able to determine things like time of death in my calculus class. Weird, I know! I could absolutely imagine myself working in an FBI crime lab or something.