Birmingham-based composer and educator Kirsty Devaney writes about how conducting gave her new musical inspiration and helped her to rediscover her musical voice.
The RPS Women Conductors Phase 1.5 Workshop came at a time when I was starting to question my career path. I was completing my PhD, working as a composer and music educator alongside. After a long period of writing my thesis, my own musical confidence had been waivering and I was needing a fresh musical experience. I had been researching education for the last 4-5 years; my identity as a musician was becoming more ambiguous. Was I more an academic than a performing musician? Or was I an educator more than a composer?
My own conducting journey began in school. It was quite a challenging institution in the North West of England, but we had a very passionate music department. In my final year one of our music teachers left, so I stepped in to run the school orchestra and concerts. Though I had no formal conducting training, leading the school orchestra taught me a huge amount about how to communicate, listen and orchestrate music. It was only when I attended the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire that I realised I had more conducting experience than most of my peers. It also made me wonder why we don’t encourage more young people to try conducting.
During my undergraduate degree I conducted only my own compositions, and the focus was on the practicalities, such as changing time signatures or cueing. So I decided at the RPS Women Conductors workshop I wanted to work on creating emotion, giving direction and altering the tone of the music. Whilst conducting the Elegy from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, WoCo artistic director Alice Farnham asked me to imagine holding something in my hands that could be moulded and moved around – for me this was a dark purple mist. Visualising this helped to frame my movements and to direct where I wanted the music to go.
The workshop shifted my own approach to conducting from being something functional, to being more of a musical art form. The amazing and responsive musicians from Southbank Sinfonia also fuelled this exploration. Thinking about the emotive elements I sometimes missed time signature changes, something I had felt secure about before the session! However, the ensemble and other participants created such an open working atmosphere that I felt very comfortable making these mistakes.
Working with Alice was a great experience; she clearly has a passion for conducting and equally for sharing this enthusiasm with others. She was positive and constructive in her advice and feedback, always asking more from me and believing I could give it.
I came away from the workshop with new techniques, ideas and more confidence. I rediscovered the enjoyment of learning something new – of reaching out of my comfort zone. It made me realise that all the years of training and experience I had already were extremely valuable and will always be part of me; but equally it made me see that I still have much to learn and plenty to say in my music.
The award-winning RPS Women Conductors programme is part of the Society’s initiative to promote gender equality and female leadership, and to encourage more women to take up conducting by leveling the playing field.
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