Jenny Wilkinson – The Secret Life of a Musical Director


Jennifer Wilkinson

The musical director is an enigmatic creature.  They stand there, back to the audience, waving their arms around and occasionally jumping up and down when the music gets exciting.  There’s only one to every 25 players and they don’t even have an instrument, just a wooden stick, but what power that stick wields! A bit like a magic wand, all it has to do is point, and the music starts…

The Musical Director

What does a musical director actually do?

As a young female brass band musical director, I know I’m in the minority, but I’m so proud to be there.  I’ve been conducting bands for almost 10 years, and barely a week has gone by when I haven’t been asked ‘what does a conductor actually do?’

There are so many things a musical director does, but the most important one to me is to be a translator.

A piece of music is like a sentence.  It’s composed of various parts, each of which can be understood in a different way depending on the way you read it, the way you hear it and the way you put all the parts together.  An emphasis on a note, like on a word, can change the entire meaning. If you give 25 people the same sentence to read there will be a wide variety of interpretations. It’s the same with music.  Just as each person reads, speaks and hears the same collection of words differently, so too do 25 people interpret the same piece of music in very unique ways.

My job as a musical director is to interpret the music for them, teach them all to understand and ‘speak’ it in the same way, and allow a coherent and cohesive interpretation to be communicated to the audience.  Of course, there are other more tangible things to do as a musical director, but translation is my big picture goal at all times.

Musical Director

What does that entail?

1 – Keeping the band in time:

There are some really clear beat patterns that make up a conductor’s arm movements.  You can see some charts here for examples. The most useful thing for our band however is the ‘downbeat’, when the conductor’s arm draws a straight vertical line.  That always comes at the beginning of the bar, so if in doubt wait for the downbeat. I always tell my students to imagine that their conductor is drawing a barline for them and when they get to the bottom it’s the first beat of the bar.

It’s also really important to hone the internal metronome, and make sure the tempo (or speed) remains steady throughout.  This is what most people think the conductor is for, and although it is one part of my job it’s only a very small part! 

2 – Communicating colour:

The emphases within music are like inflections in speech.  Having excellent dynamics (volume) and articulation that are consistent across the band are key to connecting with an audience and giving them a performance they can understand.  I like to think of it as performance in colour, rather than in a dull grey. While my right hand is keeping the time, my left hand tells the band what they should be doing – play smoothly, play in a more ‘bouncy’ style, be louder, accent that note, stop abruptly.  My left hand is very articulate and it speaks lots of languages!

As a conductor you’re always learning.  A gesture that means something to one person might mean nothing to another.  To that end I have to keep adapting and trying new techniques. Between the band and I we have our own special language of unspoken communication, not only in my hands but in my facial expressions too.  So whilst from behind the musical director might be an enigma, the band has to be able to read me like a book.

Musical Director

3 – Building coherence across the ensemble

In order to bring the band together as one ensemble, I have to know what I want.  For every hour of rehearsal it takes at least another hour of preparation in advance.  I start by analysing the score to make sure I know what everyone is meant to be doing when.  Listening to recordings of different interpretations can also be really helpful when studying the score to know what you do and don’t like.  At this point I am formulating my own interpretation of the music. I also find it useful to know a bit about the history or intended meaning of the piece.

Once I’ve decided what I’m after I practice in front of a mirror.  It sounds a bit vain, but it’s really helpful – if I don’t understand my own gestures then how will anyone else?  I decide where to cue people in, which part to focus on and bring out at each point and how I would like each part to be played.  Only then do I take it into the rehearsal room.

In rehearsals there is some talking, but I try to keep speech to a minimum – if I have to explain what a gesture means then it’s probably not doing its job!  Rehearsals are used to bring everyone together and make sure we are understanding the music in the same way. I am very keen on using exercises to get the band listening to each other across the room, not just their own part, and blending as an ensemble regardless of the piece in front of them.  Our current favourite exercise is swapping seats and mixing sections up – the difference in sound when we do this is remarkable. At that time there is a real coherence of ensemble, and I like to think it’s got something to do with me!

4 – Teaching and trusting

As musical director of a community band, I am also teaching at every moment throughout rehearsals.  I try to develop new techniques in our players, from improving stagecraft to encouraging good home practice techniques, to explaining new terms that pop up in pieces from time to time.  I run sectionals for the band, and also offer 1-2-1 sessions which are particularly useful for soloists so we each know what the other is going to do at any moment.

Trust is really important between the musical director and players, as without knowing we can rely on each other we can’t work effectively together.  Building that non-verbal relationship and communication line with each and every player is a priority for me and something I am constantly building on.  One day I am determined to have entire conversations with the third cornets using only our eyebrows…!

Musical Director

5 – Choosing the music:

Programming is a big part of being a musical director.  I love putting programmes together, but it’s much harder than it might sound.  Getting it just right is tricky, as everyone has different tastes. My top tips are:

  • Know your audience – find out who is going to be listening and play to their interests.  Think Tom Jones on a bandstand and Gustav Mahler in the concert hall. Obviously that’s an overgeneralization but the basic principle is there.  Play what people want to hear depending on the occasion or they won’t come back!
  • Know your players – there’s no point choosing a programme where every piece is really challenging for your players.  There has to be a balance of quick wins, things to work on, and pieces that will really stretch your players.  Everyone in LMB is there to enjoy themselves, so we want to stretch people and encourage them to improve, but not exhaust them so they never come back!
  • Find the balance – it’s all about balance.  From mood (loud, upbeat numbers vs softer pieces to calm things down), to difficulty (the hardest piece your players have ever played vs something that only needs two rehearsals), to style (traditional marches vs pop music arrangements) a programme is like life.  Never too much of one thing – make sure the musical diet is balanced!

When possible I also try to champion the musicians of today in my programmes.  Music is constantly evolving and reflecting its time. For me, championing contemporary composers and arrangers is, as a musical director, really important.  Music is written to be played, so let’s set it free from the page and support the musicians of today who are telling our story to the players of the future.

Most importantly when programming, I like to remember that you can’t keep everyone happy.  Musical taste is subjective so there will always be pieces in there that each player and audience member likes better than others.  By trying to maintain a balance I hope I’m getting it right (but I’m sure the band will tell me if not!).

Want to know a secret?

The musical director position is the scariest one in the band.

First off, there’s no big chunk of brass to hide behind, but it’s also the most exposed part.  If the band decides to go rogue and ignore me, there’s very little I can do until they start watching again.  And if I go wrong? It’s a little more noticeable than that F# that the horns missed in bar 12! That’s where trust comes in.  The band trust me to lead them in the right direction, and I trust them to follow me wherever I go. We are a team: I am completely useless without them, and they need me to translate so we all speak the same language.

Musical Director

How did you get there?

This is a question I get asked a lot.  How did I end up in front of a brass band?

It was completely by accident.  I’ve been playing my whole life and when I went to the University of Nottingham the first thing I did was join the brass band.  When they were looking for a new musical director I was pushed up to the front to have a go. I’m still not sure why my friend decided I should try it, or why I agreed, but it was a truly magical experience.

As a 5ft 2in eighteen year old with very little confidence, standing in front of a brass band and hearing live music start at just the wave of my hands was the most incredible feeling.  I will always remember the emotion that coursed through me as a rather silly ABBA medley was blasted out. Not the best piece of music, and definitely not the best rendition, but one that will have a special place in my heart forever.

The next semester I studied abroad at McGill University in Montréal.  The Schulich School of Music there offered conducting as an optional course so I jumped at the chance to learn properly.  My teacher, Alain Cazes, was a professional tuba player with the Orchestre Métropolitain and a great conductor. He taught me from the basics up to performance standard, and made me realise quite how hard work being a musical director would be.

On return to the UK I was taught by Sarah Tenant-Flowers, a fantastic choral conductor.  She took on two students each year as apprentices and I was lucky enough to work with her each week on both conducting and rehearsal technique.  She was a very inspiring teacher and championed women in conducting. I also took over as musical director of the University of Nottingham brass band and led us to victory in our second ever competition.

After graduating I continued to work on my conducting and have taken every possible chance to lead bands and other ensembles.  I was delighted to be appointed as musical director of the LMB Community Band in February 2018.

Musical Director

Think you could do it?

In the autumn of 2018 I started teaching a conducting course.  The twelve week programme I developed has been really successful and my four protégés will be making their début conducting performances in the LMB Christmas Concert on 1 December.

They have worked really hard on everything from beat patterns to score reading, baton technique to rehearsing an ensemble.  What do they have to say about it?

“Since becoming a beginner conductor, I’ve started looking at my own conductor during rehearsal an awful lot more! Understanding the nuances in the hand movements is really important to get across the articulation that you want. I now understand that as a player I’ve always taken for granted how well the conductors I have worked with are able to silently (and seamlessly) convey these instructions – it’s really quite hard, and something I’m working on to improve.”

Caroline Williams

“I’ve really enjoyed the classes. The studying of scores isn’t new but making both arms work in different directions doing different things for hours certainly is. That is more difficult than I’d expected!! … Christmas concert? Yes I will find that very nerve-wracking as people will be watching on both sides!”

Nicola Gilbert

The final pause

From an accidental beginning I was given some wonderful opportunities which I grasped with both hands (then waved around!). It’s been hard work getting to this point and I’m sure it will continue to be, but every time the band blasts out that first fanfare or whispers its final magical chord I know it’s all worthwhile.

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