Within the conducting profession, the word “maestro” is sometimes used to describe the person wielding the baton and coaxing joyous sounds from voice, instrument or both.
Blair School of Music’s community of maestros—gaining influence both at home and abroad—is venturing into the world of orchestral conducting with an energy and success that would spur Jorma Panula, renowned teacher of conducting, to step from the podium and take note.
Interestingly, Blair’s rise has come despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it offers no degree in conducting.
“Fortunately, Blair does not have a conducting program, and this is fantastic as people like myself were able to take advantage of so many resources not available at other institutions where graduate students would have priority,” says Scott Seaton, who graduated from Vanderbilt in 2004 with a bachelor of music in saxophone performance. For the past two years Seaton was director of orchestras at Kent State University in Ohio. He is now principal guest conductor of the Toronto Philharmonia Orchestra and music director of the Lakeland Civic Orchestra, maintaining an active guest conducting schedule with orchestras in North America and Europe.
“For example, in my senior year at Blair, I was able to form an all-volunteer orchestra and perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring,” Seaton explains. “I am not sure this would have been possible at other institutions.”
But those other institutions are, indeed, recognizing Blair School of Music’s talented graduates.
“Since Blair has had many rising conductors in recent years, I think that people are starting to notice that Blair is a fantastic nest for conductors to develop without the formalities of a conducting ‘program,’” Seaton says.
There may be no structured orchestral conducting program at Blair, however, Robin Fountain, professor of conducting and director of the Vanderbilt Orchestra, handles the preparation of orchestral conductors in a highly effective manner. Fountain’s efforts are the key to why the music school has seen its alumni earn admission to graduate schools such as Yale and Vienna Conservatory.
Fountain graciously downplays his role and impact at Blair, saying simply: “I try to train young musicians to collaborate as performers and conductors.”
Fountain—who has studied at Oxford University, the Royal College of Music and Carnegie Mellon University—decided he wanted to be a conductor when he was pressed into service while a member of his high school choir.
“I found that not only did I enjoy it, but that others enjoyed the work when I did it.”
As have Blair students.
“I decided I wanted to be a conductor after attending Professor Robin Fountain’s beginning conducting class,” says David Torns, who graduated from Vanderbilt in 1998 with a bachelor’s in violin performance. “From that point, I enrolled in the advanced class, and I was fascinated with the possibilities of the symphony orchestra as a vessel for music. The colors and palettes that are available to a composer are limitless. So the possibilities for a conductor’s interpretation in serving the composer become limitless as well.”
John Concklin played with the Vanderbilt Orchestra at Blair, eventually earning his bachelor’s in 2006 in viola and piano performance. The creative director of the Cobb Symphony Orchestra in Kennesaw, Ga., from 2008-10, Concklin spent this past year enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He says the tools he uses to lead an orchestra are based upon his experience as member of an orchestra.
“It’s sort of like playing on a team,” he says. “If you know how to play the game, then it stands to reason that you may be able to lead others in doing it themselves.”
Torns says Blair provided personal guidance.
“I had wonderful coaching in chamber music from all of the members of the Blair String Quartet, which was immeasurable,” Torns says. He currently serves as assistant conductor of the Baton Rouge Symphony and music director of the Louisiana Youth Orchestra.
In addition to recognizing Fountain, Torns credits Amy Dorfman, associate professor of piano, and Emelyne Bingham, senior lecturer of the teaching of music. The trio, among many others at Blair, helped Torns hone his skills in transitioning from hearing the violin to hearing multiple instruments and understanding how they work in tandem.
Torns says such aural aptitude involves hearing the instruments’ “particular colors.”
“You can begin to pick out what an oboe is playing compared to a bassoon, for instance, because the two timbres are unique to one another,” he notes. “At the same time, as a conductor you are trying to blend the two colors so that neither of them sticks out more than the other.”
Getting to the point of hearing on that level requires years of work. For Blair’s conductors, much was done long before arriving at that point.
Joseph Lee, who received his bachelor’s from Vanderbilt in 1998 after studying bassoon, knew at a tender age he wanted to wield the baton.
“When I was 12 years old, I told my parents that I wanted to be a conductor and that I would need to begin lessons on a string instrument,” says Lee, who filled in as adjunct assistant professor of orchestra and conducting during the spring 2011 semester while Fountain was on sabbatical.
Lee says he was inspired by both his middle school band director and civic youth orchestra conductor.
Today, Lee is the resident conductor of the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra, director of the Huntsville Youth Orchestra, and music director of the Murfreesboro Symphony Orchestra and the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra, the latter two to which he was recently appointed.
Lee echoes the words of Seaton, emphasizing the fact that Blair’s lack of a formal conducting program gave him the freedom to “create my own path.”
“I began my conducting studies as a sophomore,” he recalls. “Not only did I organize my own ‘lab’ orchestras by bribing friends with pizza and soda, [Emelyne] Bingham also allowed me to share the podium with her during the Vanderbilt Opera Theatre production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. She had me conduct the entire first act, which was a monumental first experience for me.”
Lee went on to take Blair’s conducting courses and study privately with Fountain during the next two years.
“He would fast become my mentor and friend, a relationship that has continued into the present,” Lee says.
Dean Whiteside understands the advantages of Blair’s approach. Whiteside, who earned his bachelor’s in viola and philosophy in 2010, was admitted to the prestigious Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien during his junior year—a notable accomplishment—but deferred until he could finish his Blair degree. He now studies conducting in Vienna full time and recently made his European debut conducting the Ruse Philharmonic (Bulgaria) on tour.
“Music-making should be a dialogue,” Whiteside says, “and this is what Blair excels at creating.”
© 2016 Vanderbilt University | Photo credit: Lado Frank, Tom Kells and Daria Doyle