Choral Conductors Today: Responding to a Shifting Career Model

In an effort to renew our understanding of the roles, responsibilities, and challenges choral conductors encounter and how they affect the choral ecosystem, Chorus America undertook a new study, updating survey findings from a decade ago. The results highlight both important challenges and reasons to feel confident about the health of the profession. 

Choral conductors love their jobs. While that claim has long been embedded in the choral music belief system, a just-published Chorus America survey report reinforces it with new data. And it’s a good thing, because survey data also shows that conductors’ career paths are lined with significant obstacles, including limited income, a wide range of roles and responsibilities, and unrelenting time demands. 

The point of the survey and the resulting report, Choral Conductors Today, was to “find out what the work of the choral conductor is,” according to researcher Roland Kushner of Muhlenberg College. “We have stories, but they’re not systematic.’” The report updates findings from a similar effort Kushner led for Chorus America in 2005.

Roland Kushner

Both the 2017 and the 2005 report received partial support from Westminster Choir College at Rider University in Princeton, New Jersey. Westminster’s director of choral activities, Joe Miller, was eager to participate because he knew career guidance for choral conductors has been sorely lacking. “These are issues I’d struggled with my whole life—being a conductor and what that meant. It was personal to me. I felt we had no information, nothing to read.”

Helping faculty of choral conducting programs to better guide future conductors is a goal of the survey. That was certainly a goal for another survey funder, St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. St. Olaf Choir conductor Anton Armstrong also stresses that colleagues in the field can use the research to understand how their musical and professional work compares with others in the field: “This study will help choral leaders see a wider realm than our own backyards. Our programs will only stay credible if we can stay relevant.”

Six hundred twenty-one conductors participated in the new online survey, a similar number to the 684 who took part in 2005. The resulting data shows “the population of the profession is diverse,” says Kushner. “Conductors lead many types of choruses all over North America.” In that light, any effort to paint a composite portrait of a “typical” conductor would be misleading at best. So instead, we’re attaching a sampling of faces to these key findings, drawing from interviews with ten choral conductors, including Armstrong and Miller, to see how their individual experiences both parallel and diverge from the data.

Choral Conductors Love Their Work

FINDING: Choral conducting remains a very satisfying profession.
FINDING: Choral conductors maintain a multi-decade commitment to choral leadership.

Ninety-four percent of the survey participants “strongly agreed” with the statement, “Choral conducting is a satisfying part of my musical life.” That’s up from 91 percent in 2005.

Forty-one percent set out to become conductors. Of the 10 conductors interviewed for this story, eight sensed their career destiny at an early age. Anthony Blake Clark, who’s just become music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, recalls that as a boy he transformed cardboard pants-hanger tubes into batons, and conducted along with music playing on television.

It’s also common to hear choral conductors say they’ll keep at it until the wheels start to come off. “I’m going to conduct the nursing home choir,” jokes John Hughes, director of choral activities at Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin. “When someone mentions retirement I kind of laugh,” echoes KellyAnn Nelson, founder and artistic director of the Young Professionals’ Choral Collective of Cincinnati and associate artistic director of the Cincinnati Boychoir. “I will be ‘guest clinicing’ in my 70s and 80s.” Armstrong, who has been at St. Olaf for 27 years and expects to retire before another decade has passed, understands why conductors have a hard time stopping. They worry, “Where will my instrument be when I retire? It’s been our way of making music.”

In Choral Conductors Today, 55 percent of respondents said they intend to be conducting 10 years from now—a majority, but a significant drop from 71 percent in the 2005 survey. And among respondents between the ages of 50 and 65, fewer than 50 percent intend to spend another decade conducting. Although she has yet to turn 40 and expects to stay active another 25 years, Caron Daley, director of choral activities at Duquesne University’s Mary Pappert School of Music in Pittsburgh, finds herself thinking ahead to retirement: “This is physically and mentally demanding work we do. I won’t be able to keep up this pace forever.” The pace has been increasing, says Hughes, because standards of choral performance have been rising. “It’s a grind to make your program stand out. I’m in the office five days a week all year. If you’ve been doing that 35 years you might want a break.”

94% strongly agreed: “Choral conducting is a satisfying part of my life.”

By the same token, rising standards may give older conductors a positive reason to pass the baton. “It’s a vote of confidence,” says Greg Hobbs, music director of Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas and conductor of the Meadows Concert Choir at Southern Methodist University. “They realize there are capable people coming up. They can say, ‘I know my ensemble is going to be in good hands.’”

Earlier plans for retirement might also mean choruses and choral leaders are paying more attention to succession planning, something Rob Istad says was extremely beneficial as he transitioned into leading the Pacific Chorale upon longtime artistic director John Alexander’s retirement. Alexander and other Chorale leaders began preparing for his 2017 retirement in early 2011, and the chorus conducted a national search before signing Istad as Alexander’s successor in 2014. In the years leading up to the transition, Alexander assumed what Istad describes as “a wonderful mentor-colleague role in my life.” Istad credits this careful, sensitive planning with making the transition a smooth one for the whole organization. “The singers, administrators, and donors felt like they were part of a process.”

FINDING: Conductor education and training begin early, and continue throughout the career.

Choral conductors demonstrate commitment to their profession through considerable investment in developing their craft. Eighty-eight percent of Choral Conductors Today survey respondents say their formal educations prepared them well for their work. In addition, a sizeable majority pursue opportunities for post-graduate training, although 2017 percentages were down somewhat compared to 2005.

“Because conducting is always a second instrument,” Daley points out, school is the place to introduce those skills to voice and piano majors who decide to pick up the baton. Not everyone entering doctorate work relishes more theory or literature courses, but Hughes appreciates the chance they gave him to dig in. “They change the way you look at music, how composers wrote during their time. It helps me evaluate new scores: Is this good writing or not? That’s huge.”

As their careers progress, conductors inevitably confront gaps in their formal training. Magen Solomon, artistic director of San Francisco Choral Artists and the San Francisco Bach Choir, views those occasions as opportunities to learn by doing. “I challenged myself by taking more difficult jobs and having to, in some cases, grow into them,” she says, citing a time she was invited to conduct the Oakland Symphony Chorus. “I had done very little choral-orchestral work,” she says, “and when I got hired by San Francisco Choral Artists, I hadn’t really done a ton of contemporary work, and that’s their specialty.”

88% of respondents say their formal educations prepared them well for their work.

Daley believes the field needs more of these kinds of apprenticeships. “A conducting career can be quite isolating,” she says, so she’s busy trying to create opportunities to observe more experienced colleagues, “people that can really inspire me.” Without continuing education opportunities, Clark fears he’d get stale. “It can easily happen when you work with the same ensemble every week. You get used to them, they get used to you.”

As conductors’ administrative responsibilities intensify, continuing  education on topics other than music has assumed vital importance.  Clark ’s career development plan for this past summer included courses from the Indiana University School of Philanthropy. He says a friend who’d been there described it as the best tuition money he ever spent. Conductor Miguel Felipe, who’s on sabbatical from the University of Hawaii to serve as interim director of choral activities at Boston University, wishes his schooling had included opportunities like that. “I’d like to think I’ve been clever enough to find my way, but I sure would have been able to launch with more gusto and make fewer mistakes if some of the realities of being a professional musician were included in the graduate curriculum.” Because he did not get that kind of instruction in academia, Felipe finds it “imperative” to attend events like the Chorus America Conference, which “provide the constant chance to revisit entrepreneurial topics.”

Key Findings and Full Report

Visit our Choral Conductors Today page on our website for:
1) A summary of key findings from the report.
2) A downloadable version of the full report, for members.
3) The original report from 2005.

Choral Conductors Today survey questions about education and training produced revealing data about specialization in the field. In the 2005 study, about one-third of respondents reported they had specialized in choral conducting in their highest earned degree (as opposed to music education, voice, or instrumental music). The 2017 response is nearly double that amount. Sixty-two percent focused on conducting.

 “We’re coming out of a time period where a lot of people walked in to choral music because of their interest in playing piano or organ or singing, and kind of combining those skills, whereas now we’re starting to specialize,” observes Nelson. She notes in particular that music educators who once might have focused on research at the PhD level are now “conducting primary ensembles in both university- and community-based programs because we have so much to lend in terms of the teaching process, the engagement piece of bringing people together through singing.” Because of this focus on engagement, choruses are becoming more relevant and marketable, and therefore more attractive to conductors, Felipe believes. “They’re the most popular place in the world for participatory music-making.”

The Choral Conductor’s Lifestyle Is Becoming More Challenging

FINDING: The real income of choral conductors has decreased over the past decade.
FINDING: Choral conductors create careers directing multiple choruses.

While the 2017 survey data shows average annual total earnings have remained flat since 2005, in the upper-$60,000 range, that amounts to a loss in income because, as the report points out, consumer prices increased by more than 30 percent in the intervening years. Sixty-nine percent of 2017 respondents consider their compensation “fair”—a majority, obviously, but still a sharp contrast with the 94 percent who strongly agree that choral conducting is a satisfying profession.

Another significant element of the choral conductor’s lifestyle is the tendency to lead several choruses. The report does not make connections between this tendency and income level, but conductors themselves do. “Choral music is a game of hustle,” says Hughes. “People can augment their income by having a church job or directing a community choir, and that can help get them to a different income bracket.” But it’s more than the money that motivates conductors to work with multiple choruses. “It’s rejuvenating to work on different repertoires and with different populations,” says Daley. “I have found, in the first two years of being on other side of grad school, that being involved in the community and gigging around was an education in itself,” says Clark. “The rewards are making connections.”

Gigging around has its downsides. Half of the conductors represented in Choral Conductors Today reported they had no employment benefits, up from 41 percent in 2005, indicating that health care and retirement planning is a growing challenge for the field. On top of that, a portfolio career can make it harder for conductors to lead a healthy lifestyle. Before he took over the Pacific Chorale, Istad began his day early, tried to get to the gym, worked during the day with students at Cal State Fullerton, fought through evening LA traffic to rehearse one of his two symphonic choruses, then returned home to answer email and study. “It can be sort of a grind,” he admits. When a family is part of the mix, the juggling intensifies. Hobbs constantly must ask himself, “How many bedtimes am I willing to miss this week?”

71% of children's choruses are female-led.

Even on just the art side of the equation, maintaining balance poses a challenge for busy conductors. As Daley has observed, with each additional chorus, “there’s that much less time to invest in the development of that group, in your preparation for that group. It’s easy to spread oneself thin in this work.” Daley, who leads four choruses, says she’d like to have only three, and it appears others share the sentiment. Whereas 45 percent of the 2005 respondents led three or more choruses, only 29 percent made the same claim in the new survey. At the same time, they appear to be working more intensely with the choruses they hold onto. The 2017 survey shows that conductors today meet more often with their singers—an estimated 84 times over the course of a season, compared to 74 in 2005.

Seeing the challenges represented in the latest survey responses, Miller wonders whether the remarkable strides choral musicians have made in the past 20 years have come at a cost. “So many people have taken on so much responsibility for making a life and having several choruses and serving so many communities. It’s the hardest thing about what we do. You feel your energy going out all the time. Even if you’re gratified by it, you come to a point where it just takes the wind out of you.” Felipe also considers the potential for burnout a real concern: “I would just encourage us to start looking beyond the days when having a dozen choirs was somehow a mark of success.”

The Gender Gap Has Not Gone Away

FINDING: Differences in the experiences of female and male conductors have persisted.

“There is a stark difference between what women and men are experiencing” with regard to income and the types of choruses they conduct, notes Kushner. “It hasn’t closed since the first survey.” Choral Conductors Today reveals that female conductors’ average income remains at about 74 percent of male conductors, where it was in the 2005 report.” While the conductors we spoke to for this story find the persistent pay gap frustrating or even depressing, several noted that it’s important to view the situation in context—particularly in light of the similar pay gap between men and women throughout the American workforce. Within the conducting profession, Daley points out, men have been dominant throughout its long history. “I’m still aware of a glass ceiling, particularly working with orchestras, but,” she adds, “in professional choral realms I’m seeing a shift.”

In a related finding, Choral Conductors Today indicates that male conductors predominate in all but one of the chorus categories represented in the survey. The exception is children’s choruses, which are 71 percent female-led. Nelson is quick to stand up for the importance of this work and the formidable artistic skills it requires. “There’s powerful music-making happening in our youth area,” she says. Notably, the male-female conductor income gap is smallest within the children’s chorus category: 18 percent rather than 26 percent overall.

69% of respondents consider their compensation fair.

At the same time, Nelson is bullish about prospects for women conductors in other categories. She notes that opportunities to make high-level choral music depend less than they once did on a post-secondary academic environment, where she feels that degree requirements can be a particular obstacle for female job applicants, whether for “political reasons” or because it can be difficult to balance the requirements with planning for a family and the possibility of maternity leave. Thriving independent choruses have created “a place for people who may not have been able to get a terminal degree to go out and get really killer skills and experience. You’re going to start seeing more women at the helm of these organizations.”

Conductor Profiles Will Become Even More Diverse in the Next Decade

Rob Istad launched his conducting career at about the time of Chorus America’s first conductor survey. “The model now is totally different,” he says. Academia, traditionally seen as a path to a secure, well-paid job with benefits, has become less inviting, advanced degree or not. “Higher education is really falling apart in our country, the tenure system is going away, universities are relying more on adjunct instruction.” In response, choral conductors have begun “dreaming about creating a life in music that isn’t tethered to the educational system.” They have found a different niche by starting their own choruses, piecing together a living. “I look at the entrepreneurship required of my students graduating and I am amazed and humbled by their dedication to promoting choral music,” Istad says. “The word ‘entrepreneur’ and the word ‘music’ never came together when I was starting in the late ‘70s and ‘80s,” says Armstrong. Now, he points out, Chorus America offers programming focused on choral entrepreneurship.

Although they may be shifting away from day jobs in academia, Armstrong asserts that conductors are and must remain teachers first. “By default, we are our singers’ primary vocal instructor in many instances.” Not only that, he says, “we are interdisciplinary teachers in choral music. At all levels, we see diversity in the choral art: the membership of our ensembles, an understanding of repertoire that goes beyond the Western choral canon … We have to see that greater role; it has to become more the norm than the exception.”

The most effective conductors and choral organizations will be the ones that are most responsive to their communities, believes Felipe. “We need to seek constantly to understand our communities as they evolve,” he says. Because members of these communities so seldom receive adequate music education, he adds, “we’d better find ways to welcome them with no assumption of prior knowledge.” That places a greater burden on conductors. Nonetheless, says Daley, “If that’s where the field is going, we as conductors also need to broaden our skills. We need to lead that.”

The next ten years will give us a chance to observe how some of these expectations play out in the career path of the choral conductor. For the moment, Joe Miller feels grateful for what he sees in the pair of studies that have been completed. They tell a story of growing participation in choral singing and a remarkable level of commitment among choral conductors. “I think the future is hopeful,” Miller declares, “and this study helps to illuminate that. It allows us to say, Yes, go dream.”

Don Lee is the managing editor of the Voice, as well as a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. At NPR in Washington DC, he was the executive producer of Performance Today.