Does it Matter If a Conductor Has a String-Playing Background?

Many conductors are former or current string players. But when a conductor has stringed-instrument experience, is he or she more disposed to nurturing the art of string playing?

By Brian Wise | From the May-June 2022 issue of Strings magazine

Roughly a third of the major orchestras in the United States will be hiring a new music director in the coming seasons, according to a report in the New York Times, in cities from New York and Baltimore to Chicago and Minneapolis. Odds are that a number of string players—whether active or lapsed—are on headhunters’ lists to fill these posts.

This pattern has repeatedly played out at the New York Philharmonic, where recent music directors have been accomplished violinists, including Lorin Maazel, Alan Gilbert, and current maestro, Jaap van Zweden. Similarly, at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, music director Gustavo Dudamel was reared as a violinist in Venezuela’s El Sistema program, and principal guest conductor Susanna Mälkki was trained as a cellist. Globally, the conducting pool is even more string-saturated.

But when a conductor has stringed-instrument experience, is he or she more disposed to nurturing the art of string playing?

Jaap van Zweden
Jaap van Zweden. Photo: Brad Trent

“I think the short answer is yes,” says Paul Watkins, cellist of the Emerson String Quartet and a former music director of the English Chamber Orchestra. He believes that his string background has made him a more efficient communicator on the podium. “String sections can tell when you are speaking the same language. Not every non-string-playing conductor can access that kind of shorthand about fingerings and bowings and points of contact. There are a few subtleties perhaps that I can convey a little bit more quickly and efficiently than some other conductors.”

Watkins credits his time as principal cellist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, when he was in his 20s, with cultivating an awareness of ensemble mechanics. “I was nicknamed ‘the lighthouse’ because I kept looking around at all the other exciting stuff that was going on around me,” he recalls. Today he insists he is careful not to favor or micromanage cello sections. “Maybe I’ve overcorrected, but I want to have my ears laser-focused on every single part of the score that I am conducting, not just the string parts.”

Gemma New
Gemma New. Photo: Rox Cox

Historically, some string-playing conductors have built on their unique assets. Eugene Ormandy was a violin prodigy who went on to preside over the Philadelphia Orchestra, cultivating its famously lush string sound by doubling the second violins with violas. Arturo Toscanini’s cello training gave him insights into the instrument’s role in opera and symphonic repertory, though he won little praise for musicianly camaraderie. And Mstislav Rostropovich seemed to carry over the grand lines and sweeping gestures of his cello playing to the directorship of the National Symphony Orchestra, even if some critics found his conducting technique rudimentary.

Gemma New, the recently appointed principal conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, believes that her training as a violinist helps her understand the contributions of a section player. “The philosophy of the string player is important to sympathize with,” says New, who has a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from the University of Canterbury. “I feel every string player must be valued and heard. They have a responsibility to bring their experiences to the repertoire, rather than feeling [anonymous]. It helps mentally.”


Eric Jacobsen
Eric Jacobsen. Photo: Shervin Lainez

New found that her baton technique grew out of her violin bowing gestures. “Holding a baton like a bow helps you move with the string section,” she says, “whereas if you were going to conduct the winds and brass you would hold the baton slightly more vertically and have more click in the preparation beat.”

This view is shared by Eric Jacobsen, who conducts and plays cello in the New York chamber orchestra the Knights. He finds it helpful to speak the language of more than half of an orchestra. “You have the information of how 40 or 50 people onstage raise their bow and put it on the strings,” he says. You can identify “how the sound is produced by such a large body of people. Therefore, you can help unify a concept of sound for half the orchestra.”

Avoiding Blind Spots

But Jacobsen, who is also music director of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, warns of blind spots. For one, a string-playing conductor must be alert to the fact that brass and woodwind players must breathe to produce a sound. “No conductor can give an upbeat without a breath and still think there’s going to be devotion to the downbeat in the way that you want, and a concept that will make something beautiful,” he says.

Pinchas Zukerman
Pinchas Zukerman. Photo: Cheryl Mazak

Several string-playing conductors say they consciously avoid focusing on their own instrument group within the orchestra. “I actively try to work against that,” says Stephanie Childress, assistant conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and a classically trained violinist. “For me, the violins are not the most important section of the orchestra when it comes to the structure of the musical mechanism. For me it’s all about harmonic shifts, and a lot of that happens through the lower sections of the orchestra.”

Though she downplays her accomplishments as a violinist—she was a string finalist in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2016 and again in 2018—Childress couldn’t resist when the St. Louis Symphony invited her to perform Bach’s Double Concerto before conducting two weeks of chamber-orchestra concerts in March 2021. “I had to give them a disclaimer: I don’t consider myself a violinist anymore. I don’t practice. I had to oil my gears.”

The practice of conducting from a soloist or concertmaster’s position is as old as the modern orchestra itself. The flamboyant Niccolò Paganini regularly assumed the function of a conductor, giving cues and establishing tempos, sometimes by stomping his feet as he played. More recently, when violinist and violist Pinchas Zukerman took up the baton in the 1970s, critics enthused over his demonstrative stage manner. “He has been known to smile, chuckle, hum a bar or two, mumble his approval to an adjacent player, or even stamp his feet,” wrote New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg in a 1978 assessment.


Paul Watkins
Paul Watkins. Photo: Marc Mitchell

Zukerman was more guarded, telling Schonberg, “When I started conducting, I felt very uncomfortable on the podium, and very naked without the violin. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Finally, someone suggested that I use some of the basic, second-nature movements that go with fiddle playing in my conducting, and that helped.”

Going to the ‘Dark Side’

String-playing conductors at times grapple with a shift in status, from rank-and-file colleague to authority figure. Jacobsen recalls his trepidation when he told his father, retired Metropolitan Opera violinist Edmund Jacobsen, that he was leaving his string quartet, Brooklyn Rider. “It was the hardest conversation musically of my life,” he says. “I remember that elevator ride up to my dad’s apartment to tell him that I was going to leave the quartet because I really felt like my musical life lay ahead in conducting. I was so scared that he would disown me. He hates conductors like the best of them.”

But quartet playing taught Jacobsen how to advocate for his point of view, a skill that is essential to conducting. “There’s no anonymity in small groups,” he says. “It’s really hard to hide your feelings and your opinions. You have to defend every idea.”

Maureen Hynes teaches cello and conducting at the Manhattan School of Music and Long Island University (LIU) Post. She finds that conductors without string backgrounds search for the proper lingo at times. “They know they want to hear something different, but they don’t know what words to use,” she says. Having string experience gives an immediate knowledge ofhow a bow works to create a line and inflection and shape in the music. This is not just about bow direction or articulation but also bow speed, bow pressure, and bow placement to create a specific color in the sound.”


Hynes took up conducting after being asked to form a string ensemble at LIU. “I had someone say to me once, ‘Oh, you’ve crossed over to the dark side.’ But I have to honestly say that when conducting my colleagues, I’ve had a really wonderful experience. That feeling does exist—that it’s us against that person on the podium—but that’s something I certainly never want to feel.”

Stephanie Childress
Stephanie Childress. Photo: Tom Porteous

The Role of Celebrity

Finally, fame can be a vital asset when establishing a later conducting career, as Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman demonstrated when they took up the baton (where their inherent musicality and charisma has perhaps made up for any technical shortcomings). Meanwhile, a young, unsung conductor might spend a decade or two with smaller ensembles, learning in the process.

And dilettantes are easily revealed. When violinist Maxim Vengerov turned to conducting following a mid-career shoulder injury, he went back to school, earning two diplomas from the Ippolitov-Ivanov Institute. “I’m an old-school kind of performer,” he told The Scotsman. “If I haven’t studied something, I just can’t do it. I’d break into pieces.”

In a kind of reverse phenomenon, conducting students at the renowned Sibelius Academy in Helsinki must pursue an instrument as a degree requirement. Among its prominent graduates are John Storgårds and Jukka-Pekka Saraste (both violinists), Sakari Oramo (a violist), and Hannu Lintu, Klaus Mäkelä, and Susanna Mälkki (all cellists).

As the orchestral field seeks to broaden its ranks and present a more welcoming image, it stands to reason that the most versatile collaborators are best equipped to carry it forward. Childress of the St. Louis Symphony says that while she no longer considers herself an active violinist, she still teaches the instrument privately and has also begun learning the viola. “I’ve learned more about the art of conducting from sitting in orchestras than from conducting master classes,” she reflects. “My interest in conducting wouldn’t have been sparked without being a violinist.”