Mikaela Wu is in her final year of a Master of Music at Excelsia College. After finishing her Bachelor of Music in flute and working for a year and a half, she was encouraged by staff at Excelsia to do a master’s. ‘I’d had enough of spending time on one instrument (flute) and practising on my own. When I found out I could do my master’s in conducting and hang out with people all the time, I decided to start my studies.’
The budding conductor will start working with Wollongong Conservatorium Community Orchestra later this year. She is also working closely with the Strathfield Symphony Orchestra in order to develop her conducting skills, under the instruction of Sadaharu Murumatsu, artistic director of the ensemble. Wu has learned there is more to conducting than a series of hand gestures. ‘A misconception is that people think conducting is waving hands, but you have to talk during the rehearsal which freaked me out. It’s terrifying to have 30 faces staring at you waiting for you to say something useful, but the conductor has to be very strong on the relational aspect and understand their ensemble. That’s been helpful because a lot of things are happening in a rehearsal and if you don’t have that knowledge, you’re going to feel overwhelmed. What you indicate to people can change how they respond. I was encouraged to conduct in a welcoming style rather than in a demanding style.’ Murumatsu agrees, saying, ‘Some people think studying conducting master’s is learning how to wave your arms or technique, but it’s not choreographed movement. Teaching conducting is learning how to build the music, learning about what kind of sounds we want to create and orchestra techniques.’ Conductors have to study not only music and instruments, but also about the history of music, psychology and communication so they can connect with their orchestra within a short period of time.
As part of her learning process under Murumatsu, Wu has weekly homework to complete, such as listening to symphonies which can individually run for 30 to 40 minutes! ‘In a symphony, you have several parts and I might be given one movement or section which could run for 8 to 10 minutes. I have to go through the score, learn where I need to queue different instruments in, share the mood of the piece and record myself doing it with an invisible orchestra. I used to put different sticky notes on my bookshelf of where the different instruments would be in front of me but now I know where they are without them being there,’ says Wu.
Murumatsu and Wu started the Excelsia chamber orchestra last year and, despite the difficulties faced by lockdown, they managed to perform a concert with the choir last year. ‘Most of the members are from the community and we’re hoping this group will attract more orchestral musicians to study music at Excelsia,’ Wu explains. ‘I’ve started learning the viola this year which has been fun in a group because there isn’t pressure to play everything. On your own, you play it slowly and you can’t play all the notes, but when you play in a group you can listen to everything and all the different parts and join in but there isn’t as much pressure to play the whole piece yourself,’ Wu explains.
If you are interested in specialising in conducting, why not explore what Excelsia College’s Master of Music can offer you?