It's a common question: How is conducting in a recording session different from conducting on stage? While stage conducting involves working night after night with a specific orchestra, session conducting is usually a contracted, one-time-only job performed by professional composers, orchestrators, and conductors who work in or around the film, television, and video game industries. For these professionals, session conducting work is a repeatable way to earn money while networking and staying involved with their field.
Orchestrator and film conductor Pete Anthony says, "It's very rare for someone to make a living just as a film music conductor; almost all of us have to do different things.”
In the film industry, everything moves very quickly. Film scores are ready only moments or at best a few days before recording sessions, and are far from being set in stone. As a result, session conductors have to come to sessions ready to work hard and learn fast. At the top of the session, conductors usually take the opportunity to discuss the music with the composer and orchestrator, touching on specific concerns including tempo, sonic balance in the performance, difficult passages, and electronic elements of the score. Then, session conductors assist musicians, who may be seeing the score for the first time, by correcting wrong notes, unpacking difficult parts, and clarifying the intentions of the piece. Occasionally, session conductors must also adjust to last-minute changes to the score, usually due to the director's request.
"The conductor is like the director of a play... He takes suggestions and gives directions; but for the most part, he lets the great talents perform without interfering."— Film conductor and music director Mike Nowak
When it's finally time for the recording, the job of a session conductor is quite similar to that of a stage conductor: to keep the group unified, to make adjustments, and to serve as the emotional center of the performance, shaping the music. Every session is unique, with its own rules, requirements, and challenges. Ultimately, a session conductor’s job is to help the orchestra play well, aid the recording engineer in getting a clean take, and support the composer and director in achieving their goals for the work.
Session Conductor at a Glance
The professionals who work as session conductors are usually also composers, orchestrators, arrangers, stage conductors, orchestral musicians, or some combination of the above. Because experience in a film or television recording session is critical for a session conductor, it's rare for seasoned stage conductors to suddenly dive into session conducting without prior experience in those fields. On the contrary, most session conductors work in or around the film, television, and video game industries for some time before they conduct their first session, getting their start as composers' assistants, film orchestrators, or orchestral musicians. Session conductors who manage to build a strong industry reputation and work well with music contractors can count on a steady flow of gigs.
Finding work as a session conductor is all about connections—not just with music contractors and music directors, who usually hire conductors, but also with film composers, who have a lot of power in choosing who conducts their work. Aspiring session conductors should start by working as a film orchestrator, composer, or orchestral musician to learn the ins and outs of the process. Occasionally there are gigs for an assistant session conductor, which can serve as an excellent bridge for those who are ready to transition into conducting. It can be difficult to land those first gigs but good work in a few sessions is sure to produce more opportunities.
- Music notation (reading and writing)
- Instrument skills
- Music theory
Like their stage counterparts, session conductors serve as the emotional center of the orchestra. They must be affable, soothing, and likable, while also capable of intense passion for the music they conduct. Unlike stage conductors, session conductors must be particularly humble. Film conductor Mike Nowak says, “A conductor on the concert stage is the star; that's not what I do. My opinion of what the music should be is irrelevant. I'm only doing my job right if I'm helping the composer get exactly what he wants."
Depending on how much music is being recorded, a conductor’s job on a given film can take anywhere from one day to more than a week. A very small field of regulars consistently conducts for film and television. Film conductor Pete Anthony says, "It's very rare for someone to make a living just as a film music conductor; almost all of us have to do different things.” The profession is often combined with work as an orchestrator, instrumental performer, arranger, or copyist. It’s a good idea to choose two or more jobs (like these ones) with complementary networking opportunities.