The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: The Spokane Symphony’s Conductor’s Workshop Teaches the Next Generation of Great Conductors

By Taylor D. Waring

An international group of up-and-coming conductors converged in Spokane to partake in The Conductor Workshop, a weeklong program helmed by the Spokane Symphony’s own James Lowe and James Ross. Over the course of the intensive week, students worked with Lowe and Ross in order to transcend the basics of conducting in order to create their own definitive style, maximize the conductor-symphony relationship, and allow for their own interpretations of masterworks to be fully realized. 

I was fortunate enough to sit in on the final day of the workshop, which took place at the Cowle’s Music Center at Whitworth. Over the course of the workshop, Lowe and Ross masterfully took turns guiding the aspiring conductors through the nuances of conducting. For instance, Lowe spent several minutes demonstrating the difference between a pointed, angular gesture with the baton as compared to a soft, loftier gesture. 

With another student, they worked on the exact way she ought to hold the baton, which initially felt too similar to the way one might hold a violin. After some back and forth, Lowe encouraged her to hold it like a violin — the conductor was indeed a violinist, and it was the most natural way for her to bring out the best in the symphony. Conductor James Ross spoke to the semi-mystical side of conducting — “you want the sensation that you can throw energy out of the wand”

From an outside perspective, the instruction offered in this workshop might border on pedantic. However, for these exceptional conductors in pursuit of mastery, it was precisely the kind of feedback that will allow them to take their craft to the next level, setting them apart in this highly competitive field. 

spokane symphony

photo by Taylor D. Waring

While technically intense, the workshop attendees had amazing rapport with both Lowe and Ross. After an attendee, quite passionately led the Spokane Symphony through a rendition of a Schubert piece, Lowe lauded the performance, saying “That’s excellent Schubert.” The aspiring conductor said, “Thanks, I ate sherbert for a week.”

The pair continued to volley as Lowe went on to provide feedback, suggesting that the conductor was perhaps too caught up in the passion of the moment. “The art of conducting is like chess,” Lowe said,” it’s about being a few moves ahead of the orchestra.” The conductor replied wryly, “Telegraphing your intentions is good — to a certain extent.” Without missing a beat, Lowe replied “One might even say it’s the entire art of conducting.” Lower proceeded to work with the conductor on exactly how he can telegraph an important transition in the Shubert piece.

Ross worked closely with another young conductor from Dallas, who was struggling to be direct with parts of the symphony in a Haydn piece. Ross said, “while this was really high-level conducting, when things went askance, you weren’t on them — be hyper aware and immediately grab the orchestra.” As he continued, his point was not simply about the act of being ‘in charge’ of the orchestra, but also about properly bringing the piece to life: “this song has this emotional tension — I might kiss you, but I might bite you.

During the intermission, I had the opportunity to speak with Lowe and Ross about their experiences leading the workshop. Speaking to James Ross, who has led similar workshops at Julliard, Yale, and the Curtis Institute of Music, I asked him what it was like to teach with Lowe. He spoke to their very different training as conductors and how it ultimately benefits the workshop attendees.

“James [Lowes]’s is an English / Scottish guy who had no formal training in conducting at a program, but he had lots of beautiful, the best European conducting teachers. So he picked up his information piecemeal and applied it to himself. I’m a little bit more a product of an official program I have to say.” 

“I think that I’ve maybe picked up a little bit more of my information from an American. And although he’s conducting this very American orchestra, his, his, um, his pool of knowledge comes a little bit more from the UK and all over Europe.

“And the thing is, we, have this weird sense of keeping continually —without knowing why —arriving on exactly the same thing of what’s the most important. So our eyes have developed differently, we find a very different language for it, but what we’re actually seeing and trying to address is almost always the same.”

During this time, I also spoke to James Lowe about the intricacies of teaching such a diverse group of aspiring conductors. I asked him how he approached nourishing the unique potential in each conductor. 

“That’s almost impossible to answer. What I do believe is that everybody has a natural way. If someone is really kind of strong and aggressive, then they need to develop their more gentle and lyrical side. Someone who’s more gentle and lyric and shy needs to develop the more willful side if it, as it were.”

“So much of conducting is also about breathing and, because we make no sound. And we have to invite what we want from the orchestra in advance. So this is a really, really important thing for us as well. You never make music at the moment. It’s not like playing a piano where you put your hands down and the chord is right there.”

“It’s kind of like an invocation,” I asked, “Like Fantasia.

“Absolutely. Yes. That’s why that cartoon really works so well is cuz that is exactly that kind of idea.”

From an outside perspective, one might ponder the ongoing importance of symphonies and even the entire role of the conductor. As both Lowe and Ross would tell you, a good orchestra can play any piece without a conductor. Theoretically, one could even imagine a teleprompter AI program replacing a conductor — one that simply feeds tempo, dynamic, and other information to the symphony. 

But that would be to fundamentally misunderstand the incredibly human job of the conductor. It is the conductor’s job to interpret the music for the symphony, which is also to say it is the conductor’s job to complicate the music. In the coming age of programs, lowest-common-denominators, and automation, we will need conductors, and symphonies — not for raw entertainment, not for content, but to continually remind us of our humanity.