Alice Farnham

alice farnham

Today we meet Alice Farnham. Alice tells us about her career so far, the inspiration behind her music and her plans for the future.

BoardroomMum Can you please tell me a little bit about yourself?

Alice Farnham Music is in my family and I started to play the piano at 11. I was a late starter! I became quite obsessed with the instrument and just practiced all the time. I then moved onto the organ at 13. I went on to become an organ scholar at Oxford, which at the time was very male dominated. The first time I conducted a choir I hated it. I had no confidence and felt I was not good enough. However, I was forced to do it and over time I really began to love it and felt I could do it quite well.

BoardroomMum Can you please provide some information on your career to this point?

Alice Farnham I began my career as an organist, holding Organ Scholarships at St. Hugh's College Oxford where I read Music and later was Organ Fellow at St. Thomas' Fifth Avenue, New York. For three years I studied Symphonic and Operatic Conducting at the St. Petersburg State Conservatoire under the legendary pedagogue, Ilya Musin. I also trained with Leonid Korchmar.

For three years I was Artistic Director of the Borås Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, and have conducted the Brighton Philharmonic, but mostly I conduct ballet and opera. Recent engagements include a guest conductor for Royal Ballet Covent Garden, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English Nationaal Ballet, and Danish Royal Ballet, English Touring Opera and Grange Park Opera Rising Stars.

I was Music Director of Welsh National Youth Opera for their 2013 production of Paul Bunyan conducted Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at the Mariinsky St Petersburg in November 2013.

As well as being an experienced Assistant Conductor at the Royal Opera House and Welsh National Opera, I am Head of Morley Opera School and of Women Conductors at Morley, which is the ground-breaking series of workshops to encourage women to enter the conducting profession.

BoardroomMum Were you clear on what you wanted to do as a career?

Alice Farnham Although I was a late starter I really loved music. I practiced all the time so progressed very quickly. I was however always encouraged not to think about music as a profession. However I knew it was for me when I was at university. I started a degree in Classics but decided to change to Music after a year. I am so pleased that I made that decision. I also had plenty of setbacks in my 20s but they really just reaffirmed my desire to be a conductor.

BoardroomMum What is it like being a conductor?

Alice Farnham I have what I call a portfolio career. A mixture of part-time and contract roles. I cannot say what is happening say in 5 years. It also can be a very solitary life. Conducting an opera is more collaborative and a team effort. Working with an orchestra is incredibly solitary and it needs to be like that. I cannot be an orchestra’s best friend but at the same time I cannot be stand-offish.

I talk about scores with a couple of colleagues I have studied with and we support each other as we try to find the next job. I have some experienced, older mentors that I can also consult. When I am working on an opera I may not see a soul for weeks as I sit down to prepare and learn the music. If anything due to technology the conductor’s role has broadened with more administration tasks as well as taking artistic decisions.

BoardroomMum Do you believe quotas are a positive development? Would they work in the classical music world?

Alice Farnham It would be very difficult to introduce quotas in the classical music world. Conducting is also completely unregulated.

BoardroomMum Would you have done anything differently?

Alice Farnham Due to the nature of opera, I probably should have studied modern languages instead of classics. I would have also focused more on the piano and not the organ.

BoardroomMum There are many challenges facing classical music including often debated cuts/changes to music in education, audiences. What can be done?

Alice Farnham It is very upsetting but music here is not being seen as a serious profession. We do have a problem in the UK around classical music. There is much turmoil and discord in music education and it unfortunately has become a class thing as well. If you take a look at the Venezuela programme, which started 40 years ago it was not a government initiative and classical music is very much alive there. I would also like to see more female conductors in family concerts so children can see that it is quite normal for both genders to be conductors.

BoardroomMum Can you tell us more about your work at Morley College and female conductor programme?

Alice Farnham We ran a pilot course for 6th formers in March taking female students from a variety of junior departments for the conservatoires in the UK. They were asked to nominate a student, who had never conducted before but felt that they may be able to do it. We took 8 students. We also wanted to plant the idea that they may want to be musicians. I based the teaching very much along Russian lines, such as working on very short teaching in drills and body language. To this end we also hired a stagecraft coach for the duration of the course. On the final day we let them lose on their own orchestra.

We have had a lot of positive feedback and hope to launch a large project with workshops across the UK in 2015 and to widen the age from 16-25. I am also planning a festival and I hope to get funding for this. It is very important for young women to see older women conduct.

BoardroomMum What are your plans personally and professionally?

Alice Farnham I finally feel really confident in my work. It is now time to push myself up to the next level. I hope to go back to St Petersburg and conduct more family concerts. I also feel extremely grateful that I am able to earn a living doing what I love to do. It just gets better and better.

BoardroomMum Thank you Alice for your time and insight. We at wish you every continued success.