Composers Hone Their Conducting Skills Through BMI's Annual Conducting Workshop

Composer Jermaine Stegall conducts a 32-piece orchestra Aug. 27 at the 19th annual BMI Conducting Workshop
Photo: Annamaria DiSanto

Composer Jermaine Stegall conducts a 32-piece orchestra Aug. 27 at the 19th annual BMI Conducting Workshop 

“Composers spend so much time in our studios writing the music, but it’s the musicians playing that bring it to life. Otherwise, it’s just notes on a page,” says conductor and composer Lucas Richman, explaining why he founded and leads BMI’s annual conducting working. 

This year’s six-day workshop concluded Aug. 27 with the eight participants each conducting a 32-piece orchestra at The Bridge Recording Studio in Glendale, Calif. 

While not every composer chooses to conduct his or her own music, Richaman feels that it's vital that a composer “stand on the podium and feel comfortable to properly convey the music they have written” at least once.

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Richman, the music director of the Bangor (Maine) Symphony Orchestra who studied under Leonard Bernstein, started the BMI Conductors Workshop 19 years ago with BMI  VP of film/TV relations Doreen Ringer-Ross. He had taken composer Earle Hagen’s (The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show) scoring workshop through BMI in 1987 and found it so helpful, he wanted to give back to the performing rights organization and help train composers in an often neglected area. He has run the workshop since its birth.

“With technology the way it is, it’s a reminder to a lot of our composers that there are live people playing,” says Ray Yee, BMI assistant VP, film/TV relations, who oversees the program. The class is comprised of composers who are already on their way, but aren’t yet seasoned pros. Some have conducted before, others have never picked up a baton. “This isn’t for students coming out of universities,” Yee says, “And when you catch composers later in their career, they’re not willing. We focus on the up-and-coming class of composers.” 

The timing was right for Jermaine Stegall, a 2004 graduate of USC’s Thornton School of Music. Stegall has written the music to more than 20 films and worked as a composer’s assistant. He often conducts his own orchestra, but saw the conducting workshop as an opportunity to “take additional tools and add them to my palette.” Plus, the ability to lead an orchestra of professional musicians “with the understanding that this is all about learning” was appealing. 

Stegall’s biggest takeaway, in addition to improving his technique, was a reminder to “breathe with the players,” a point that Richman stresses in his holistic approach to conducting.

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Richman starts the workshop with the participants conducting two pianos, he then adds in a string quintet, and then woodwinds, until the students are ready to conduct with the full orchestra. They don’t conduct their own music -- “it’s not about their ego, it’s about the music,” he says. Instead, they select a classical piece or a piece of beloved film music from such legendary composers as John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith.Their conducting sessions are filmed for them to keep and study.

With tours of TV and film music becoming more popular -- composer Jeff Beal began a tour of the music from House of Cards in July, while Ramin Djawadi will take the music from Game of Thrones on the road in February -- being able to conduct could become a more essential skill. “We’ve become a much more visually oriented society; it’s not enough to sit anonymously in our studios and write music,” Richman says. “Audiences crave the celebrity of someone who’s written the theme for Mr. Robot or whatever it may be. To see that person conduct that music, [they think] ‘Wow, I’m within reach of the person who’s had this kind of creativity.’ That’s inspiring for future generations.”

In its 19 years, the workshop, which is free to participants, has ushered through more than 160 participants, many of whom have gone on to become preeminent film and TV composers, including Nathan Barr (True Blood, The Americans), Jeff Beal (House of Cards, Blackfish), Laura Karpman (Underground, The Living Edens), Rolfe Kent (Sideways, Up in the Air), Christopher Lennertz (Ride Along, Supernatural), Cliff Martinez (Traffic, Contagion), Lolita Ritmanis (Batman Beyond, Teen Titans), and Juan Carlos Rodriguez (East Los High, Matador).