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My journey as a woman conductor

by Helen Harrison

Helen Harrison

International Women’s Day feels like the perfect time to use a phrase I often quote; “If you can see it, you can be it’.

Many women with a passion for music may never have considered becoming a conductor. Perhaps it doesn’t feel like a realistic option. If I can open up that idea for some of those women through my own work on the podium, I’ll be very happy.

Currently, I’m one of seven women conductors taking part in the flagship 2022/23 Women Conductors programme (WoCo) run by the Royal Philharmonic Society in association with Sage Gateshead and Royal Northern Sinfonia, the orchestra of Sage Gateshead.

The WoCo programme enables women like me to develop a relationship with the warm, generous, and brilliant musicians from Royal Northern Sinfonia. Feedback sessions with the players are built into the process so we really benefit from their expertise and knowledge.

Alice Farnham is the visionary Artistic Director of WoCo. The programme is designed to give us the experience, skills and artistry to conduct orchestras at the highest level.  And it’s simply thrilling to conduct a world-class orchestra such as Royal Northern Sinfonia.


So, what does the life of a conductor, or at least this conductor, look like? A snapshot of the last few months is a feast of music.

I’ve guest conducted orchestras including Royal Northern Sinfonia – for the very special Sage Gateshead tradition that is ‘The Snowman’, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sinfonia Viva and Leeds Conservatoire. I’ve also conducted operatic events with Opera Vox and Northern Opera Group.

I’m the Music Director for the brilliant Young Sinfonia based at Sage Gateshead, as well as Blackpool Symphony Orchestra, Lytham Choral and Preston Opera.

Being a Music Director brings a huge sense of responsibility. I work with players and singers over the long term, really getting to know them and their sound, making music together that serves our communities.

But becoming a conductor was a slow burn for me. The idea was initially sparked when I briefly conducted the Youth Orchestra I played in – what a feeling!

I went on to study Music at Cambridge University where I conducted several orchestras. At my final concert at Cambridge a player asked if I was going to music college to study conducting. I had no idea that this was something people did. Anyway, as a comprehensive school student, from an old mill town in Lancashire, I needed to get a job after graduating.

Fast forward a few years and I found myself in a corporate career at a senior level but felt something wasn’t right; I knew I wasn’t being true to myself. I had to pursue my dream to become a conductor, so I said goodbye to my corporate life. The rest is history.

I was learning on the job conducting various ensembles, but I needed focused training if I was to develop and grow as a conductor. My former career came in handy with my experience in ‘reading the room’, motivating and managing teams, being strategic and organised and understanding the realities of budgets.


I studied as an Associate Student at the Royal Northern College of Music building my technique, deepening my understanding of what it takes to be a conductor and tracking down further training opportunities. These included intensive Masterclasses for Women Conductors with the Royal Opera House, the National Opera Studio and the Royal Philharmonic Society.

Besides learning the technical aspects of conducting, we were coached by women conductors including Sian Edward, Alice Farnham, Jane Glover and Jessica Cottis.

The generous coaching of these role models, combined with the supportive network of women conductors I was part of creating was essential to building my career. I’ve been part of a group of women all playing a role in changing the face of how conducting looks.

How am I seeing things change for women conductors?

When I began conducting over ten years ago, I was often billed as ‘the first woman’ to conduct an ensemble – something that my male colleagues won’t have experienced!

Over the years I’m pleased that this is no longer something people draw attention to. I’ve seen a significant increase in the number of women conductors too; with more women studying conducting and more women hired as guest conductors.

Digging deeper into the stats though there’s still some way to go.

The number of women holding strategic leadership positions such as Music Director or Principal Conductor (positions known as titled positions), and women represented by agents is still relatively small. We need more women in titled positions with influence on the strategic direction and vision for an ensemble. This requires the Boards and Senior Management teams of organisations to play their role alongside our male conductor colleagues to ensure we continue moving in the right direction and change is lasting and permanent.

Here’s to a future where, rather than the gender of conductors being noteworthy, we simply talk about the music they make.