Approximately 64,700 music directors and composers are employed in the United States. There are many situations in which music conductors and directors may work. Music teachers in schools often take on conducting as a natural extension of their duties. Conservatories and institutions of higher learning frequently have fine orchestras, choruses, and bands that often choose conductors from the faculty. There are numerous summer festivals that employ conductors, and conductors may also find positions with community orchestras and choruses, local opera companies, and musical theater groups; even amateur groups sometimes hire outside conductors. For the very exceptional, of course, there is the possibility of conducting with famous orchestras, theaters, and opera companies, as well as the musical groups associated with broadcasting and film studios. Well-known conductors are in demand and travel a great deal, appearing as guest conductors with other orchestras or making personal appearances.
A career in conducting begins with a sound musical education. Working as an instrumentalist in an orchestral group under a good conductor whose technique can be studied is an important step toward conducting. The piano is an important instrument for conductors to know, because it will not only enable them to score and arrange more easily, it will also be useful in coaching singers, which many conductors do as a sideline, and in rehearsing an orchestra as an assistant conductor. That is not to say, however, that other instrumentalists do not also acquire a good background for conducting.
With a solid foundation in musical education and some experience with an orchestra, young conductors should seek any way possible to acquire experience conducting. There are many grants and fellowships you can apply for, and many summer music festivals advertise for conductors. These situations often present the opportunity to work or study under a famous conductor who has been engaged to oversee or administer a festival. Such experience is invaluable because it provides opportunities to make contacts for various other conducting positions. These may include apprenticeships, jobs with university choirs and orchestras (which may include a faculty position), or opportunities with community orchestras, small opera companies, or amateur groups that seek a professional music director. Experience in these positions can lead to offers with major orchestras, operas, or musical theater companies as an assistant or associate conductor.
Not everyone will want or be able to move into a major role as a conductor of a well-known orchestra. Many, in fact most, will remain in other positions such as those described. Those seeking to further their career as a conductor may want to invest in a personal manager who will find bookings and situations for ambitious young talent. More than likely, entering the conducting field will take more of an investment than most other careers. Music education, applying for grants and fellowships, and attending workshops, summer music camps, and festivals can add up to a considerable expense. Moving into a good conducting job may take time as well, and young people going into the field should not expect to reach the pinnacle of their profession until they are well into their 30s or 40s or even older.
There is no real hierarchy in an orchestra organization that one can climb to the role of conductor. The most likely advancement within an organization would be from the position of assistant or associate conductor or from that of the head first violinist, that is, the concertmaster. Conductors generally move from smaller conducting jobs to larger ones. A likely advancement would be from a small community orchestra or youth orchestra (probably a part-time position), to a small city orchestra (full or part time), and from there to a larger city orchestra, a mid-sized opera company, or directorship of a middle-level television or film company. Such advancement presumes that the conductor has had sufficient recognition and quality reviews to come to the attention of the larger musical groups.
Conductors who take the leadership of mid-sized city orchestras and opera companies may be in the hands of an agent or manager, who takes care of financial matters, guest bookings, and personal appearances. The agent will also be looking for advancement to more prestigious conducting jobs in larger cities. At the point that conductors receive national or international recognition, it becomes a question of which major position they will accept as openings occur. It is unlikely that a major city orchestra would promote someone within the organization when the conductorship is open. It is more probable that a search committee will conduct an international search to find a big name conductor for the post. Conductors themselves can advance to top-level administrative positions, such as artistic director or executive director.
Learn as much about the orchestras in your town or nearby communities. Try to land a summer or after-school job with one of these organizations, which will allow you to interact with music industry professionals.
Acquire an internship or fellowship with an orchestra.
Apply for assistant positions with orchestras or at summer music festivals. Consider hiring an agent to help you land a job.