Behind the Music with Dara Pender

We speak to Dara Pender, one of the participants of the National Concert Hall’s female Conductor Programme 


Dara Pender

We create our own opportunities. I know it is the early stages but the sky's the limit.

To address inequality on the podium, NCH ran an initiative to encourage women to pick up the baton. The position of conductor is one of the most enduring and unyielding glass ceilings for women in the world of classical music. In 2018, out of the top 100 international conductors, only five were women; in 2015, across US orchestras, just one in five conductors were female, and in the 22 highest-budget orchestras, 21 conductors were male, and just one was female.

The National Concert Hall launched the Female Conductor Programme to address and highlight this imbalance, and encourage women in classical music to take up the baton and become orchestral conductors.

We speak to one of this year's participants, Dara Pender and ask her about her experience of the programme so far.


Why did I want to be a conductor? 
While I was studying for my degree, I watched conductors (on the Masters Conducting course) rehearsing the orchestra I was a member of.  I enjoyed every rehearsal, observing and absorbing every instruction. I thought to myself, I can do that. I attended a short conducting workshop and I got the bug. I really loved it.    

What do you think defines a good conductor? 
A good conductor must know exactly what they want to hear. They must know the score inside out and have the ability to express this confidently to the orchestra.  

What are the challenges faced by female conductors? 
There are some challenges for female conductors, as conducting is about expression and gestures and women can be very apologetic, how do you create the gestures that make that powerful sound without the apology? Are women’s gestures interpreted differently to men’s gestures? Since there are more male conductors how will the musicians react to a female conductor?    

Why did you apply for the Female Conductor Programme? 
I applied for the programme because conducting is something I really wanted to do and this was an unbelievable opportunity for me.

Eimear Noone who conducted the Oscars in 2020

What is the most important thing you have learnt so far? 
I have learnt to be confident and to be a leader, which are life skills that could be carried to any career.  I have learnt how to communicate what I want and how to express it (without saying sorry all the time).  

What would you say to someone considering applying for the next Female Conductor Programme? 
If it is something you want, go for it.  It is an absolutely fabulous journey. I love every minute of every weekend. I thought I was too old because it did say young and dynamic, so I was shocked, surprised and thrilled to be accepted on the course.    

Who is the conductor you most admire and why? 
There are two conductors I admire. The first is Eimear Noone, as she is powerful, expressive and confident when she conducts, and she is female, Irish and she juggles a young family. I also admire Dudamel because he is a genius. He is powerful, confident and knows exactly what he wants and how to achieve it, he is very expressive.   

What is your greatest ambition as a conductor? 
My ambition is to be the best conductor I can be and conduct all over the world if that's where it takes me. We create our own opportunities I know it is the early stages but the sky's the limit. 

What other skills, other than musical appreciation and interpretation, do you think you need to be a good conductor? 
Definitely good leadership skills, communication skills, confidence and the ability to express yourself using body language. 

In your opinion, can anyone be a conductor? 
I believe if you are interested in something and it's something that you really want and you have a love for it you will work hard for it. 

The National Concert Hall's Female Conductor Programme is kindly sponsored by Grant Thornton.