Behind the Music with Meadhbh Campbell

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


Meadhbh Campbell

This programme has been fantastic for developing my conducting technique and for learning many of the essential skills for working with professional ensembles.

In 2018, just five of the the top 100 international conductors were female. In attempt to help level the playing field, the National Concert Hall set up the Female Conductor Programme. 

We recently spoke to one of this year's participants, Meadhbh Campbell, and asked her for her thoughts on the programme.


Why did you want to be a conductor? As a child studying the cello in the Cork School of Music, playing in orchestras was the highlight of my week and an integral part of my musical development. When I joined the National Youth Orchestra and began to play under more international conductors, it dawned on me that where I might really like to be was up on the podium. This interest was fostered during my BMus degree, and when I first stood on the podium in front of an orchestra, I felt electrified by the experience. I knew then that this was something I would definitely love to continue.  

What do you think defines a good conductor? I think a good conductor is one who possesses both personal and technical qualities to efficiently and effectively bring a score to life. Excellent technique provides clarity to players and helps everything to run smoothly, but a huge part of being a good conductor is in the personality and attitude brought to the podium. Someone who is clear and thoughtful in their musical intention, who treats the music and each player with respect, and who does not place ego above musical expression, would be my ideal conductor.   

What are the challenges faced by female conductors? For a conductor of any gender, gaining experience on the podium and with ensembles is one of the biggest challenges. There are limited opportunities to conduct orchestras before reaching a professional standard - this lack of experience can lead to a lack of self-belief, and that’s why I think it is so important to make opportunities wherever possible. As a female conductor, the main obstacle I have encountered is people’s deeply ingrained beliefs, whether conscious or not, about what an orchestral conductor looks like. Attitudes are changing, and there seems to be no better time to be a woman studying conducting. However, as recently mentioned by maestro Marin Alsop in an interview, we do not want this to be just a trend as trends go out of fashion. Equality and diversity in the music world must be here to stay.   

Why did you apply for the Female Conductor Programme?  
I applied for the programme as I was interested in the opportunities it provided - working with fantastic mentors to improve conducting skills and professional development, and gaining experience working with top-class musicians. I was also drawn to it because of its focus on orchestral conducting, an area where the gender imbalance is more severe than in choral conducting. The programme is a great platform for us and provides a nurturing and supportive environment for learning. 

Eimear Noone who conducted the Oscars in 2020

What is the most important thing you have learnt so far? This programme has been fantastic for developing my conducting technique and for learning many of the essential skills for working with professional ensembles. However, I would say that the most important thing has been learning to own my space and feel entitled to be on the podium - to say “I have the right to be here.” I have become more self-assured and taking part in this programme has affected other parts of my life and work. We are pushed to think more, explore more, and this has strengthened my passion for music and, in a way, refreshed my enthusiasm for the work that I do.   

What would you say to someone considering applying for the next Female Conductor Programme? I would tell them to apply, without a doubt. Something that we have worked on during the course that I found particularly beneficial was fostering the belief that “I have a right to be here”, and anyone that is interested and enthusiastic but second-guesses their ability should apply anyway. I would also say that it is a wonderful environment for learning, but to be prepared to work hard and to enjoy this rewarding experience.   

Who is the conductor you most admire and why? There are many inspiring conductors, both past and current, that I admire. Naturally, Marin Alsop (left) has been a trailblazer for women conductors and she continues to push boundaries musically and politically. Another conductor that I look to is Bernard Haitink, whose gesture I find beautifully clean and expressive. In my opinion, flashiness loses its effectiveness quickly.  

What is your greatest ambition as a conductor? I would love to help people through conducting - whether this would be by doing fundraising concerts, outreach programmes or as an educator, it is important to me that I would make a positive impact. Programmes such as the famous ‘El Sistema’ in Venezuela have been successful in opening the world of classical music to those who might not otherwise have access or opportunity. Having these sorts of systems and programmes, where any child can learn regardless of their situation, is vital for the success of classical music in Ireland. Using the podium as a platform for good is essential for me - producing good performances of good music is a great thing to do, but I think there has to be more to it than that.   

What other skills, other than musical appreciation and interpretation, do you think you need to be a good conductor?  I think practising patience, respect and efficiency are key skills for a conductor. Being efficient in language and organised in rehearsals is crucial and helps to maintain a positive atmosphere. Patience and respect are so important as without them, there is a fundamental imbalance between the ensemble and the conductor and it’s no way to be making music. Respect for the musicians, respect for the score and a lack of ego allow the music to be the focus, as it should be.   

In your opinion, can anyone be a conductor? I do think, given the right training and environment, that anyone can be a conductor. However, to be a truly world-class conductor or musician there are traits or skills that cannot be learnt through study and there is some element of ‘magic’ that not everyone has. I think it is very rare to come across someone like Claudio Abbado or Carlos Kleiber. That being said, there is a need for conductors of all kinds, and for more people to take up the baton.  

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