How rock climbing and conducting an orchestra are similar

Does your city have a classical music radio station? Do you ever listen to it? Do you ever wonder what “classical” really means? (Probably not what you think!)

Classical music has always been part of my life — making it, as well as listening to it. When I was a little kid, back in New York City, the first time I saw and heard a live orchestra, I dreamed of someday conducting one myself!

Not many people with that dream ever get the opportunity. So when we moved to West Sacramento and I discovered that for any cultural experiences one had to cross the river into Sacramento, I realized that was my chance of a lifetime!

I advertised everywhere I could (with no budget, but with encouragement from the West Sac government offices), and little by little, amateur musicians from all over the region came out to help form our ragtag group: the West Sacramento Community Orchestra.

Organizing and running an orchestra is a feat of endurance, a more-than-full-time job. I didn’t know it was impossible for one person to do it all — so I just did it all. I had no experience, no guidance, only a burning desire to do this.

I had watched conductors, on TV and in person, all my life.  I had a vague idea of what their job consisted of, at least in public, but not what led up to that public moment. So I set out to learn. My father-in-law had played the flute with the Sacramento Symphony, decades prior, and he helped me figure out what I needed to do, and especially, what I needed to learn.

And boy, did I learn! How to read an orchestral score (the very complex music the conductor reads as the orchestra plays). Where to seat the musicians. How many of each instrument we would need, and what to do if we didn’t have them. How to conduct them, so they could learn the music and produce an integral, symphonic (“playing together”) sound. How to promote our orchestra, advertise, solicit players, find places to practice and perform. I did the work of several people, while learning the fine art of conducting.

Oh, and let’s not forget — how to ensure that all of those musicians (artists, all!) manage to get along and play well together.

It was an overwhelming work load. The first few months passed in a blur, as I cared for two very small children, in a new house in a new neighborhood, and taught college classes in the evenings. But then, it arrived — our first concert! In public!

Our first concert venue was a community center in West Sacramento. It had a wonderfully large area in front, big enough for the whole orchestra of about 25 musicians, plus instruments. Percussion. Piano. The whole bit — a real symphonic orchestra.

And then I discovered the similarity between conducting and rock climbing.

I wasn’t a climber then. My son was four years old, my daughter six. Now, though, I can recognize the experience for what it was: fear.

Now, as a climber, I know fear, and know that I can stubborn it out, talk it down, do successful battle with it. I know that now. But then….

Then I was just a Mom, a teacher, and more recently, a conductor. But deep down, where it counts, I knew what I really was: a fraud.

And if I messed up, everyone would know it.

So I didn’t allow myself even a moment of uncertainty. I over-prepared. I over-rehearsed the musicians. I oversaw every detail — chairs, music stands, drums, piano, printed programs, cookies in the vestibule — there was no detail too small for my attention.

When I finally stepped out, smiled, bowed, and stepped up onto the podium, I knew that everything was perfect. I had learned the one, main secret of success: over-preparation. And it brought with it a feeling of satisfaction that I wasn’t prepared for.

As I smiled at my musicians — my orchestra! — and raised my baton that first time, I acknowledged — and dismissed — the wave of fear that made my hand tremble for just a moment. I knew I had the antidote to that fear. I had prepared it away. I had killed it by meeting it head-on, early, and not allowing it in.

No one that night suspected that I might not know what I was doing, that I might not have been trained for this job. They only saw me, the conductor.

I was an orchestra conductor because I believed I was.

When my son suggested that we climb Half Dome together, I felt the same fear: I’m not a real climber. I’m a fraud, not trained enough to do the route he suggested, called Snake Dike, that snakes up the shoulder of Half Dome. I didn’t belong up there, climbing at almost 9,000 feet.

But the photo of both of us standing on top of Half Dome that day hangs on my kitchen wall as proof that you can do whatever you believe you can do. Version 3


p.s. I created/founded the West Sacramento Community Orchestra in 1990, and conducted it for four years. We played in venues all over West Sacramento and in Sacramento, including Downtown Plaza. When I moved away and could no longer continue as director or conductor, the orchestra continued under a new baton. They now perform two holiday concerts each year in West Sacramento.

4 thoughts on “How rock climbing and conducting an orchestra are similar

  1. Great post Dierdre!

    There’s a lot we can all learn about dedication, passion, and just never allowing yourself a chance to fail. Thanks for the inspirational thoughts.


    • You’re welcome. 🙂 Now if only I could apply that “no chance to fail” idea to my rock climbing…!

  2. Terrific article D! I have visions of Iris reading your blog. Any coincidence it’s almost spring?
    Keep on playing and never stop believing! “None but our self can free our minds” – Marley.


    • So true! (Marley) Reminds me of your first free-solo, in New Hampshire. You had to really free your mind to do that! Bravo!

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