Being a music conductor is quite a rare profession, especially if you are a woman. Alice Farnham is one of the small percentage of doing just that and she lives right here in Tottenham. She has a growing international reputation, having travelled the world with her conducting work and performing at places such as the Royal Opera House and Royal Festival Hall. Alice is also passionate about encouraging more women into the conducting profession and Rachel Ho caught up with her to find out more.
Photo supplied: Alice Farnham is one of Britain's leading female conductors.
Where did you grow up and what did your parents do?
I grew up in Norfolk in a very small village. My mum was a teacher, and my dad a vicar. He died when I was 10, so I was brought up by my mum.
Describe your relationship to Tottenham.
I have lived in South Tottenham, near Seven Sisters tube since 2006.
How did you get into conducting and what inspires you?
I trained as an organist at university, and had to conduct the college choir. Initially I was terrified and definitely wouldn’t have imagined then that I would become a conductor, but gradually became more interested in that than playing the organ. In my late twenties I went to St. Petersburg for three years to train full-time as a conductor. Then I spent many tough years of finding freelance work, but this provided me with a lot of interesting opportunities to build up experience. These days I mostly conduct opera.
You have travelled all around the world with your conducting work - where are some of the most memorable places you have performed?
The strangest job was conducting an open-air performance of Turandot in February this year in the Arctic Circle. It was minus 28 degrees! It was for a sod-laying ceremony for the Swedish city of Kiruna moving to a new site.
(Pictured left: photo suppled)
I love working in St. Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre. The singers and players are so incredibly talented and hard-working, and give something special to the British music I did with them. (Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia). I work a lot in Sweden these days, and love the long rehearsal periods, good working conditions, friendly musicians and it's more polite and much better paid than here.
Singapore was also really fun, where I performed with the Singapore Lyric Opera Orchestra.
What advice would you give to women who want to become a conductor or perform classical music as a profession?
Women conductors are still a tiny minority. Four years ago the gender ratio in the UK (and it’s not much different anywhere else) was 1.4 %. However it's changing and there are some really talented people coming up. It is has since gone up to 3.5%.
I am Artistic Director of Women Conductors with the Royal Philharmonic Society, and we run workshops for professional and student female musicians who want to transition into conducting.
You basically have to be trained as a professional musician before taking up conducting, but for many years women haven’t seen themselves in that position, and it’s useful to start conducting training as early as possible. It takes some years.
Photo source www.alicefarnham.com: Alice Farnham
As a woman, how do you think Tottenham has changed? What would you like to see change?
It’s a much nicer place to walk around these day, but I have to say, I have always felt quite safe. I’m used to living in supposedly dangerous places, and I think common sense and always being alert comes second nature. I also have some really lovely neighbours.
Favourite thing to do in Tottenham?
I love the new wave of cafes that have opened up. Craving Coffee is a favourite, but also Blighty and Lemon Cafe. A farmers market is something I was hoping for for many years, and I support Tottenham Green Market when I’m around on a Sunday. I’ve had one of the best pasta dishes ever in Passione e Tradizione, and the pizzas at Loven are great. Tottenham Art Classes at the Beehive are also good, and I don’t feel too self-conscious with going there as I'm rubbish at drawing, although there are some really talented artists there too.
Find out more about Alice and her conducting work: