A note-perfect path from engineering to conducting
31 January 2017
If you met an engineer who went on to become a professional conductor, you would probably ask them about their new job. But I was interested to find out why Sinéad Hayes had studied engineering in the first place.
‘It’s a very good question. I think engineering seemed like the sensible choice, and NUI Galway was really close and has a fantastic engineering department. When I was 13, I won a music scholarship to study in the Royal Academy in Dublin and that was really intensive practice for about three years. I asked myself: is this what I’m going to spend the rest of my life doing? I also did a bit of work in a string quartet in Galway and I wondered if it was a safe career path.
‘At school, I was good at maths and physics and I liked building things, so I thought: right, I’ll do engineering. Civil was the one that really attracted me, because there was a clear job path. And at college, I’d be able to go home every weekend and teach music, which put me through college, so that was great.
‘I think if there had been a music department in Galway, I’d have been very tempted. Always in the back of my mind, I was going to go back to music although I didn’t really think I would. But then, when I was 27, I did.’
‘What subjects did you do for your Leaving Certificate?’ I asked.
‘Music, physics, geography and French. Physics and music were the two that I really loved and I had a fantastic physics teacher. My music teacher wasn’t quite as inspiring and maybe if it had been the other way around, I might have gone straight into music. I don’t regret a minute of the engineering, though. It was great training and I really think every musician should take a year out and do something completely different.’
‘Oh God, yeah. You practice all the hours and get to Leaving Cert, and you go off and do music and practice, practice, practice. Then all you can think about is trying to get a job in music and being a musician. You don’t know the reality of going into an office, every day, and having to do something really responsible and use your brain in a completely different way. It gives you a whole different perspective on music and the privilege it is to be a musician.’
Link between engineering and conducting
‘So what does engineering give you, now?’ I asked. ‘Or is it just a case of having done something different? Anything different would do?’
‘No. Engineering taught me how to think analytically. And as a woman, and I suppose I should mention this, it definitely taught me to think more dispassionately…think like a man, almost.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘Yes. Because you’re in the class with 70 others, and you’re one of the gang and you have to get on with it. You’re not male or female; it doesn’t matter. The building has to stand up; you have to get the right answer at the end of the day.
‘You look at a problem and think what the solution could be and then hopefully make the solution happen. And certainly that translates into conducting because when you’re in front of an orchestra, you’re listening all the time, analysing and thinking: okay, what’s the problem, what’s the solution and how can I make the solution happen?
‘Of course, there’s the artistic side which was probably ultimately why I left engineering, because it wasn’t tapping into that creative side as much as I’d hoped. But that said, I remember spending hours in the library at college reading about Peter Rice and Calatrava and thinking this was the engineering I wanted to do. And I was very lucky because I did eventually get to do some of that, but it just turned out not to be quite enough.’
Something struck me, then, about being a woman in a man’s field, not just once but twice over. ‘I used to go to the National Concert Hall quite often,’ I said to Hayes, ‘and now that I think of it, I never saw a female conductor.’
‘Yeah, it’s very male dominated, almost like engineering. You don’t get the same number of girls applying for the conducting courses at the start, so you don’t get the follow through, and inevitably some drop out along the way. You need a certain amount of tenacity and you need to be good a self-promotion and that, as an Irish person, is where I fall down sometimes. But I’m learning quickly; I need to overcome that trait.’
Hayes laughed. Which she does a lot. She certainly comes across as down to earth in that Irish way, and friendly and enthusiastic, but you can also tell that she is driven. She has had to be.
Working in male-dominated professions
‘More and more woman are deciding that they want to try conducting and that’s brilliant, but the problem is that they always get judged slightly more harshly than their male counterparts.’
‘Does that happen?’ I asked.
‘I’ve seen terrible young male conductors, absolutely awful, and then a female conductor will get up, maybe not brilliant, but they’ll get torn to shreds…absolutely torn to shreds. It takes a very strong kind of personality to come through that.’
‘What about when you’re in front of the orchestra?’
‘They’re much more supportive because they know what it’s like, so they’ll always be constructive. You get the odd dinosaur who just thinks that women shouldn’t be on the podium, but they’re everywhere in life, so you just have to accept it and roll with it.’
‘And did you find the same thing in engineering?’ I asked.
‘Always, at the start. And there’s often a bit of an issue when people come in late to a project; everyone kind of sits back and watches you being tested. At meetings, it was particularly obvious; you would tend to almost get shouted down a little bit. And, of course, being younger in the profession, as well, you tend to get talked over a little bit unless you step up and go, “Hang on…”
‘It was the same with orchestras, always at the start they’re checking whether you are competent, but once you prove you can do the job it doesn’t matter whether you’re pink or blue, male or female, as long as you can produce the goods.
‘I think as a woman you always have to work just that little bit harder. Certainly in conducting, you have to be that little bit better to be treated on the same level as your male contemporaries. That’s just a fact of life. But engineering was a great preparation for that because you develop a confidence in your own ability. And you don’t fly off the handle; you don’t lose your cool, which plays into the stereotype of the hysterical woman.
‘I went straight to London, though, and all my professional engineering career was there, and I think London is a bit more open to things. Also, I picked small firms where you were very much an individual. People would ask for you on jobs and things like that.’
Switching from engineering
So how did Hayes make the seismic switch from a career in engineering to a career in music? And a conductor? How do you become one of those?
‘I was working in my second job in London and I decided I needed to have some other interests, so I was playing the violin a lot, pretty much every night in an orchestra. And I started to look at what the conductor was doing – which you should never do – and thought: maybe I could do that.
‘Then I did an adult education course in Morley College in London in orchestral conducting. It was a 15-week course. You had a Friday-night class to learn how to wave the stick and then on Saturdays you’d get to conduct an orchestra of real-life people. We hacked our way through all kinds of repertoire. And I remember, so clearly, the very first session conducting. It was a Saturday morning with about 15 people playing various instruments at various levels, and a switch clicked. That was it: I’d found my thing.
‘I was 25 and it took a couple of years while I learned the basics of conducting and got my violin playing up to scratch, and then I applied to do a music degree when I was 27. I was very lucky because my firm allowed me to work part-time as long as I was on the phone at all times. So I spent the three years of my degree practising violin but, during breaks, I’d be on to the steel contractors or the site foreman. It was probably the most stressful three years of my life.
‘Then in the summer before I did my masters I worked as a freelance engineer for my first firm and got enough money together to get through the year. Since then, I haven’t done any professional engineering. That was 2008.’
I asked Hayes if she ever missed engineering.
‘Yeah, sometimes. But my sister’s still in it, so it’s great. She sometimes brings problems to me. She says, “Sinéad, can we just talk through this?” But I’m finding my knowledge is becoming quite out of date. I’m eight years behind and Eurocodes have really come into play and there are all kinds of new materials.
‘It’s a weird thing, though,’ Hayes laughed, ‘I miss the smell of building sites. When you walk through a building site, you can smell wet concrete and it brings back a whole set of memories. I occasionally just wish I could spend a day on-site doing the setting out, or something like that.’ She laughed again. ‘A building site is a whole little kingdom; I love it, I have to say.’
But Hayes is undoubtedly happier in her new profession. I asked her if Berlin, where she is now based, is the Hollywood of classical music.
‘It definitely is. No question. It’s all on the doorstep: world-class concerts any night of the week. And I have access to a really amazing piano teacher, who I couldn’t afford to study with if he lived anywhere else. So I feel very lucky to be here. I conduct in Belfast a fair bit and do some work in the UK, as well.’
Collaboration between arts and engineering
As a last question, I asked Hayes about the engineering education she received and what she would change.
‘It was a brilliant course in Galway; there’s no question. We were so strong in the conceptual stuff. I’m biased about NUI Galway, of course, but it was absolutely fantastic. I’d hold it up as a kind of beacon, definitely. Whereas if you’re talking to me about music education: now I have some ideas on how you could change that,’ she laughed.
Then she suggested a very novel idea.
‘What I would like to see is engineers co-operating with artists and learning how to speak their language a bit more. I think we could really get some interesting things happening, because engineers are very practical people. And if artists could approach things in a more precise and analytical way, then maybe artists could become more efficient, self-sufficient and less reliant on outside funding.
‘If engineers could get into the minds of artists a little bit and be more open to that way of thinking, then you could produce really interesting projects or installations…all kinds of stuff. I think it would be great to see much more co-operation between those two disciplines.
‘There’s no music department yet in NUI Galway, which is a huge shame, but in University College Dublin there’s a fantastic music department, so it would be great to get them talking with engineers and just see what comes out of it. You need to have a framework so both groups feel comfortable, which would take a bit of thought to set up, but I think it could be really cool.’
Music for engineers: I am definitely all for that. It may seem like a radical idea now but, once upon a time, so too did female engineers and female conductors.
Sinéad Hayes website:
See Sinéad Hayes make her RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra debut in Dublin’s National Concert Hall with Mozart’s ‘Paris’ Symphony in this RTÉ news piece:
Barry Brophy is an engineer, lecturer in technical communications at UCD and writer.
For more, please see the Tech Comm page on the UCD website.