Zachary Allen Reflects on Preparation for Conducting Debut

Zachary Allen playing oboe on stage

At Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming spring performance at Orchestra Hall, we have a unique opportunity to feature a student conductor: CYSO oboist Zachary Allen. Selected by Maestro Tinkham for his dedication to music and deep interest in conducting, Zach has been a stand-out CYSO student for the past four years. As a high school senior, the May 21 concert will be Zach’s final performance with CYSO, and he recently reflected on his affinity for conducting and how he prepared for this exciting opportunity.

My interest in conducting initially stemmed from a single YouTube video. When I was in seventh grade, I saw a video of Roderick Cox leading the finale of Stravinsky’s Firebird with the Minnesota Orchestra. I’m not sure what exactly it was about this clip that caused it to leave such a big impact on me, but I do know that after seeing someone who looked like me conducting an orchestra, all I could think was, “I need to do that.”

Roderick Cox conducting the finale of Stravinsky’s Firebird with the Minnesota Orchestra.

My first conducting opportunity was four years ago at Interlochen Arts Camp. There’s a tradition at Interlochen where the concertmaster conducts the Interlochen Theme at the end of every performance. In 2019, I was part of the middle school orchestra and since we were one of the younger groups, our conductor was a bit more flexible with this tradition. He held a conducting competition at the end of a rehearsal to determine who would conduct the Theme at our final concert. I won the competition and had the honor of conducting.

Zachary accepts kudos from another conductor: Chicago Symphony Orchestra Music Director Ricardo Muti reaches for a handshake during the 2022 Chicago Youth in Music Festival

Although I had been interested in conducting for a while at that point, I had no idea how to actually go about pursuing it. For instrumentalists, there’s a fairly standard formula for creating a career: go to school, learn your excerpts, and take auditions until you get a job. For conducting, there is no set trajectory or “standard” way to create a career. After letting me conduct Beethoven’s 7th symphony during one of our CORE rehearsals, Maestro Tinkham told me was that conductors need to be entrepreneurial and not be bashful about seeking out opportunities. Later that evening, I sent him an email asking if I could conduct the Zwilich’s Avanti! at Symphony Orchestra’s spring Orchestra Hall concert. A few days later, he agreed to my proposal and started meeting with me over Zoom to prepare me for my first rehearsal with the orchestra.

“One of the advantages instrumentalists have over conductors,” Maestro Tinkham told me during one of our lessons, “is that you can lock yourself in a room and practice the oboe for hours. With conducting, the only time you’re really able to practice is with the orchestra.” Knowing this, I spent the weeks leading up to my first rehearsal preparing as much as I could. Even though Avanti! is relatively short, there are so many details within the score that I needed to make sure that I had completely memorized and could communicate to the orchestra.

Zachary Allen performing with fellow Symphony Orchestra musicians at CYSO’s 2023 Gala

Going from sitting in my section to standing in front of the orchestra with 100 faces staring back at me was overwhelming at first. However, having played in CYSO over the past four years, I was already used to listening across the ensemble to everything that was happening around me. After a few rehearsals, I felt much more comfortable and confident in what I was doing.

I’m extremely excited to make my conducting debut at Symphony Center. Just the idea of conducting on that stage feels surreal, but now that my childhood dream has become a reality, I’m just focused on preparing as best I can.

Join us on Sunday May 21 for our Spring Orchestra Hall concert and see Zach in action! Get your tickets today.


Zachary AllenZachary Allen, 18, is a senior at Niles West High School and a fellow of the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative. He is currently a merit scholarship recipient at the Music Institute of Chicago where he has studied with Erica Anderson for five years. Zachary has been a member of CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra for four years, and served as co-principal oboe for three years. This fall, Zachary will be attending Oberlin College & Conservatory to study oboe performance with Robert Walters.


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