Conducting is an art in communication. It involves a single person, armed with eyes, hands, soul and perhaps a baton, whose job it is to convey musical intent to a group of appropriately-armed instrumentalists. No small challenge for anyone, but for Negin Khpolwak, a student from Afghanistan, stepping up to lead musicians in war-ravaged Kabul, it represents a remarkable act of self-belief and courage. She is the country’s only female conductor and just 17 years old. Wielding only her stick, she directs an orchestra at the country’s National Institute of Music.
It may not be an orchestra that would be familiar to us but that is not the point. She has set her sights on the top job and one that, in her culture, is reserved for men.
I first conducted when I was a student at the Royal Academy of Music in the 1970s. In those days female conductors were a rarity and, although huge strides have been made since then, many musicians would say that the gender pendulum remains in favour of men. The relative paucity of professional female conductors tallies with the dearth of female co-ed heads. Despite a workforce dominated by women, just 36 per cent of secondary headteachers are female.
For me, young women like Negin stand as beacons of hope and inspiration for women aspiring to leadership roles, whether they be directing an orchestra or a school. Although we may kid ourselves that Afghanistan is light years behind the West in terms of female emancipation, you only have to go back as far as 1997, when the Vienna Philharmonic first accepted the permanent appointment of female musicians.
Over the past 30 years women have gained much professional ground. Yet still too few make it to the top. In the case of headships, some blame the appointing governors, others say too few women put themselves forward.
Yet the slight figure of Negin raising a metaphorical fist to her country’s governing regime, just as Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai did before her, drives me to raise the cry to young women to embrace every opportunity that comes their way and never be afraid of aiming high.
Directing an orchestra and leading a school are more similar than one might think. The talent and energy demanded of a conductor match what is required to lead a successful school. Conductors and headteachers are figureheads who must be able to translate their visions into reality. Heads must “choreograph” communities in which young people thrive and learn.
Each must have the ability to set the right “tempo”. They are there to create synergy; to unify sometimes belligerent and discordant factions; to listen to and interpret what is going on around them; to have the emotional intelligence and sensitivity to suppress a section whilst allowing a soloist to shine. A conductor’s role is far more significant than just determining how a concert goes. It shapes the experience and future expectations of co-performers, just as a head shapes and influences the experience and future expectations of the thousands of lives that will be touched by their schools.
My master’s degree in educational management, worthwhile and instructive though it was, pales into insignificance when compared to the conducting experience in understanding how to get the best out of, and for, an organisation.
The efforts of Negin Khpolwak and those like her, struggling to make their mark in a world where the odds are stacked against them, should give us the courage to shatter the barriers that still impede capable, even exceptional, women. She is a courageous example for young women all over the world. It is not the obstacles to opportunity we must break; it is the barriers to ambition.