Conducting Change

Cayenna Ponchione, M.M. ’03, M.M. ’04, is no stranger to the spotlight. She’s taken the stage as a conductor of professional and amateur orchestras across four time zones and has received international accolades for her compositions. But now Ponchione is on a mission to shift the attention to the people who make her work a reality—the musicians.

“Often when people think about orchestras, they think about conductors or how the composer writes the instructions and kind of tells the musicians what to do,” Ponchione says. “In the real world, it’s never that clean. There are a lot of problems with the idea of a conductor being omnipotent.”

The recognition of artistic contribution in orchestral performance, Ponchione says, is “out of proportion”—from the way classical recordings are marketed to how event posters are designed.

“It may be the composer’s or the conductor’s name emblazoned all over, but rarely do you see a list of the orchestra names,” says Ponchione. “The artistry is in the hands of the people at the top, and everybody else is left to do the grunt work.”

So Ponchione is working to set the record straight through her Ph.D. studies in musicology at the University of Oxford in England. Her research includes videotaping rehearsals and then having musicians log time-stamped comments about their of-the-moment thoughts and actions through an online interface.

“My whole project is trying to track what happens on the ground in real-life situations,” Ponchione explains.

She is using the varying perspectives to build a richer understanding of performance from the musicians’ points of view—an area, Ponchione says, that has gone vastly under-researched.

“A lot of this is shrouded in myth, in a way,” says Ponchione. “Some people think [a performance] just kind of magically happens—and of course it doesn’t just magically happen. People work really hard their entire lives to make it actually happen.”

Ponchione is a bit of a globetrotter, having landed at Ithaca College in 2001 from her native Alaska after being awarded a graduate assistantship. By 2004, she had earned master’s degrees in orchestral conducting and percussion performance, and served for several years thereafter as the music director of the Binghamton and Ithaca community orchestras before deciding to pursue doctoral studies in England.

The jump overseas, Ponchione says, has given her access to a deeply rooted musical community that allows her to explore her research interests while continuing to develop her professional career.

“What’s really great about England, and why I love it so much, is that the orchestral culture here is really robust, particularly in places like Oxford,” says Ponchione, who earned a third master’s degree, in musicology, at the university in 2012. “There are so many orchestras; people are playing all the time.”

And that means a lot of podium time for Ponchione, who has conducted orchestras of varying levels. She’s quick to point out that her research interests extend to the creative output of amateur groups, which are just as critical as the pro groups are in keeping classical music thriving.

“Having community orchestras provides a place for people to play this music and engage with it on a much deeper level,” Ponchione says. “It’s not necessarily about serving a public. It’s actually about serving the people in the orchestra.”

Regardless of which side of the stage she faces, Ponchione is driven to ensure the continued livelihood of classical music—and musicians.

“Orchestral music needs to be living and breathing,” says Ponchione. “I do not believe that it’s a museum. In fact, it’s such a beautiful example—when it works—of a collaborative musical venture.”

Learn more about Cayenna Ponchione '03, '04