Photograph: Lee Pellegrini


John Finney    

The director of the University Chorale of Boston College and conductor of the Boston College Symphony Orchestra recently retired after decades in both roles. 

John Finney, BC’s wildly popular leader of all things music, retired in May after thirty years as the director of the University Chorale of Boston College and more than two decades as conductor of the Boston College Symphony Orchestra. Finney, who’d been BC’s distinguished artist-in-residence since 1999, gave more than five hundred concerts both nationally and abroad, and directed the Chorale in every Pops on the Heights performance, BC’s biggest annual fundraiser, since its 1993 launch.

Master all aspects of your craft. I am the youngest of five children, and all of my brothers and sisters took piano lessons before me in our tiny Ohio farming town. So I grew up hearing the piano being played in the house. My piano teacher, Esther Scudder, was also an organ teacher and a professional singer. Over the years, she saw my talent and encouraged me to start learning the organ and music theory, solfège, and dictation. She was the main reason I became the musician that I am. 

Emphasize the positive. I was very introverted all through high school and most of college, too, but I knew that I wanted to be a professional musician. After college, my first jobs playing the organ in churches and watching other conductors helped me. My mentor and teacher, Janet McGhee, was the essence of positive reinforcement. No matter what was going on in rehearsal, she’d find one little thing that was good and build on that. That’s really where I learned how to be a conductor.  

Singers are inherently happy people. That might sound a little superficial, but it’s true, and it helped me become more of an extrovert. When you’re a singer, your voice is your instrument. And to get the best out of your instrument, you have to be in a good state of mind—that usually means being pleasant. Being in front of a group of happy people and making beautiful music helped me to get better and better at it. 

Be the pilot. When I was conducting at Symphony Hall, there were two thousand people in the audience and one hundred people on stage. I liken the experience to being the pilot of a 747 airliner. I was responsible for getting everyone there safely—in the sense of getting everyone on stage to do their job, and giving everyone in the audience a beautiful music experience. I had to keep track of everything: the playing of every instrument, the singing of every voice, and the audience response. But that was the invigorating part of it. 

Success requires time and a plan. When preparing music, you have to know every aspect of what everyone is going to do. Almost everything in life that’s worth doing involves a process of starting from the beginning, laying the foundation, learning every aspect of it, and then growing with it. So many things are like that—they don’t happen fully formed.  

Focus on the job at hand. Working with large ensembles, I don’t look out and see a faceless mass. I see a hundred individuals and each has their own background, their own voice, their own instrumental ability. One of my jobs is to focus everybody on the actual performance for those hours we have together. I say to everybody, “You may be focused on an exam, or worried about some other aspect of your life right now. You can come back to it after the concert, but God will keep it for you while we’re focused on making beautiful music together.” 

Sometimes you get the best performances by not conducting at all. If you’ve done your job well in rehearsals, the conductor doesn’t need to do anything. When we wave our arms around, it’s basically to help people stay together. I can’t show them which fingers to put on the clarinet to play the note, or what exactly to do with their bow on the violin. I’m helping them get started together, stop together, and know where the phrases should be loud or soft. In my farewell concert—there’s one really complicated part in Beethoven’s ninth symphony—I just stopped conducting and smiled at everybody. It was magnificent, because they knew it so well. 

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