February 2017


I was delighted to be interviewed in the Irish Engineer's Journal in February. Thanks to Barry Brophy for his good humour, and excellent questions on why I took the decision to change from a career in structural engineering to a career in music.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

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.’

‘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.’

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 at 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.’

‘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.’

‘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.

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.’