The Role of the Mentor
Music is one of the remaining professions where the master/pupil relationship still thrives, but it’s extraordinarily rare for the conductor/music director of a major city’s orchestra to make the effort to be a mentor to a young musician.
Music is one of the remaining professions where the master/pupil relationship still thrives. I had a number of incredible mentors; some of them were positive, encouraging types, others not so much. I’ve seen it all. I would say it’s extraordinarily rare for the conductor/music director of a major city’s orchestra to make the effort to be a mentor for a young musician. It is one thing to hear someone play in a masterclass; it’s another thing to actually care about that musician’s progression and development over months and years. I fortunately had that, and I think under pretty cool circumstances.
I’ve told this story many times, but it is still something I think about every day. I saw my first-ever orchestra concert when I was nine years old. It was pretty much my first live concert of any type—a free, outdoor concert in San Francisco. The experience was so magical and overwhelming I decided right then and there that I wanted to be a conductor for the rest of my life. I wrote a letter to the conductor—Michael Tilson Thomas—and I went on and on about the experience, about how much I loved what I saw, the kind of music he was leading, how enthusiastic I was, how I knew I would be a conductor, and then asked if he would give me a lesson. It probably came across as a crazy person’s letter, but I was nine years old so I guess I got a pass because two weeks later I got a response. I have that response hanging in my room right now. If Michael Tilson Thomas could take the time to write me a letter, give me conducting advice, and basically teach me a conducting lesson right then and there, then I can do the same thing for any young musician who comes across my path.
So for our first Classics concert in the Festival of American Music, Michael Tilson Thomas is coming to Louisville to conduct the Louisville Orchestra in a program filled with uniquely American composers and including some of Michael’s own work. It can’t be overstated how special this is, because Michael is one of the real icons of American music. The span and diversity of his career is extraordinary, and the impact he’s had on orchestras, composers, and education is vast, so for him to come to the Louisville Orchestra is a very big deal for us. This is a musician who collaborated with Audrey Hepburn and who used to regularly work with James Brown. He was Leonard Bernstein’s protégé. Michael’s mind is so active and so curious that it’s impossible to lock it down and his compositions reflect that. One of his signature works is From the Diary of Anne Frank created for a series of benefit UNICEF concerts in 1991 that featured Audrey Hepburn as the narrator. Michael has a contrabassoon concerto that’s all about night creatures in urban environments. His newest work is an incredible vocal and jazz-inspired work on Carl Sandburg’s poetry that combines populism with heavy subject matter. Michael is just fascinating; there’s nobody quite like him. You can talk to him about anything, just name it. He’s one of the most brilliant, well-read, and knowledgeable people about virtually anything.
I will always look up to him as a mentor and teacher. He was always interested in my opinions, and that’s something that distinguishes him as a teacher. He would always ask me, “What do you think about that?” or “How did this affect you?” But now we’re also colleagues to a certain extent, and he’s entrusting folks like me to take these messages and all the things that I’ve absorbed from him and his work, and apply them. Had I not been around people like Michael Tilson Thomas growing up, I’m not sure I would have the same drive and desire to do all this work in the community, to do all this work with young people, and to be out there in ways that are beyond what you would expect of a conductor. In 2014, the Louisville Orchestra launched a new series that would take the orchestra out into the community to do performances outside of our usual venues. Since then, we’ve performed in churches, synagogues, and community centers throughout Louisville as well as across the river in southern Indiana. Our musicians are out in the schools with ensemble visits and I also do a series of masterclasses throughout the community with all ages of young musicians from elementary through high school. And in 2015, we started two youth leadership/mentoring programs for elementary and high school students. The 4th and 5th grade students learn to conduct and have a chance to conduct the orchestra as part of our legacy education program MakingMUSIC. This is the age I had my opportunity to conduct so I really wanted to pass that love of conducting on to these young students and I thoroughly enjoy getting to teach them! The high school program centers on juniors and seniors who have a passion for the arts and are considering an arts career. I meet with them monthly to discuss everything from auditioning and looking at universities/colleges/conservatories to having them sit in on rehearsals. They also have to do a service project that connects their community with the arts. We have thirteen students in the program this year and they just presented their ideas for their service projects and I am so inspired by what these young people have in mind. These projects include helping middle school students connect with classical music, performing in senior assisted living homes, setting up performances for a local orchard, and an Eagle Scout project to turn an empty room at a local high school into a performance space.
I keep thinking to myself if I don’t mentor folks and get involved with them, then who’s going to care for the next generation? In my mind, a mentor is someone who can actually serve as a role model for what a great person or a great musician might be and that’s where you’re going to get folks hopefully emulating and striving to do that kind of work because those are the kinds of musicians you want around.
That’s the whole point of doing this kind of work in the arts to begin with, and I think Michael understands that innately—that we’re sharing something a lot deeper than a piece of music. That’s what was passed down to me and that’s what I’m trying to do for other people too, to help them see that music is far more powerful than they may have ever thought.