Not getting into any conducting schools/Schools Four and Five/I was told over and over to quit
I was certain that I was going to attend one of the best conducting schools in the country for grad school. I only applied to Rice and Northwestern. I didn’t even get an audition. I was totally ignorant to how unprepared I was so I thought they were just being mean. I was determined to forge ahead anyway so I attended the South Carolina Conductors Institute the summer after graduation. I planned to return to a job at Tower Records after that ended. I ended up getting an invite to attend USC for the fall when the conducting teacher there called me out of the blue after camp. He told me that the violist in the graduate quartet had broken her arm in a car accident and they needed a replacement. I often compare myself to Forrest Gump, and this was truly a Gumpian moment. There are so many times, even now, that I just happen to be in the right place at the right time.
After Peabody, the slower pace of USC was a shock. Plus, I was back in a university setting, with way more rules. I withdrew before the first semester ended and transferred to the University of Illinois for spring semester on a viola assistantship. I wanted to study conducting but there were no spots open. The conducting professor gave me a semester to try and earn an assistantship for the fall and somehow I got it. This turned out to be a blessing and a curse. I walked away from my time at Illinois with a degree in conducting, which gave me the credential I needed to work in the field, but my confidence was shaken and would be for almost a decade due to the unhealthy relationship I had with my professor. There are a few moments between us that are still crystal clear in my memory. There was the time he told me that I was more advanced as a conductor at age 23 than he was at age 36 (he was in his mid-40s at the time). He followed this by telling me that I owed it all to him. He also told me that he didn’t want to teach me how to conduct, but would rather simply be conducting himself. He called me into his office right before graduation to tell me that I didn’t have the depth as a human being to conduct Brahms. That with my “easy” baton technique I was suited only to conducting works like Petrushka. I find this to be absolutely hilarious now. Petrushka is, of course, full of human pathos, and there are moments in Brahms’s music that rival anything in Stravinsky in terms of sheer complexity and the baton technique needed to navigate those moments. But he had a label for everything. Singers were egoistic, Mahler was egoistic, people who thought conductors needed to have at least basic piano skills were bigots, etc. He was basically telling me to quit, or that I’d fail if I tried. This had happened before and would happen again. Both the former principal violist of the Berlin Philharmonic and my supervisor at Western Michigan University told me essentially the same thing. I was a savant with inherent technical chops but no depth. Looking back on it now, I realize some of this was racially motivated. The Berlin Phil violist even told me that “Like most Asians, you have a very strong left hand, but your bow arm is no good.” When I left Illinois I was in a familiar place – directionless. I had applied for the Pierre Monteux School for Conductors but I hadn’t heard anything from them until May, and I had a job selling Hondas lined up. The day before I was supposed to start I got a letter from Monteux telling me that I had been accepted to the program. I quit my job selling cars before I started and headed to Maine for the summer. Before I left, I made a tape to send off to Germany for a two week music camp in Goslar. It’s a tiny medieval town near Hanover nestled in the Harz mountains. I found out that I had been accepted while I was in Maine at the Monteux Camp and I was off to Germany on my first trip to Europe afterwards. This is where I would meet the next person who would rival my high school teachers in influence.
Next Time: Germany and my Path out of Pain
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