14: Productivity and Time Management Tips with Kalena Bovell

Show Notes:

Happy New Year, and I am super excited about today’s episode, as I’ll be speaking with one of my role models, conductor Kalena Bovell. 

For the very first show of 2022, Kalena will be talking to us about time management skills, also sharing with us her experience of preparing and studying for her BBC Proms debut. I hope you’re as excited as I am recording this episode. 

Panamanian American conductor Kalena Bovell wields a distinctive voice as a maestra, speaker and poet. Having recently led the Chineke! Orchestra in her BBC Proms debut, Bovell’s twin focus on musical excellence and community engagement led to Connecticut’s Channel 3 News praising her as “one of the brightest stars in the world of classical music.” 

As guest conductor, she has worked with the Hartford Opera Theatre, New Britain symphony and a particularly memorable performance, leading Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Now with the MSO full time as its Assistant Conductor, Bovell also leads the Memphis Youth Symphony. Among other achievements, she was previously named a finalist for the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, a recognition given to talented female leaders in the conducting field. 


Links Mentioned in Today's Episode

Kalena: 0:00
And so what I realized was: if you can’t take time to be a human being, then you can’t add anything to the music that you’re doing when you get on the podium. So it’s so important to experience life and make memories and make experiences, because those things influence your music making.

Chaowen: 0:21
Hey there, welcome to The Conductor’s Podcast. I’m your host, Chaowen Ting, a conductor with over 20 years of experience working with professional symphony orchestras, opera houses, new music groups, and vocalists. I’m also founder of Girls Who Conduct and have mentored hundreds of conductors from across the globe. I created The Conductor’s Podcast to share all the behind-the-scenes secrets with you while I interview conductors, musicians, and business gurus from around the world. This is a space created for conductors, conducting students, musicians, and non musicians who are curious and interested in learning more about the profession, craft, industry, and business.

Chaowen: 1:08
Shy away from the real talk? No way. Money, hardship, growth, and the roller coaster of conducting career are all topics we discuss here. I will give you simple, actionable, step-by-step strategies to help you take action on your big dream, move through the fear that’s holding you back, and have a real impact. Now, pull up a seat, make sure you’re cozy, and get ready to be challenged and encouraged while you learn.

Chaowen: 1:42
Hi there and Happy New Year! Welcome to another episode of The Conductor’s Podcast. I’m your host, Chaowen Ting, and I’m thrilled that you’re tuning in with me today on the very first show in 2022. Such an exciting beginning of a new year!

Chaowen: 2:02
I honestly can’t remember where my 2019 and 2020 went, but I’m surely really glad that we are now able to get back to work, to make music with people, and to connect with each other. Although the pandemic took a severe toll on our collective well being, I’m so grateful for one of the silver linings, which is the fact that I was able to connect with many of you on air. In the year of 2020 and 2021, I gave more than 20 free webinars through Girls Who Conduct and the Maestro as Professor series, and [I] reached out [to] hundreds of fellow conductors, musicians, and music lovers through the virtual platform. If not for the pandemic, I wouldn’t have [had] the time and courage to start this podcast either.

Chaowen: 2:02
And I am super excited about today’s episode, as I’ll be speaking with one of my role models, conductor Kalena Bovell. We first connected on social media and had a few exchanges of messages throughout this year. And she is such a wonderful, modest human being that I can’t wait to introduce to all of you. For the very first show of 2022, Kalena will be talking to us about time management skills, and she will also be sharing with us her experience of preparing and studying for her Proms debut. I hope you are as excited as I am recording this episode. And here’s a little bit about Kalena.

Chaowen: 3:51
Panamanian American conductor Kalena Bovell wields a distinctive voice as a maestra, speaker and poet. Having recently led the Chineke! Orchestra in her BBC Proms debut, Bovell’s twin focus on musical excellence and community engagement led to Connecticut’s Channel 3 News praising her as “one of the brightest stars in the world of classical music.”

Chaowen: 4:20
As guest conductor, she has worked with the Hartford Opera Theatre, New Britain Symphony, and a particularly memorable performance leading Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Now with the MSO full time as its Assistant Conductor, Bovell also leads the Memphis Youth Symphony. Among other achievements, she was previously named a finalist for the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, a recognition given to talented female leaders in the conducting field.

Chaowen: 5:02
Hey, welcome to the show, Kalena. I’m so thrilled to welcome you to the show, and I can’t wait for you to share your story and experience with my audience.

Kalena: 5:10
Thank you for having me.

Chaowen: 5:12
So before we get started, though, will you give everybody a brief intro, just a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are right now?

Kalena: 5:19
Yeah, Of course. So I’ll give you the short version. So basically, my parents are from Panama, and I was born in the States. I’m a first generation born. I started singing when I was nine years old, and I was convinced I was going to be a singer. But when I got to middle school, that’s when I started playing violin. And it was kind of like, Okay, nope, I’m going to be a violinist. But you know, because of my physical makeup, I kept getting injured. And so even though I was pursuing violin, I was very behind because I started playing when I was 11. I didn’t have my first private lesson until I was 18, but I was determined to become a music major.

Kalena: 5:53
So I went to undergrad for music. And as a music education major, we all had to take a semester of choral conducting and a year of instrumental conducting. And it was when I was in the instrumental conducting class, I was just kind of like, Oh my God, what is this? You know, it was like this new love for an art form that I never knew existed. And it was from that moment, I decided, Okay, I want to pursue this. Because, you know, there was something about conducting that was so interesting, and this just kind of captivated my attention.

Kalena: 6:20
And I decided that I was going to pursue conducting [at the] undergrad school level. And I worked really hard, eventually got into The Hartt School, so I moved 3000 miles from LA to Connecticut to study with my teacher, Edward Cumming. And then from Hartt, I worked at a boarding school for four years called Loomis Chaffee, which was a great experience. But at the same time, I was trying to build a career, you know, so I was fortunate to be a Sinfonietta Fellow with the Chicago Sinfonietta. I got to work with Mei-Ann Chen really closely.

Kalena: 6:51
And then I also started just kind of making my way through the circuit, you know–covering, taking auditions. I had a community group in 2018- 2019, in Connecticut. And eventually, my now-music director, Robert Moody, called me in 2019 and said, you know, we have this job opening up, would you want to apply? And I was like, Yeah, just just tell me when to get on the plane, you know. So I applied, I auditioned for Memphis Symphony, and then I won the job. And so I moved to Memphis, June of 2018. And so here we are, and that’s where I’m currently based.

Chaowen: 7:25
Well, I mean, I know on the outside, it sounds so easy–kind of like you suddenly found this love of yours. But then I know, there are a lot of other things that are frustrations and things that we don’t really share with others. So what was the most important thing that you learned from your journey so far?

Kalena: 7:45
That is a great question. You know, the, I think the most important thing I’ve learned, and especially happened this summer, is really being authentic and true to who you are. And not trying to be who you think people want you to be, or, you know, not trying to aspire to expectations that you think people are putting upon you. And I mean, that’s really hard to do as a young conductor. And I say that–I am still a young conductor, you know, but I really feel like this summer, I came into my own, and it was because I realized that I can just be me, and that’s the only thing I can be. And then when you are authentic, that’s the thing that really makes people want to work with you, want to play with you. So you know, that’s, that’s the biggest thing I learned.

Kalena: 8:28
And then also, it’s so important to have a work-life balance. My first year on the job, it was all about, Okay, how do I learn all this music in such a short amount of time, you know? But then the pandemic happened, [and] it was like, Oh, I have all this time, this is great. But then somehow, I stayed very busy during the pandemic. And it was so important for me to really establish that work-life balance. And so what I realized was, if you can’t take time to be a human being, then you can’t add anything to the music that you’re doing when you get on the podium. So it’s so important to experience life and make memories and make experiences, because those things influence your music making.

Chaowen: 9:08
You [talked about] being authentic, and that’s something I learned later in my journey into conducting, because I’ve always been very guarded. I want to be good. So I always kind of first assess, What’s going on, how do I want to behave? How do I want people to know me? And then I somehow missed that window of opening myself up to the musicians that I’m working with. So for someone [who is an introvert like me], can you talk about how you can open up, because it’s so vulnerable, that you’re kind of opening your heart [and] pulling it out [in front of] everyone else?

Kalena: 9:43
I smiled a little bit when you said, you know, for you as an introvert. People may not be able to tell, but I’m a huge introvert. Like, I love being at home. Usually I tell my friends, If you want me to come out, give me at least two weeks’ notice. You know, because I just love being with myself. It’s how we recharge. And I learned that for this profession, for this career, you basically have to be the extroverted introvert. It’s like, you have to think of yourself as a performer, as an actor. And so you turn on the personality when it needs to come on, right? And then kind of once you do your thing, then you turn it off, and you kind of retreat inward so that you can recharge, but I mean, I think some tips is [that] you have to force yourself to come outside of yourself.

Kalena: 10:27
And I mean, what’s the most beautiful thing about being a human being? It’s being able to feel so many different facets of emotions, right, and just being able to experience kind of all of those things that make us who we are. And so the one piece of advice that I would say to someone is: don’t be afraid to try something new. Meaning: as introverts, you know, sometimes we have to go to different functions, meetings, and it’s very easy for me to go into a corner and just kind of be the wallflower by myself. But I force myself to go and speak to patrons, to go and speak to people outside of my organization, because that’s what it is, you know. So it’s about making those connections and making those relationships, I think what it is, is remembering that you have to step outside of yourself, because this isn’t about you; it’s about something that’s much bigger than you are. And if you hold on to that notion, then I think it makes that process easier.

Chaowen: 11:29
Yeah, I was smiling when you said that you need like two weeks’ notice to go out and meet a friend. I used to backpack and travel all by myself. And all my friends thought I was crazy, because I would just pick a foreign country every summer. I would save up the entire year during college, so I would be alone, like out [for] three, four months. I hitchhiked from Turkey to the Republic of Georgia.

Kalena: 11:54
Oh, wow.

Chaowen: 11:56
Yeah, and then I was detained at the Russian border when I took the bus from Tallinn, like all those crazy things. And so I was very comfortable with myself. But as I say, if you’re like me, just feeling so uncomfortable and so much like an outsider, just think of, you’re here representing the job or the position and the music that you love.

Kalena: 12:20
But you also have to think about it like, you know, as assistants, you know, we might be doing the pre-concert talks, or we might be you know, speaking at different events, right? And so even with that, it’s like, public speaking, I’m fine with–but again, it’s a personality that you have to become, because you want to engage those people. And so even as you know, natural introverts, we do tend to be a lot more quiet and more more reserved, but that side of ourselves is not going to be engaging, right? So it really is, again, just putting on a performance and kind of saying Okay, yeah, this is it, like, this is me. And then once it’s done, you’re like, Okay, where’s my coffee and where’s my blanket?

Chaowen: 12:59
Yeah, that’s lovely. And then we know that you recently made your BBC Proms debut with the Chineke–am I saying it right? The orchestra’s name?

Kalena: 13:08

Chaowen: 13:09
Chineke! Orchestra. Congratulations, I was so thrilled!

Kalena: 13:13
Thank you.

Chaowen: 13:13
Can you tell us a little bit about your experience and how that opportunity just came up?

Kalena: 13:19
Oh, yeah, I’ll give you the background story. So maybe two, three years ago, Chineke! and the Sphinx Organization did a partnership together called Music Across The Ocean. So they basically have music from musicians from the United States and Europe and come together and play a piece called Othello by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. And so they had six conductors. And I was asked if I would like to be one of the conductors. So I said yeah, sure, of course, you know.

Kalena: 13:45
So Chi-chi Nwanoku, who’s the founder and the principal double bassist of Chineke!, you know, happened to see my work. She likes my work. And then that following January, I saw Chi-chi speak at one of the Sphinx panels. And I just remember thinking, Oh, my God, like, I love everything about your organization and what you do, and a colleague introduced me to her. And so you know, a couple days later, I just emailed her to say, you know, I’m a huge fan of Tina Fey and the work that you’re doing, and if there’s anything that I can do here from the States, please let me know. So she emailed me about a concert in November of last year (2020), and asked if I would be available to conduct this concert. And I was like, Yeah, Chineke? Like, of course, right?

Kalena: 14:29
So from that, because we’d already formed a relationship, she then emailed me in April of this year and said, you know, Chineke! will be back at the BBC Proms. Are you free and available to conduct? And I was just kind of like, Let me think about this. Um, yes. (laughs) You know, so I mean, the Proms was honestly a really great experience. It’s interesting, because, you know, the Proms was never part of my culture and my upbringing, when I was coming up as a classical musician, and I’m sure that’s true for many people in the United States, but it’s a big part of the European culture. So once I started learning the history of the Proms and just kind of, you know, we performed two pieces by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor–we did his first symphony, and then his Hiawatha Overture. So really quickly: his Hiawatha cantatas had been performed in the Royal Albert Hall over 800 times.

Kalena: 15:21
So to go into that performance performing the overture now, it’s like there was already history with that, so it was a really special moment. You know, Chineke! is primarily [made up of] musicians of color–for black, African, Asian, Middle Eastern musicians. And so to also perform music by all composers of color to a very diverse audience…I mean, it was huge. And, you know, I got super nervous the day of the dress rehearsal. It was the first time I ever got nervous. And it was because when I got out of my Uber to walk into the hall, I was like, Oh, my God, this is where the concert is. Because the hall is massive; it takes up several blocks, and all of a sudden, it was hitting me: what the magnitude of this concert meant, and it was less about, Oh, my God, I’m gonna make my BBC Proms debut. For me, it was the fact that little boys and girls get to see representation, that adults of color get to see representation. And I just thought that was the coolest feeling.

Chaowen: 16:25
I’m now feeling it more and more, as the music therapist at Augusta Symphony recently shared with me that when she told her five year old girl that now she will be able to see a woman conducting on a podium this season. And her five year old girl just had her face lit up and said, Girls can conduct orchestras? I never knew that! It was those little moments that kind of really made me smile, and thinking that Okay, we are really representing something that is much bigger, beyond us–we are only part of this bridge for the next generation, where people ride with us and just behind us to see [that] it’s possible. I wanted to go back a little bit because you said you send a cold email to Chi-chi, and how did that work? I mean, like, do you do that often, sending cold emails to others?

Kalena: 17:19
No, and you know what, I feel like that’s the introvert in me. It is very difficult for me to send cold emails. (laughs)

Chaowen: 17:28
I know, that’s why I wanted to ask, because I don’t. Or I sometimes feel so weird when I’m sending emails; I don’t know what to say. And I don’t want to be seeming aggressive.

Kalena: 17:40
Yeah, I know, it’s really difficult for me. And you know, I’ve had people who have introduced me to people via email, and it’s like, Oh, I need to follow up and actually send the first email and I still haven’t done so. But no, so when I was a conducting fellow in the Chicago Sinfonietta program, you know, it’s so many things about…basically, the off podium skills, so building relationships, speaking with donors, how to conduct yourself, how to be authentic, all these different things. And so one of the sessions was, How to Build Relationships Via Email. Meaning, if you meet someone, right, in a session, in a luncheon, in any type of function, and they give you a business card, be sure to email that person within three days to say, Hey, it was lovely meeting you or just XY&Z so that you can start building that rapport with someone.

Kalena: 17:40
So with Chi-chi, I just remember saying, again, you know, It was a pleasure meeting you at the Sphinx conference, I’m a huge fan of your work and with Chineke!, and you know, best of luck to you and your organization within the future. And you know, again, if there’s anything I can do from the States, please let me know. But you know, that was it. And she didn’t respond, which is totally fine. I mean, some people may and some people might not, but, you know, several months later was like, Hey, would you like to conduct this concert? So, you know, our relationship had been established.

Chaowen: 19:06
So I just wanted to tell everybody, it’s totally normal if you don’t get a response, but it’s still important that you make that initial step, because people see it, they kind of remember your name, they might put it in a bag of like, maybe they have 100 things to get to now, but kind of making that impression is important. And Chicago Sinfonietta is totally an awesome organization. I heard they are opening up their fellowship application next year. So we’ll put that in the show notes; it will be at chaowenting.com/14.

Chaowen: 19:44
So here comes the best part that I’m so looking forward to about this episode, because I know that you have been posting about your journey, studying, and organizing your work. And I’ve been following, because I have to say that I personally benefited so much from your posts, and I can’t thank you enough because during the pandemic, it was such a weird time that everything was canceled or postponed. And I couldn’t really motivate myself to do work, even though I knew it was like, Okay, I suddenly have all this time, I should get so many things done, which I didn’t. But seeing you kind of organizing stuff really helped me–I just want to say thank you.

Kalena: 20:28
Oh, well, thank you! That really does mean a lot. I mean, sometimes…it’s so interesting, I feel like I’m the most terrible conductor because I don’t have a huge social media presence. You know, it’s like, my Instagram used to be private, but now it’s public. And I really grappled with that decision, you know, because I’m such a private person, you know, and it’s like, I don’t post for the sake of posting, I only post when I have something to say. And the reason I say that is because even when I was a student in school, even in high school through college, I would always get the comments, Oh, you know, Kalena needs to speak more. And I would be like, But I don’t have anything to say. And so [when] I do, then I will.

Kalena: 20:33
So it’s like, it’s my form of authenticity. You know, it’s like, I never do things just for the sake of doing it. And so sometimes I’m like, Okay, I wonder if people are even reading these things, because it’ll be like, once every three weeks: Oh, Kalena posted something. What is it? You know, but no, it really does mean a lot, because it goes back to: I’m not doing any of these things for me, you know, I’ve always wanted to inspire others, and I’ve always wanted to help people achieve the best version of themselves. And, you know, from my journey, it’s so important that people see what it really means to do what we do, and that people see the authenticity of it and the hard work that goes into it, not just the glamour and the picture shots, because it’s not about that, you know, it’s like, those are the perks. But people need to see the journey.

Chaowen: 21:58
Really, it’s so true, because I remember that at one point, during the pandemic, I was so desperate, I was so depressed because I was seeing all my colleagues or people who also conduct posting all these great things. And I was like, Okay, oh my god, I’m screwed. Because I hate social media–well, I don’t HATE it, but I’m not good at it. I don’t like to share everything about me; I can’t–I can’t talk about my family or a lot of things. Or sometimes I feel I don’t have so many things professionally; I don’t have all the great shots as some other conductors who are posting, like, Throwback Thursday or whatever. But just as you say, just kind of be authentic and be inspiring to others. And it’s so important.

Kalena: 22:46
Yeah. And you know, if I can say one thing about going back to the pandemic, you know, I remember when the pandemic first started, and everyone was like, Okay, now is the time to be creative. And now is the time to do all these things. And I remember thinking, No, now is the time for me to sit on my couch and not do anything. And that’s exactly what I did, right? Because I knew for me, it was like, Look, I’m tired. And I don’t want to force myself to be creative when I’m not feeling that right now. Like, I am a creative person. I’m a musician, I’m a poet, I’m a writer, I’m all these things. But then it was like no, I’m just gonna sit down and not do anything at all. And then six months later, it was like, Oh, I feel like practicing violin for a day. Okay, we’ll do this. And then I did that. And I was like, this is cool. I don’t need to do that anymore for a while. But you know what I mean?

Kalena: 23:31
Again, it just goes back to really listening to yourself and not trying to put yourself into a box or like not trying to follow what the trends are, you know, and then that’s difficult, because you might be going against the mold, which is fine. I mean, I have always kind of marched to the beat of my own drum. You know, I’m saying it’s like, I’m a metalhead who loves tattoos who happens to conduct, like, that’s totally different for classical music, but that’s okay. Because that’s who I am.

Chaowen: 24:01
Yeah. So, tell us what you did after the six months of doing nothing, and I know that it was the engagement to come back to Proms that got you back sort of on track a little bit?

Kalena: 24:17
No, I mean, honestly, I had a very busy pandemic year. I mean, so you know, the Memphis Symphony, we pretty much stopped everything after March, as most organizations did. So we cancelled our last two final masterwork concerts, if I remember correctly. And so pretty much through June, I didn’t do anything. You know, it was kind of like, No, I’m just going to hang around. I’m going to go to the grocery store when I need to. I’m going to, you know, do laundry, just kind of do all the mundane things because I was not inspired, you know?

Kalena: 24:46
And then eventually, after George Floyd’s murder, I started getting sparks of inspiration because I was angry, as most people were, especially within the black community. And from that time, I wrote three poems, one of which was turned into a very lovely collaboration video that I did with Rob McClure, who I believe is a Tony nominee. He’s currently going to be playing Beetlejuice on Broadway, and he was also supposed to do Mrs. Doubtfire on Broadway. So you know, from that pain came this really beautiful collaboration. And it’s a video that I’m always that I’m proud of, and that I will always be proud of. So, that kind of started my pandemic year, basically, because after that video, then a lot of people started asking me to speak to their students. And really, I felt like I needed to be of service to people. And I thought, okay, what can I do?

Kalena: 25:45
So I remember speaking with the conducting students at the Peabody Institute, at the invitation of Joseph Young, who’s currently on faculty there. And so it was filling in those gaps of what happens after grad school. And I thought, Aha, this is what many students are curious about. So I was emailing a lot of institutions that I knew of, you know, and I think I spoke to maybe five or six grad schools’ students, just about, you know, life, conducting, and everything in between that they don’t really tell you when you’re about to leave grad school. So I was doing that–I was speaking on panels. I was speaking for different workshops virtually.

Kalena: 26:24
And then the Chineke! invitation happens in London in November, which is interesting, because I got there, and then two days later, the country locked down. I was like, Oh, well, I can go home, you know. (laughs) And so, you know, we did that behind the doors project; it was amazing. I got back to the States. And then, kind of, life started, because slowly, organizations started figuring out how we could come back to having concerts, and MSO was one of them, you know.

Kalena: 26:52
So I believe we did a Christmas concert in December. And then January, February, I just stayed very busy. I mean, it’s very difficult to remember what happened at the beginning of this year, because it does seem so long ago.

Chaowen: 27:04
I know.

Kalena: 27:04
You know, also during this pandemic year, this past April of this year, I made my Masterworks debut with the Memphis Symphony.

Chaowen: 27:12

Kalena: 27:13
Thank you! And, you know, like, so many other things happened that I can’t remember. But I mean, it’s been a really great year, you know, and I’m grateful for all of it. It all came out of pain. But at the same time, I feel like because the pandemic forced us to slow down and I forced myself to slow down, I could also just really work on myself and kind of give myself what I needed, which was just time to kind of refill my bucket and nourish my soul.

Chaowen: 27:40
Yeah, and I’m also grateful for the pandemic for the reason [that] now we were able to be connected to a lot of people, whom we normally wouldn’t even get to talk to, or the audience, like you said, the, the students that you were able to speak to normally would be too busy running from gig to gig, or just like, trying to catch up. So like during this really busy year, you have so many things. Here we are waiting for the tips: how do you get organized and kind of stay ahead of your game? And all that?

Kalena: 28:23
Oh, that’s a good question. Um, I feel like, I’ll be honest, I feel like I started off terribly simply because of the Proms. You know, I basically had to make a choice. You know what I mean? It was like, I either have a summer, or I study for the Proms. I chose to study for the Proms. (laughs) So you know, I didn’t really have a summer off, you know what I mean? So, like, I went from the Suwannee Festival, which was late in June, I took a week off in July, and then was like, Okay, I’m studying for the Proms until I leave and go on the plane to go to London. So usually what I do is August 1st is when I get all of my scores together that I’m going to do for all of my engagements and you know, for the Memphis Symphony, and then I start kind of planning out, Okay, when do I need to start studying this? When do I have time to study this? And I try to give myself at least four weeks in advance. Because I didn’t have a summer, I wasn’t really able to do that, because by the time I got back to the States, at the end of August, my youth symphony was having auditions. And then I said, I really need a week off. And so I took a proper week holiday. And then I came back after–is Labor Day the holiday in September? yes–came back after Labor Day, and then it was like, Okay, well, I’m just going to have to work month to month for right now.

Kalena: 29:36
But the way I keep things organized is I have an Excel sheet where I basically put my fall schedule: I put the dates, I put all the scores that I need to learn for those dates. And I say you know, Have I conducted this before, yes or no? And is it actual conducting or just covering? Because covering is very different from conducting a piece, you know, and very different criteria when you’re covering. And it’s not to say that you don’t learn the music, but you don’t learn it as in-depth as you would for something that you yourself are going to rehearse on the podium. So that’s something I look at.

Kalena: 30:11
And then I also look at, you know, what am I doing outside of conducting? Meaning, are there any speaking engagements that I need to be aware of, are there any run-out concerts that I need to be aware of, because then I will also put that on a separate calendar. And just be mindful of the fact that Okay, I have deadlines to meet for this. And so what I do is there’s a website called datecountdown.com, I believe is the address, where you can put in basically what you’re doing and then when that event is occurring, and it’s a timer that counts down for you. So it’ll say, Okay, you have 62 days until this event. That helps me to keep track of, Okay, have I hit a goal for this? So if it’s 62 days, Okay, by Day 30, I want to be sure that I’m here, and I start keeping track of that.

Kalena: 31:00
And then I actually started tallying my hours when I was studying for the Proms. And it was honestly because I just started losing track of how many hours I would do in a day. So I got that, and I was doing my Pomodoros–I have kind of reverted back to my 45 minute sessions. But again, I started forgetting how many Pomodoros I would do in a day, so I once again started keeping a tally to also keep me accountable. And then I have a score notebook. And each day I write down what I studied, what sections I did, and that way, I can flip through and see either what pieces I haven’t hit, or how I can structure my rotation. So I have different things that I use to just kind of help me stay accountable.

Chaowen: 31:48
So basically, you have a master calendar or like Excel sheet to tell you all the important events, and then you kind of plan out and decide how much time [to spend on] each thing–either studying a new piece or preparing for a speaking engagement. And so how do you connect that to your calendar? So like, do you check on your Excel sheet every day, or like once a week and to plan out your week or?

Kalena: 32:19
Not really once a week, I’d say once a month, you know. Because like for October, as an example, I am guest conducting a Halloween concert at the end of this month. And so once I put all of that in, it was like, Okay. I know that October repertoire has to take precedence right now over everything else. So October repertoire is in rotation. And I believe I’m doing–I’ll just give a number as an example–10 different pieces, right? So what I told myself is: I have the October repertoire, but I also have Nutcracker in December and November. In Memphis, we do two different types of Nutcrackers. We do traditional Tchaikovsky, and then we do a Memphis version called the NutRemix–two different tempi.

Kalena: 33:00
So I say, Okay, NutRemix is in November. That’s important. So that means that every day I’m working on at least two pieces from my Halloween rep. Every day, I have to look at Nutcracker in order to get those tempi in my ear, right? And then I’m also working on one score from Memphis Symphony, and then one score from the Youth Symphony. And so that’s how I do my rotation. So once October is done, then let’s look at November, December. Okay, Nutcracker still. So every day, and then I’m also looking at okay, well, since December is holiday music, not that bad. Let me look ahead to January, okay, we’re doing this piece and put that into rotation. So I’m always thinking ahead in that regard, and usually month to month is how I do it.

Chaowen: 33:43
So it sounds like you have a pool of different pieces that you need to be studying: either something that is urgent, or something that is more complicated that you want to get ahead [on] already.

Kalena: 33:55
Oh, yeah. Because that’s that’s the thing about conducting and just life in general: you never know what’s going to pop up, right? Because you might think, as an example, let’s say, Oh, well, I’ll have three weeks in February to work on this music. Okay, cool. But then a guest engagement might come up, an appointment might come up, right, just medical, whatever. So something might come up that will take that time away. So for what we do, we really do have to plan ahead, because we don’t know what’s going to happen.

Chaowen: 34:26
Yeah. And then also, like you said, sometimes the music–if it’s new, or when the tempi is new, it feels like a totally new piece. It really needs time to sit in our body, to sit in our ears, so we can feel it.

Kalena: 34:39
Exactly. And the thing about young conductors–again, I am a young conductor, and every piece of music that we do is going to be brand new to us. You know, so like, we also have to spend a lot more time on it. And actually I was having this conversation with a couple of colleagues. I was recently cover conducting with the Nashville Symphony, and I asked the Music Director, you know, I said, When you were my age, meaning at this age in the game–you were three years into the job–how long did it take you to learn a piece? And he’s like, Oh, it took forever. And I was just like really? I don’t want to hear that. (laughs)

Kalena: 35:13
But he was like, Yeah, because when you’re young and you’re just starting out, you don’t know what you’re looking for yet. You don’t know what’s jumping out of the score. So it takes really, it takes a long time to really learn that score. You have to sing through every part if you’re not a pianist, or you know, some other way to get that music into your body, as you just said. So it’s like yeah, it takes a very long time, especially when every piece is brand new.

Chaowen: 35:42
So like, when you get a new piece, not necessarily newly composed, but something that is brand new to you. What are your steps to get yourself acquainted with the music?

Kalena: 35:53
Oh, that’s a good question. Okay, so Memphis Symphony is doing Sibelius violin concerto for our opening masterwork concert. Now, as a violinist, we all know Sibelius violin concerto, right? We know the violin part. But I opened the score and I was like, Oh, my God, what is this? Like, this is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever looked at. Because all of a sudden, you’re seeing all these other things around the violin part.

Kalena: 36:19
So my process is: I first look at my instrumentation. And I don’t even pick up pencils, you know, the colored pencils or anything–I just kind of flip through and see what jumps out at me, and I’ll either put a post-it note above that, or I’ll circle it or make a note, you know, and I’ll try to just kind of see if I can hear any of the lines. I’ll also just kind of maybe do a couple choral harmonies. I don’t harmonize every bar, I kind of harmonize the phrasing or arrival points. And then also if anything, again, jumps out.

Kalena: 36:54
So I’ll do this for the entire movement. And if it’s a piece that I don’t know, like I’ve never heard it before, then I will listen to it, because I’m not a pianist, and to try and play through a score would take me at least three years–I don’t have that type of time. So I will listen to a score four or five times just to kind of understand the composer’s language if it’s a composer I don’t know. But the the violin concerto, I know it, right. So I listened to three or four different interpretations, ones [where] you can also see what different violins do to interpret that piece. And then after I kind of do all that, so let’s say this was just the first three or four days. So after that, then I will go through, and then I’ll put in my appraisal analysis, and I will do a little bit of formal analysis in terms of, you know, this is an introduction, exposition, just kind of doing that whole jazz.

Kalena: 37:47
Then I will go on with my color. And I only use two colors now, just red and blue. And I’ll use a green if there’s a meter change, just to highlight meter change, you know, and that’s about it. I also go to my keyboard, and I will try to play through every line very slowly. And you know, one thing about how I was trained was, it was never really said how important it is to vocalize, meaning to sing. I will try to play through a line, you know, even if it’s just two bars, and then I’ll try to sing it back, so that I start to ingrain it and put it into my body in a different way. So I’ll be the keyboard for a while just trying to play through.

Kalena: 38:30
And then I might take out my violin and try to play through some of the lines. But Sibelius, I’m not playing through that solo line, because I don’t have those chops? (laughs) You know, but yeah, that’s honestly my process. And I mean, for me, on a good day, in an hour, I can maybe do a minute and a half’s worth of music, which, you know, for anyone that’s maybe six, ten pages, if you’re lucky.

Chaowen: 38:59
Yeah. So when you say you play it on a piano, and I know for some non pianists, that they might find it stressful, but when you play it on a piano, do you want to hear the individual lines? Or like, what’s the purpose of playing it on a piano? Because we hear it a lot from conductors.

Kalena: 39:16
No, of course. And that’s a good question. Because I used to ask the same exact thing. It was like, What’s the point of playing this, you know, because this isn’t doing anything for me? So for me, it’s playing the chord, right? So knowing that chord structure in the left hand, whatever the chords are, and then if I’m playing a melody line, what I like to do is play that melody and just play the chord underneath it so I’m starting to get the harmonic structure of how everything is there. And then when I just play individual lines, it’s just so that I know what that person is playing and what it sounds like, and that I can lock into that.

Kalena: 39:51
So something that Mei-Ann once told me when I was going through the Sinfonietta program, was she was like, Kalena, you’re not singing, and I’m like, What do you mean? She’s like, I can tell that you’re not singing in your head, because you haven’t kind of connected with one of the musical lines. And now that I think about that, I know exactly what she meant, it meant that you don’t know what each person is playing. And you know, it’s hard to hear every single line, of course. And you don’t just want to be a melody conductor where all you’re doing is conducting melody, you also want to know about the secondary lines as well.

Kalena: 40:23
So what I do for myself is I say, Okay, in this bar, I want to be able to sing this line in my head so I can connect with that player. And so actually, when I was doing Mendelssohn for my Masterworks debut, there was a line in the second movement of Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony. I said, Okay, I want to be able to sing this flute line, so that when the second flute comes in, I can connect with that player. And I think that’s the purpose of my going to the keyboard–it’s so that I can make a connection with the player and be able to sing what they’re playing. And then also just being able to hear the harmonic structure of what’s going on in the piece.

Chaowen: 41:01
So it’s more like an audio-lization of what’s on a score and kind of helping you get that line in your ears and kind of connecting the dots, kind of connecting the line to the rest of the piece.

Kalena: 41:16
Because the thing is, I have friends who can just say, Oh, I can look at a score and hear it. I can’t look at a score and hear it. Right? So I have to find different tools that will allow me to hear it, and going to the piano or taking out my instrument is one of the ways that helps me do that.

Chaowen: 41:33
That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing your process. And I wanted to come back because you talked about the Pomodoro procedure. And for people who are not familiar with it, can you kind of tell us a little bit about your version of it, because I know people have different variations.

Kalena: 41:49
Yeah. And it’s so random how I discovered Pomodoro–I don’t even know how I discovered it. I think I was just looking for like an online timer, and Pomodoro came up. And so you know, originally, the Pomodoro method is a method where you’re breaking down your work sessions into segments. And the original method is 25 minutes of uninterrupted work, and then you take a five minute break. And so I said, Okay, well, this seems interesting. Let me try this.

Kalena: 41:50
25 minutes was too short when it came to score study, because you know, by the time you’re done, you’re like, Okay, I feel like I didn’t do enough. So I was playing around with different times. And eventually I settled on 45 minutes of work with a 10 minute break. So uninterrupted, meaning you are solely focused on that score, you’re doing your piano, you’re doing you know, you’re doing whatever you need to do for that 45 minutes. And then once that time is up, take 10 minutes, take a walk, putz around on social media, just do something so that you can just really allow your brain to rest and to really soak in the information that you just did. And then I’ll go back and do another 45 minute session. And then I’m done for that session.

Kalena: 42:55
So I like to study in 90 minute increments, basically. So I’ll do 90 minutes, take a very long break, come back in the afternoon, 90 minutes, break, come back in the early evening, 90 minutes. And so the original method said that once you did four 25-minute Pomodoros, you then got a full 20 minute break. So I’ve never done four 45-minute Pomodoros, just again, because that seems like too much for me and my brain. Because you know, when you are really studying, you’re using a lot of mental focus and energy. And so it’s just so important that I step away. So that’s why I only do 45 minutes on, 10 off, 45 on, 10 off, and then it’s like Okay, I’m done for an hour and a half. And I’ll either catch up on email, I will go to the grocery store, you know, run some errands, and then I’ll come back later. Okay, now let’s hit another one.

Chaowen: 43:50
Okay, I’m going to ask a very embarrassing question, because I am the worst procrastinator when I have to study scores. I don’t know why. I love studying scores–once I get into it, I love it. It’s just the step of making myself open my score and sit down. When I know I have something that I really need to study, I will go clean my room, I’ll go wash the dishes and do all the things that I don’t want to do the most, so that I have something else to keep me busy. Do you have any tips for me? (laughs)

Kalena: 44:28
Make it a game. So like, I’ll be honest, it sounds like I’m so put together and it’s like, Oh my god, you’re so dedicated to studying. Let me tell you something. I am the laziest busyperson you will ever meet. Meaning: I would rather do everything but sit at my desk and study for the day. (laughs)

Chaowen: 44:46
We will be best friends. (laughs)

Kalena: 44:48
But I feel like that’s normal. You know what I mean? Because we’re human. We want to go outside and have experiences, you know. But like, I make it a game, meaning: I say Okay, I’m gonna do 10 minutes. And if 10 minutes pass, and I’m just not feeling this, I’m out, I’m done, like why force yourself if you’re not into it, right? But during that first 10 minutes, I try to find something cool about the score, or, you know, I will listen to it. And just, again, try to find a conductor who I really like, or just a conductor I’ve never seen before. And it’s like, what can they bring to this piece? And then sometimes that inspires me to be like, Oh, well, I would never think to bring that out. And then I start kind of discovering little clues, you know, and then I get more and more into it. And then all of a sudden, it’s like, my study session is over. You know, so like, make it a game, you know? It’s like, don’t think of it as work. Because yeah, when it’s work, you know, no one wants to work. Work is a drag, you know what I’m saying? But if you can think of it as, Oh, I’m playing today, then everyone wants to play. Like, you should totally just have fun with your scores. And I think that’s the thing too, it’s like, try to switch up your score study process, so that it’s not the same thing every single day. So maybe one day you’re clapping through rhythms and making it physical, as opposed to just sitting there with your pencil and putting colored pencils, you know? Or maybe one day you’re trying to play through a line on your instrument, or, you know, you’re just like, I’m going to solfege this horn line, so that you can practice your clef reading, but make it fun. Because that’s, that’s also how we learn these things. When it becomes a game, then we absorb it much better.

Chaowen: 46:31
Yeah, I love it, I’m going to totally use that. It’s like kind of, as you said, giving myself different assignments. So I’m, like, kind of looking just at the horn lies this time, pretending I’m the horn player, or looking at specific things to kind of just get myself started. Because once I get started, I’m okay. But it’s hard. It’s really dragging me; I’m so embarrassed.

Kalena: 46:52
No, you shouldn’t be, because you’re not the only one, you know? And again, these are the things that people need to know. We don’t just like sit here and think, Oh, yeah, score study is cool. No, score study can be cool. But on the other end of it, you’re just like, I don’t feel like studying for four hours today. That’s just not what I want to do. And like, that’s okay, though. You know, it’s like, it’s okay to have off days.

Kalena: 47:20
And honestly, I’ll tell you a very quick story. I have a friend who would wake up, he would study eight hours a day. And he had a routine, you know, he would wake up at 4:30 in the morning, I believe, and pretty much laid out his schedule. For me, he’s like, you know, the afternoon time is when I would catch up on emails, I’d go grab a coffee. And then I would study again, from four to seven, and then do my evening wind down and then be in bed by 7:30. And I’d be like, so when are you living life? And of course, he was like, Oh, well, I’m not really. Like, Okay, well, that’s cool. But he said, but then there are other days [when] I just don’t feel like doing that, and so I don’t. And I said, Well, then what are you doing instead? He’s like, I will go to the gym, I’ll go to the park, I’ll just do everything but study.

Kalena: 48:07
And what I realized for me is: it’s so important to have that one day off so that you can recharge, you know, and because, again, being so focused and intent on one thing for several hours a day is very taxing on the mind and on the body, right? So that’s why it’s so important to not approach it like work. Approach it like, you know, it’s a puzzle, you know, like you’re looking to find the answers, as opposed to you’re trying to do this so you can make it right. It’ll never be right. It’s a learning process. You know, it’s a journey. So have fun with the journey. And I think if we start thinking about it like that, then it becomes less of, of work.

Chaowen: 48:52
Yeah, I love what you said. And I think, really, it’s really important to be forgiving with yourself. Understand that everybody has off days, just like Kalena here. There are days that we are not the best of ourselves, which is okay, just give yourself time to heal, to recharge, and to refill your bucket. But thank you so much for being here, Kalena. And I wanted to give you a chance–I know I’ll put that in the show notes–but I wanted the audience to listen from you, like kind of where can they find you?

Kalena: 49:25
Oh, all the places. Firstly, it’s been a joy speaking with you. I mean, you know, you and I are colleagues via social media but it was it’s just been awesome like getting to know you and just seeing all the things that you’re doing, you know, with Girls Who Conduct and all of these other avenues like this podcast.

Kalena: 49:42
But where can people find me? So they can find me on the interwebs: so you can find me on Instagram. My Instagram handle is @silvursmiles (silver is spelled with a ‘u’, so it’s s-i-l-v-U-r and then ‘smiles’). I also have a website, kalenabovell.com, which has just been redone. And I’m really rocking my natural curls, so like, I love it. And then you can also find me on Facebook, which–send me a message on Facebook to let me know if you’re adding me because my Facebook is very private. That’s kind of like the one private thing for my life. So I don’t necessarily add everyone. But yeah, so those are the three places that you can find me.

Chaowen: 50:22
I have to say, I love the new website, and especially all the new pictures, I think they are so great. You’re very professional but kind of really just totally, 100%, authentically you, like your personality. That’s the best thing about it.

Kalena: 50:37
And that’s so funny. I’ll tell you really quickly. You know, it was so important for me when I was having these pictures done. The photographer and the company, the agency that I work with, Karen Cubides Agency, they said, you know, is there anything that is a definite, you know, it is a deal breaker? I’m like, Yes, my photos has to have me in combat boots and skinny jeans. And they were just like, Okay. And it’s because I realized that my look on the podium is like skinny jeans, a polo, and combat boots. And it’s like, that’s how I want people to see me, like this is my authentic self. And so it’s just really cool that we were able to capture that in these photos. You know, it’s like, there’s no pretension. It’s like, this is just me. You know, I think there’s one image that that, um, the photographer really highlighted my tattoo. And it’s like, I love that because I have tattoos. And I want them to be normalized to classical music, you know? So, no, thank you. I’m really proud of how the website came out. And I’m so happy with my pictures.

Chaowen: 51:39
I know, I was like, Oh, I want to get that photographer. And I heard so many great things about the agent. I think my other friend, Kevin Pfister, also works with them. So yeah, I really love the pictures. And so if you haven’t seen them, just go check that out. It’s kalenabovell.com. Thank you.

Kalena: 52:02
Thank YOU.

Chaowen: 52:06
So here you have it. I hope you loved this chat as much as I do. I can’t tell you how excited I was when Kalena agreed to be on the podcast, as she has been a personal inspiration for me for the past year. I love how she opened up and just was honest and vulnerable with all of us about her experience of preparing for the Proms debut, her organizational skills and tips, and how important it is to be authentic. Yes, this last part is actually my biggest personal takeaway from the chat, as this is something that I learned much later in my training and career.

Chaowen: 52:49
At the very beginning, I was always very concerned about being right and good. I thought, if I could be a very good conductor, I will be able to do anything–I will be able to conduct any music and conduct any ensemble. As long as I placed my hand at the right moment with the right gesture, the music would sound good, which was not true. I learned much later that you really have to be vulnerable and authentic on the podium, to open up to your musicians. They want to connect with you, to understand why you are doing this, why they are playing for you, or why they are working with you on this project, on this music that you’re currently conducting. They don’t need someone “right” or “good” being there, because they’re great musicians–most of the time, they can play the music without your presence, even. But we are there to really connect to your people through music. And this is something that is great that I was so glad that she shared with all of us.

Chaowen: 54:09
So what is your score study process? And what methods do you use to manage your time? Ask any question or share your process with me, as I’d love to hear from you. You can tag me on social media: I’m @tingchaowen on Instagram and @chaowentingconductor on Facebook. If you post anything, don’t forget to use the hashtag, #theconductorspodcast. You can also email me at theconductorspodcast@gmail.com.

Chaowen: 54:42
Lastly, don’t forget that I’m currently hosting a monthly giveaway of an hour of free consultation with me. All you have to do is to leave a review of the podcast on why you love the show, share the screenshot of the review, and tag me on social media, and you will be entered into the monthly giveaway for a free hour consultation. You can also get an extra entry as long as you share the podcast post and tag any friend. So go ahead and subscribe and leave a review if you love the show.

Chaowen: 55:21
Next week is another episode that I have been personally looking forward to, as we’ll be talking about networking skills with Elizabeth Askren. It’s one of the best episodes, together with this one with Kalena, that I so looked forward to when I was recording them. Okay, so I’ll see you next week at the same time and same place. Bye for now.