18: The Best Advice You Were Ever Given

Conductor's Podcast Wisdom Series

What's the best advice you were ever given?

Welcome to the very first episode of the Conductor’s Podcast Wisdom series, a new series full of shared life experiences and, of course, wisdom! 

In each of the monthly episodes of the Conductor’s Podcast Wisdom series, I am going to pose a question to 10 musicians, conductors, or business gurus. So including myself, you will hear all the goodies from a wide array of people, thus called the wisdom series. Now, without further ado, let’s get started.

The very first question I am asking my people, is “what’s the best advice you were ever given?” 

For me, it was “don’t take it personal.” 

My guests today are:

  • Lily Ling (Music Director, Hamilton – episode 21)
  • Jennifer Kane (Founder, NOVA Women’s Choral Project – episode 16)
  • Ashley Killam and Carrie Blosser (Co-Founder, Diversify the Stand, episode 20)
  • Tiffany Chang (opera and orchestra conductor, episode 4)
  • Kira Omelchenko (Conductor, Wilfrid Laurier University Symphony Orchestra, episode 22)
  • B.E. Boykin (Composer and Conductor, episode 25)
  • Margaret Flood (Founder, Frost Young Women Conductor Symposium
  • Noreen Green (Conductor, Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, episode 27), and
  • my dear friend Michelle Rofrano (Founder, Protrestra, episode 3)

Links Mentioned in Today's Episode

Chaowen: 0:02
Hi everyone, this is Chaowen, recording in May 2023. After finishing the first season of the conductor’s podcast, I have decided to give this podcast project, a dedicated website with more user friendly functions. So now we have a brand new website called theconductorspodcast.com. Straightforward, right? And now we also have its own Instagram handle. It’s also the same @theconductorspodcast. So all the show notes have been moved to the new site, and I invite you to come check out all the resources and happy listening.

Chaowen: 0:52
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: 1:39
Shy away from the real talk? No way. Money hardship, growth, and the rollercoaster of a 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: 2:15
Hi there, welcome to the very first episode of The Conductor’s Podcast Wisdom series, a new monthly series full of shared live experiences and, of course, wisdom. I am your host, Chaowen Ting, and I am thrilled that you’re tuning in with me today. And happy January! I hope that you had a great time with your family, your loved ones, or with your loved scores during this time of the year. If musicians practice 40 hours a day, we conductors should score study 40 hours a day, right?

Chaowen: 2:52
In each of the monthly episodes of The Conductor’s Podcast Wisdom series, I’m going to pose a question to 10 musicians, conductors, or business gurus. So including myself, you’ll hear all the goodies from a wide array of people–that’s called the Wisdom series. Now, without further ado, let’s get started.

Chaowen: 3:19
The very first question I’m asking my people is, What’s the best advice you were ever given? For me, it was: Don’t take it personally. I think I heard it during my first formal conducting study over 15 years ago, when I first came to the United States. And for the past decade, this has stayed with me and worked the magic at many different levels. It has helped me to overcome my imposter syndrome. And I will tell you a story about that.

Chaowen: 3:57
For a long time, I felt [that] my principal flute hated me. Whenever I made a comment, she just wouldn’t look at me. And she has this poker/still face. And I had no way to tell if she heard me, if she agreed with me, or if she liked me. So I just thought she hated me. Until years later, when she graduated, she sent me a really nice card, saying that I was her favorite conductor, and she loved orchestra. It was the thing that she looked forward to every week. Well, I certainly didn’t think she looked like that. But then I realized that all the drama had nothing to do with me, or whether she likes me or not. All the drama was just my insecurity talking to me. And if I had just focused on my work, and [not taken] this kind of thing personally, I would have been much better off.

Chaowen: 5:01
This also goes to another level: that when someone else is successful, it doesn’t mean that I’m not or [that] I will not be successful–of course, with different people’s definitions of achieving success. Recently, I was looking for a couple friends’ contact info. So I looked at their websites and realized that they had sign[ed] with an agent. I suddenly felt defeated. In my mind, I had associated having an agent with having so many gigs that you can’t manage it anymore, that you need someone to manage it for you, or your manager will start looking out for you and send you materials, send your materials to people, and network for you.

Chaowen: 5:50
While I rationally knew that none of this was always true, I almost had that failure feeling again. In the meantime, I worked very hard to convince myself that none of this is personal. I have gig invitations, a few of them that I even had to turn down. And other friends getting an agent doesn’t mean any criticism of my own work. But to be honest, it took me two days to get over it. But well, at least I got over it, right? And I just need to remember: don’t take things personally.

Chaowen: 6:33
Now, the first guest who is going to be answering this question is a good friend of mine, Lily Ling. She is the music director of the Broadway show Hamilton, and her interview, which would diversify a lot of Broadway industry, will be aired in February. So stay tuned.

Lily: 6:57
The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is from my undergrad piano teacher. We were discussing pedaling for Bach, and I’m sure anybody who is a pianist has had that conversation. And I still use this advice every day, which is: Music is subjective. It’s art; art is subjective. There’s a spectrum of good taste and bad taste. And as long as you don’t veer too much towards the bad taste, no one can tell you you’re wrong. As long as you’re here to serve the piece, and your intention is true–to the piece and to the composer and to the story–it’s just a matter of taste.

Chaowen: 7:48
The next guest is Jennifer Kane; she is a choral director in the Boston area and the founder of the NOVA Women’s Choral Project. Her interview is Episode No. 17, when she talked about finding her niche in the very competitive choral environment in the greater Boston area.

Jennifer: 8:15
The best advice that I was given, I actually received in my Master’s at Georgia State University, many moons ago. I studied with Dr. Alan Raines, who I think probably to this day is one of the most influential voices in my musical life. I was still new to conducting–in essence, you know, when I got to Georgia State, I [had] just been sort of doing the bigger and bigger church jobs. So I think I arrived at Georgia State [as] probably a pretty scrappy conductor, you know? A lot of self teaching, just “make it work, people” all along the way to get it done. And Alan would spend a lot of time with me working on technique and gesture and really polishing all of that, so that I was clear on the podium. But to some extent, even with all of that, the technique and the polish, I think one of the best pieces of advice he gave me was: Do what you need to do to make the music happen.

Chaowen: 9:20
The next two guests are Ashley Killam and Carrie Blosser, who are the co-founders of Diversify the Stand, a project promoting and commissioning new works for solo repertory, and they will be talking to us about commissioning projects, also in February.

Ashley: 9:44
The best advice I’ve gotten was from Amanda Collins, a horn professor at Mizzou, and she said: “Money is currency, currency is energy, and you need to do things to protect your energy”.

Carrie: 9:58
The advice that was given to me and I still use is that I am in competition with myself on my best day, and to think about what I can do for the future and not look at other people and try and compare myself with them, but to compete with myself and to try to be my best today.

Chaowen: 10:17
The next is Tiffany Chang, a good friend and a freelance opera and orchestra conductor based in the Boston area as well. Her episode is still one of the most popular shows of the podcast, and it was Episode No. 4 if you missed it, “From Fear to Courage”. Let’s hear what Tiffany has to say.

Tiffany: 10:41
There are so many good [pieces of] advice and I think it’s so hard to choose one. So I’ll share one thought that I’m currently chewing on, and it’s something that I read in a book. And I’ll share the thought. So the thought is that there’s a difference between being good at a thing and being good at marketing. Maybe other people who are succeeding are just better at marketing.

Tiffany: 11:09
So I read something along those lines in a book, and I realized that I can replace “marketing” in that sentence with any other word, like networking, self care, discipline, any of those things. And thinking about this idea–that there’s a difference between being good at a thing, and being good at blank, whether it’s marketing or self care, or whatever–it helped me see that I can be good at conducting and the skill of conducting, but I can also be not-so-good at many other things. And those may just be the things that prevent me from succeeding. So instead of focusing on what I thought that I needed to be better at, which is the conducting, I actually need to focus on being good at the other things that maybe other people do better than I do. And that’s how I may be able to gain more success.

Chaowen: 12:15
Next, we are hearing from Dr. Kira Omelchenko, who is the conductor of orchestras at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. In an episode will be aired later this year, Kira will be talking to us about tips on working with strings.

Kira 12:34
The best advice I ever heard was that attitude is louder than talent.

Chaowen: 12:43
Next, we’re hearing from composer and choral conductor B.E. Boykin. She is also a great colleague of mine, who directs the treble choir at Georgia Tech.

B.E. 12:56
So I remember my first encounter with Dorothy Rudd Moore, a black woman composer, at a conference. I had just started composing, and I was still trying to figure it out–[I was] very nervous. And I went up to her and I introduced myself to her and I just asked her, Hey, you know, I just–I’m very interested in composing. And I just wanted to ask you like, how did you do everything? And what is your advice for me? She was like, Baby, if you want to write, just write. (laughs) And literally since that conversation, I have been writing. So thank you to the incomparable Dorothy Rudd Moore.

Chaowen: 13:47
Coming up8 is Margaret Flood, who is an assistant professor of music at Florida Southern College, and also founder of the Frost Young Women Conductors’ Symposium in 2021.

Margaret: 14:04
This advice, I received from Dr. Amanda Quist, who’s the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Miami, and she has become a really good friend of mine: Always be the last to speak in a meeting. Listen intently, take notes, and take your time crafting your comment or your question, [and] you will likely be the comment most remembered.

Chaowen: 14:29
The next is Noreen Green, who is the artistic director and conductor of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, which she founded in 1994.

Noreen: 14:44
One of the best pieces of advice given to me was from a [female] music history teacher during my master’s studies: Be the most prepared person in the room. This was when most of those studying at that level were men. So I always took that advice to heart and still do. I am the one who thinks about all the possibilities of different scenarios of what can go wrong. If you think about solving the problems ahead of time, you don’t waste time at rehearsals figuring it out.

Chaowen: 15:15
Last but not least, of course, is my dear friend Michelle Rofrano, who is also a co-founder of the Girls Who Conduct force. She is the founder of PROTESTRA, an orchestra giving performances for social justice, and her episode, if you missed it, was Episode No. 3, when she talked about how to program on a certain theme.

Michelle: 15:49
I would say the best piece of advice I have been given was from my mentor Joseph Colaneri, who I assisted at the Glimmerglass Festival, where he’s the music director. And we were chatting during my first summer as a young artist conductor. At some point, he was saying, you know, it’s never about the conductor. It is not “the conductor show”. It is our job to help everyone else do their jobs the best they can, like the best conductor is not you know, taking up everyone’s attention for no reason. The best conductor actually like disappears into the orchestra, just because if you do your job well, it’ll make everyone’s job so easy.

Chaowen: 16:27
So here you have it. I hope you enjoyed the first episode of The Conductor’s Podcast Wisdom series, and I will see you in February. Bye for now.