2min readLifestyle 09 August 2019
My earliest memories of wanting to be a conductor were of me as a 10 year old, grabbing the chopsticks from my parents takeout Chinese food bag, tearing off the paper wrapper and standing in front of the TV waving my "baton" at the screen while the Boston Pops played a concert. I was fully convinced that I was in control of the music, conducting before a large crowd and fully immersed in the glorious sound of violins.
Now years later, having conducted concerts in 22 countries and with over 90 different orchestras, I look back and wonder how I persevered in a male-dominated field and found the courage to rise through the ranks. Encouragement did not actually come fully from my parents. Although we were a musical family, enjoyed music at home and were encouraged to take piano lessons, supporting me in pursuit of a professional conducting career was something my parents were not fully equipped to do. My dad had particular worries about how I would ever make a living, and his notion of a conductor was an older white male, with a mane of silver hair who stood commandingly on the podium.
But something in me lit on fire as I waved those chopsticks at the TV screen, and it never left me. I started conducting my high school choir and ensembles at the local community college and eventually went on to study conducting as an undergraduate and graduate student. It was not until I moved to Germany right after receiving my Masters of Music degree in conducting that I fully understood the prejudices toward women on the podium. I had a few lucky breaks when I landed in Germany and soon after jumped into leading full scale opera productions. But people, and surprising numbers of women, would ask me, "Why are you conducting? You should be home having kids and polishing your husband's shoes."
Once I had an interview in Germany at a large opera house where I was hoping they would engage me as guest conductor or staff conductor. An older gruff, male artistic director of the company proceeded to sternly instruct me, two minutes into my interview, to go home and write a 15 page essay explaining why I wanted to be a conductor and why I felt I deserved to be a conductor and return it to him. I was speechless, my face flushed with anger, as I asked him over and over again to explain why I should have to do this. I was ushered out of the interview and in a state of shock, went home and actually took out a legal yellow pad and began to scribble notes. I threw it down after a short time and decided that if my resume did not speak loudly enough to my many accomplishments, then that particular opera house was not the place for me. I also was pretty sure that being a young aspiring FEMALE conductor was the reason for this experience.
I worked for more than a decade in Europe, conducted productions in opera houses, toured with top youth orchestras, taught at the University of Berlin and continued to advance my career. It was when I decided to start a family that I heard comments like, "I feel sorry for your children." Or "I bet your kids miss their mom." I realized that it was a veiled way of saying that women really don't belong in this type of job, and that it takes too much time and energy to do a "man's work."
But my inner strength was never in short supply in my mind, and I conducted festivals and concerts with great successes. Looking back I realize that every stone that was put in my path only energized me to be better, work harder, be stronger and to never, ever give up. It served me well through the years. I toured for two years to 14 countries doing a live to picture show and encountered fierce sexism from the producer who hired me. He would inspect my clothes, come into my dressing room, examine my shoes, comment on my makeup and warn me not to be too strong, but to be sweeter. That fueled my desire to become my own producer.
After two years of international touring, I wanted to be the captain of my own ship, do my own projects and not be hassled for my eyeliner. So, after retiring from that tour I founded Orchestra Moderne NYC, a top level ensemble in New York City that plays culturally relatable music with a focus on social justice. Our first debut was a Carnegie Hall concert honoring immigrants called, The Journey to America: From Repression to Freedom. The topic of immigration was a hot button issue during the 2016 presidential campaign. I felt so passionate about honoring immigrants who have come to this country that I constructed an entire concert devoted to the subject. From that successful launch, I realized that the only thing that would ever hold me back, would be my own doubts, not anybody else's. And I had no doubts.
Our upcoming concert is September 20th, 2019 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center in NYC. After the immigrants concert, I began researching the lives of strong women from the past eight hundred years, and found activists of uncommon strength, courage and valor whose fearlessness changed the course of history. I wanted to honor the strength and heroism of activists past and present who have fought for civil and human rights, against climate change and gender equality and for the right of every girl to an education. Thus Women Warriors: The Voices of Change was born.
I teamed with award-wining Hollywood female composers to create a timely and
inspiring concert. With moving documentary footage and rich and emotional symphonic music, the concert will give hope and voice to women and girls around the world. The project that has taken nearly two years; I am in charge of hiring, fundraising, programming, producing, conducting and just about everything else. I gladly carry the stress of doing everything myself because I know women are strong, women are courageous, and women get the job done.
I am the sum total of all of the experiences in my life. Every difficulty, challenge, loss, pain, as well as victory, joy and success has shaped me into the strong and confident woman I have become. Women Warriors: The Voices of Change is the result of perseverance, resilience, and mental tenacity, coupled with the belief that I am as good as any man. If I encounter any resistance to what I am doing, I just remember that I am captain of my own ship.
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"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." -Willa Cather
A logical fallacy called bifurcation (yes, it sounds like a disease) is used to make people believe that they can only choose between two extreme choices: love me or leave me, put up or shut up, etc. In relation to my career and my love life, I was once stricken by this crazy malady.
I spent over a decade in and out of love relationships that undermined my career and drained my creative energy along with my finances. The key problem was that I was convinced that I had two options: be a kickass, and powerful professional who scares off any prospective mate or surrender to that deep and profound love such that my ambitions blow away in the wind. For years, my psyche ping-ponged between these two choices like that was the only game in town. But why?
Turns out we women are often programmed into thinking that we can't have love (at least that good, juicy heated kind) and any sort of real career. This is not actually that surprising given the troubled history that America has with women in the workplace. Post WWII, women were supposed to quit their jobs and scurry back home and leave the careers for the returning men. And if you think we've come a long way from making women feel they don't belong in the workplace, consider Alisha Coleman. In 2016, she was fired because her period leaked onto a chair!
But try to keep a good woman down, and well, you can't (Alisha sued her former employer). Given enough information we will always find a way to overcome our situation. As we teach in my practice, Lotus Lantern Healing Arts, we are all our own gurus. The light in the lotus just offers a way to illuminate your path.
So what was I missing so many years ago when I kept struggling between two suboptimal choices? The answer is the understanding that if I wanted to have it all, I had to start living right now as if I could. For me to be with someone who supported me having a fantastic career, I had to believe that that was actually one of my choices and start living that way.
Of course that is easier said than done (like most life lessons). So once I made that realization, here are the three key changes I made (and no they didn't happen all at once):
First, I stopped apologizing. Why the hell do women always feel the need to apologize for everything! (Sorry for swearing! Jk.) In particular, why do we have to feel bad about time away from the homefront? Remember Don Draper stopping off at the bar before heading home? I took a Madman lesson from him and stopped apologizing for my free time and let go of my usual rush to get back. Instead I focused on enjoying the transition, which was often needed to release the stress of work. Whether I was slow-driving listening to my jams and singing at the top of my lungs or stopping off for a pedicure, a little ritual went a long way to making me feel like a real human when I walked through the door.
Second, I let go of perfection in order to be present. I stopped stressing over a work deadline and instead rescheduled it to tend to my love life or postponed a romantic dinner because a juicy work opportunity appeared. In this way, I did not force an unnatural choice or one I did not want but really paid attention to what felt right. Instead of feeling subpar in each realm, I end up getting the most out of my time in both places.
Third (and perhaps most significantly) I began to welcome and expect encouragement from the most significant person in my life. I made it clear to my partner that I wanted insight and not criticism. And since I knew I needed understanding and not saving, I said, "Please help me look at my career woes from a different angle instead of offering me advice." Ultimately, I only accepted partners that truly supported my dreams and didn't let me play small.
Today, some of the most exquisite pleasure I feel comes simply from my partner witnessing me. Having a cohort who really appreciates my struggles, helps me integrate work and life, and enjoys the wins together can be mind-blowing. Likewise, when the shit hits the fan (again, not sorry!), it's really important to have a partner that can hold space for you and help you remember those wins.
It's a constant battle. Our culture still perpetuates the myth by pitting love and career against each other (ever see Fatal Attraction?). Men don't always get this message, but then we don't need to wait for them to get it. All we have to do it start living right now in the way we truly deserve and bring others along with us. When my friends see me and my partner together separately killing it in the career department and fiercely loving each other they say, "Your relationship gives me hope."