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I Founded A Social Justice Orchestra in a Male-Dominated Industry That Told Me to Stay Home

2min read
Lifestyle

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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4min read
Lifestyle

Divorce as Seen Through the Eyes of a Child

I have often heard the saying, "You were probably too young to remember this, but . . ." I can honestly say that I can recall quite a bit from my childhood even though I can't seem to recall what I had for breakfast yesterday. I remember a lot, including some things that I wish were fuzzy.


I know this sounds strange, but I remember my dad leaving. I was barely two years old, so obviously I was at an age when I could not fully comprehend what I was experiencing at the time, but I already knew I missed my dad and I wanted him to come home. Divorce is a topic I am very familiar with, both personally and professionally. There are countless people who seek counseling in various areas of their life and to me; that is just another day at the office. However, my story hits a different type of nerve for me. It is a story that I had processed in my own therapy, but this is the first time I am sharing it with the public, so (deep breath) . . . here we go.

As I mentioned before, my dad left when I was about eighteen months old. Just as I was trying to adapt to these changes as best as a toddler could, I met my dad's new "friend" and her kids. I remember she took my hand and walked me around where she worked. I am sure a lot was going on behind the scenes between my parents, but again I was too young to put things together at the time. Fast forward to age four or five, I was introduced to a new friend: anger! Oh, and nightmares. Plenty of them. One recurring nightmare was my dad leaving me. I would wake up screaming and crying, filled with a mixture of sadness, anger, shame, and guilt. My mom would come running into my room to comfort me as I sobbed against her shoulder.

Looking back now, I realized that the word that truly defined what I was feeling was powerless. My mom decided that she needed to do everything in her power to help me. So, she went to the bookstore and found several books that were supposed to help kids deal with their parents' divorce. She would read them to me, but they often told stories of children that I could not relate to, or they were often telling me how I should feel, rather than allowing me the space to access my own feelings. It was frustrating and overwhelming.

It is fascinating how quickly we can adapt. I started to get used to going back and forth between my two homes. However, it was only for a short period of time that I felt "okay." Fast forward again to around age ten. Just as I was starting to accept all the changes including separate homes, blended families, and different sets of rules, I had to endure a long and terrifying custody battle. I felt like my parents were playing tug of war with me in the middle! The anger that I thought had disappeared came back in full force and even brought additional feelings, including shame, grief, sadness, low self-esteem, people-pleasing tendencies, just to name a few. That voice I was working so hard on developing was silenced as I decided to just say or do what I thought would please my parents as well as others. I not only lost my voice, but I lost myself.

That's when my mom introduced me to a journal. What started out as doodling tiny drawings in a lined notebook became pages and pages filled with my innermost thoughts and feelings as I got older.

I also learned some interesting techniques from my mom. She created "games" for us to play including what we called "give me the bad stuff," which is where I would think of all the different things that were bothering me, shout, "I don't like this," while bundling them up into an invisible ball, and then handing them to my mom who would then pretend to throw them out the door or window.

My mom would tell me that I am just a kid, so I did not need to hold on to all this "yucky stuff" inside. It was the first time in a while that I felt like I had a voice. It was wonderful! I would also scream into or hit my pillow as if it were a punching bag. Pretty creative stuff, right? As my mom always says, "It takes a village," and boy was she right! I lucked out by having such an amazing support system at my elementary school.

My guidance counselor established a support group for children of divorced or divorcing parents, and it truly helped to normalize what I was feeling. I was able to speak to peers my own age going through the same things, which was helpful as many of my close friends could not relate to what I was experiencing. I was given safe, nonjudgmental outlets to express myself, and little by little I felt better.

So why am I sharing my story? Well, today as a therapist, I listen to other children's stories. Divorce is definitely not pretty, but it does not have to be so ugly! Whether the parents decide to "stay together for the children" or go their separate ways, children are getting pulled into the chaos. Sometimes, children will pretend they don't know what is going on or act as if they don't care, but trust me when I say it all leaves an impact.

My book, My Parents Are Getting a Divorce . . . I Wonder What Will Happen to Me, is an interactive workbook that was created by my mother and me during the terrifying custody battle that took place between my parents. I felt it was imperative that I assist as many children as possible to help them explore and uncover their innermost thoughts and feelings regarding their parents' divorce. Within the pages of the book, children are encouraged to write and draw as well as ask questions to get in touch with what is inside that needs to be healed.