Posted on May 13 2021
It was a real honour to interview Marin Alsop for the 5th Interview in our Powerfully Petite Women Interview Series. We covered so many interesting areas in just half an hour including her amazing journey to becoming one of the world's top conductors, fashion (of course 😊 ), diversity and how to maintain belief in yourself when reaching for the heights. I was so impressed with Marin's focus, her passion for her career and her ability to keep pushing on even when the door seemed to be very firmly shut. There are lessons here for all of us.
There are so many milestones in Marin Alsop's amazing career, so I will highlight just a few – Marin was the first woman to be appointed the conductor of a major American Orchestra (the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra) and Brazilian orchestra (São Paulo Symphony Orchestra), Principal Conductor of a British orchestra (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra) and more recently Chief Conductor of a Viennese orchestra (Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra).
Something that brought Marin even more into the public eye around the world and particularly here in the UK, was when she became the first woman in 2013 to conduct the Last Night of our much loved and treasured BBC Proms.
You can watch a clip of my interview with Marin Alsop on the link to YouTube at the bottom of this post.
Photo by Theresa Sawey
I talked to Marin over Zoom at her home in the USA first about her early years, fascinated to know how and when she set off on the path reaching these heights.
J: I gather that you grew up in a very creative household. Both your parents were professional musicians, your mother was a violinist and your father was a cellist. Clearly they needed a different instrument to be played, so from an early age they sat you at the piano I think from when you were just a toddler. How did that go then, the piano playing?
M: That didn't go very well - apparently. I didn't take to the piano, I was probably too young for them to start me off. The piano wasn't my instrument. In retrospect in looking back, I realise that has helped me shape my concept of music education, because I realised that for every child there is an instrument. I retired from the piano when I was six! Then they sort of tricked me into playing the violin, but the violin was my instrument so it worked. I fell in love with playing the violin.
A young Marin with the violin
J: I did read that they tricked you quite well, they sent you off to a summer camp. You were dreaming of horse riding, swimming and waterfalls and all that sort of thing.
M: Little did I know, the requirements at the [music] camp would be five hours of practice a day.
J: How old were you then?
M: I was seven...
J: That's a lot of practice, oh my goodness!
M: I never practiced that much. I did all kinds of other things, they let me do some music theory, some reading. I read a lot of comic books and ate a lot of cookies in the pantry which is where they positioned me. I was the youngest one there so they treated me very kindly. But the most important part was the violin really spoke to me as an instrument, physically and musically, sonically. So it worked out.
J: Do you think there is an instrument for everybody?
M: I absolutely do. I think those people who had a difficult time as children with instruments, who say they have no talent, I think they're misunderstanding. I think instead the response should be that wasn't the right instrument for me. I think we are all born hot wired for music, so it is just a matter of finding the right vehicle.
J: Well that's a great message to give out and if you can improve some children's lives and parents' lives when are they trying, not quite to force their children, but to encourage them down a musical path
M: I would always say to parents if you have the financial means, let the kids try a few different instruments, for six weeks or a couple of months and see what they take to. It's so interesting watching kids, because sometimes the child knows. In this programme I started in Baltimore, I'll never forget a young boy named Tyrone. They brought the bass instruments in, you know the contra bass, who would gravitate towards that? He ran over to the instrument like it was some long lost cousin and put his arms around the instrument. He still plays the bass, that was his instrument. He knew.
J: That's fantastic, I love it. I also think if you play an instrument yourself there is a tendency to think that your child will like the same one.That's not always the case is it?
M: Right and sometimes it's definitely the opposite!
J: As a young girl I don't presume that you saw many, if any, female conductors? So how did you come onto the idea that this was the road you wanted to go down?
M: I have course had a lot of exposure to orchestral performances and conductors, I saw a lot of conductors. Much more than the normal average kid. But there was something special when I was nine years old, my dad took me to a concert. This conductor was different, he came out and he started talking to the audience, he was so enthusiastic, he was clearly kid like in his curiosity and in his embrace of this music. And when I saw him I immediately said oh that's what I want to do. I want to be the person that is sharing the joy and expressing it. And that was Leonard Bernstein and he of course later became my teacher.
J: That is just a fantastic fantastic story. And when you tell it, I can see that you're back there.
So, you go to this concert you see this amazing conductor and decide that is what you wanted to do. What happened when you told your parents or your teachers?
M: Well, my parents were absolutely thrilled. As long as I was going to be a musician, they were happy. When I briefly went off to Yale, as an undergraduate and threatened to study mathematics or literature, they almost lost their minds! As long as I was going to be a musician, they were fine.
I told my violin teacher at Juilliard and she was very discouraging. 'Your too young' - of course she came from that generation where girls don't become conductors. So, that was very discouraging. But my parents were always big supporters. I think it's very important for young people to have that support system whether externally or in the family. It could often be just one teacher at school, who says "I believe in you", "I know you can do this" and that can be enough.
J: So they were the voices you heard and not your violin teacher saying to you girls don't become conductors?
M: Well I heard them both. So I internalised this, a bit of a hesitancy. Because I was getting both messages, I had a bit of a reluctance and a worry I think about pursuing it full throttle. But of course I also understood I had some time, I was only nine years old at the time. So I started, as I try to do, and tried to educate myself, self-learn. I would ask my father to get me the study scores for whatever I was playing in the orchestra. I would watch and I would ask the conductor questions. I am sure I was highly annoying! I tried to teach myself as I went along.
I did have the opportunity to observe and be part of the experience that I wanted to be leading. So it really was a great education for me.
1974 Marin - Freshman at Yale
J: What about when you grew up and you graduated from the Juilliard School, I understood you applied to get a place on the conducting masters there? Four times?
M: Yes I was rejected every time but I think rejection is a very, very big part of becoming a conductor. Not just for women but probably particularly for women in that day. And all of these rejections made me actually more determined rather than less determined.
J: So you never looked on it as a reflection of you or of your ability?
M: Well I looked on it actually as exactly that - I needed to be better at what I did. So every rejection, I tried to use as a motivator, to improve my skills and get better. I never thought I was rejected because I'm a girl or a woman. I always thought I was rejected because I needed to be better. So every time I would renew my commitment and try to approach conducting from a different way and then I started my own orchestra with all of my friends. This was extremely supportive and helpful and I figured out a lot about conducting, a lot about interacting with people. Because the members of the orchestra were all my friends, they could say things to me that perhaps in a professional environment one couldn't say. So, they would help me with things. You know as a conductor it is not just about the music and moving your arms, it's also about interactions with people.
I think that as women we tend to try to make everything okay for everyone. We apologise a lot.
J: Yes there is a lot of apologising isn't there?
M: Yes, someone would play a wrong note and I would apologise. My friends said don't apologise, just be straight with what you are saying, be transparent, be clear but never apologise. That was very very good advice.
J: That could be good advice for lots of women I think. In all sorts of fields. I think we do have this tendency to apologise and it's just not our role to do that.
M: I think you are absolutely right. Not that there aren't some men that do that as well but I think it tends to be more prevalent with women. We are always trying to say do you have everything you need, are you comfortable?
J: Something that particularly impressed me about your early career, was that you applied for a place on the Tanglewood Music Summer Course I think five times? Which is amazing and you didn't give up. I really liked what you said about not thinking they rejected you because you are a woman, it was more "I need to get better". If you hadn't kept going with Tanglewood maybe you would not have met Leonard Bernstein at that point and who knows where it would have gone.
J: What would you say to women who don't find it as, well I am not saying you found it easy but they find it more difficult and would have said in your position "this is too much, I am going to give up. I am clearly not going to make this." What was it that kept you going? It wasn't just once or twice it was more than that, wasn't it?
M: That's a great question. I was born a stubborn human being, I was born with that sort of resilience. I am not saying that it was easy for me but I feel that if someone had to be the first one out there, it was probably good it was me because I wouldn't give up easily on any front.
I would say that it is really okay to feel the discouragement because it's there, it's real but try not to take it personally. Try to dissociate yourself a little bit so that you can get some perspective. Figure out a different approach, a different angle, maybe some other skill that you could improve to make yourself a better candidate for what you want to do. I think it's all about constantly re-assessing, reinventing yourself, renewing yourself. So that it becomes a tool instead of rejection, a tool for success.
J: I think that's fascinating, I'm taking notes. I'm going to take that to heart. When ever you are running your own business, you can sometimes feel that you are knocking your head against a brick wall. You do have to keep going and you do have to learn from it. I think it's fantastic advice.
Let's scroll forward a little bit, everything starts to be more successful and you get to be the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. How did you feel at that very moment when you found out that you were appointed. Did you find yourself looking back over your journey and really thinking about it or did you just think this is what you deserved and you always knew you were going to get it. Or something equivalent?
M: I think the irony of course is that it was both things at the same time. It was a wonderful moment, it felt like the real culmination of everything I'd worked for but there was this huge push back that occurred. So it was like getting whiplash, it was like being in London and not looking the right way, it blindsided me. So it continued the same pattern for me of making progress and then being pulled back. Having success and then meeting failure. So it wasn't as though everything was idyllic at that moment. I would say that now with my appointment in Vienna, that feels idyllic because it's a city that traditionally has not welcomed women in leadership roles; the Vienna Philharmonic has only had women since 1997. So heading an orchestra there, and that was really born out of the musicians requesting that they contact me and pursue me.
Now I feel I have arrived at a place where I can feel and enjoy the pride at succeeding. There were difficulties with the Baltimore but I think I have been successful in putting them on the map, getting them more organised and musically pushing them forward.
J: Do you think in the early days when you were conducting, that orchestras did find it hard that you are a woman? Not your appointment, but actually when the musicians were sitting there and you were conducting them.
M: Speaking generally, I think that musicians have been nonplussed by it. In the early days, I remember one of my first conducting experiences, during the break the guys in the brass section came up to me and one of them said to me "You know hey you are really great, I never noticed you're a girl." I thought was that a compliment, how am I supposed to take that?
I have sort of felt that way the whole time. The general tone has been I think really supportive from musicians. I think there are certain people who have issues with "other", whether it would be a woman or someone unexpected on the podium. Something that leaves their normal frame of reference.
J: So their expectations if you step outside that, they don't know how to deal with it?
M: You know the thing I've learnt, is that this tells the story much more of them than of me.
J: What is the relationship like normally, the classic conductor/orchestra relationship because ultimately you are there at the head and they have to respect you. Do you try and keep your distance? How close can you get?
M: I think it's like any CEO, you want to have a good, friendly, cordial working relationship that's productive and supportive but it's not a good idea to be extraordinary friendly with the musicians because it creates tensions even if nothing is there. So it's just like being the head of a company.
J: Do you think your size has paid a factor at all, in a positive sense in how you were drawn towards this leading role? Do you feel you can punch above your weight?
M: I think so, I think being smaller and also being more of an introvert, I think those two things have really played a role together. I can see that with the students I teach, I think that generally is probably the case with 80% of them both the men and the women. Smaller stature and more introverted tend to want to have more of a leadership role. It's very interesting to me about human nature.
J: You don't get much of men still trying to talk over you, physically they are up there and you are down there.
M: The good thing is I have a box to stand on.
J: Just what I need in my life!
M: Often the first comment people have after a concert is "Oh I thought you were taller", "I thought you were bigger". I think that stature is really about impression much more than it is about real facts.
J: Let me ask you, clearly I'm the founder of a clothing brand for small women and I know that finding clothes when you are small can be very challenging. The feedback we get from a lot of our customers is how much more confident they feel, when they have bought our clothes and have good quality stylish clothes that suit their frame, they can walk in to their meetings and feel better. I know from my own personal perspective, going back a few decades when I was a corporate lawyer in the City, I'd walk into a meeting, with typically men not a woman there, I would need to feel really well dressed to give me that extra bit of confidence.
Do you find that clothes have played a similar role with you as a conductor?
Photo by Adriane White
M: Yes I think so. One has to find one's own style of course . It's important to try not to imitate, me being a woman I don't want to dress like a man. That doesn't interest me. I want to find my own voice, my own style which is a combination of kind of casual, a little bit funky. I also want to be chic. I would always try to look nice I would say. I want to be well dressed always in front of the orchestra.
I see men go to conduct with the same shirt every day of the week, I think this is just so boring. Also colourful, I find the male colour palette is so drab usually. So it's fun when you show up. You have to moderate it so that it is always you yourself but I do think that clothes can really set the tone for your success.
J: That's really interesting. Do you dress as mindfully for a rehearsal as you do for a concert?
M: Oh absolutely, much more so. Because for concerts I have an outfit that I have developed over the years and it's made especially for me. It is of course the traditional black but I started very early on adding a little bit of red to the cuffs. Then people, particularly women, started asking me is it lined in red? So then I started lining it in red and now the red is coming out of the collar too. The suit is specifically made for me so I don't have to think about it too much.
It's really for the every day rehearsals that I need to be conscious of what I'm selecting.
J: When you're small, often you want to make yourself appear bigger. Where do you stand, literally, on heels? Are you a heels person?
M: That's a challenge sadly. I've never been super comfortable in heels. It's really uncomfortable for me also I stand some days for eight hours a day. I don't want flats because when you're small it does doesn't work. I'm always looking for 1 1/2 inch heel that perfect size but enough width that I have support. I think that shoes are probably the trickiest thing to find.
J: I don't think I've seen a picture of you wearing a dress for a concert.
M: I stay away from that. I just don't wear dresses - it's not me.
J: I'd love to get you in some clothes from Jennifer Anne, we do have some lovely tops. What do you wear in your leisure time?
M: Running gear and jeans particularly during this Covid Period. I finally retired my favourite jeans as I have worn them the whole way through. I don't know about other women but when this Covid time is over I am getting rid of a certain number of my clothes, I am retiring them forever as they became my go to clothes!
J: I certainly hope other customers are feeling the same as you!
J: What you were saying about standing for eight hours, it must take a great deal of physical energy to conduct long concerts. What do you do to do to prepare for that and how do you keep fit?
M: Like many people I turned to walking and jogging in these Covid times. I have always been a little bit of an exercise buff. Of course for what I do is so aerobic, moving your arms all the time, I try and do a little bit of weight lifting. Nothing that serious but I enjoy it.
Photo and the Title Photo by Grant Leighton
J: When you are standing on the podium with your baton raised about to commence the music. How do you feel at that point ? Are you so focused in the moment? As a member of the audience, it is always quite an exciting moment – the conductor comes on, there is applause and then when the conductor climbs on the podium the concert hall goes quiet. How do you feel at that point?
M: It's a fantastic moment of focus and energy, gathering the energy and concentration. It's really, it's what I imagine when you watch one of those Olympic divers you have to visualise what's going to happen, you have to feel the sound of the orchestra, I have to imagine myself doing it. And then you jump and there you go.
J: Lastly about women, equality and diversity. I know that you've championed it and done all sorts of things for this at the Baltimore with the foundation for children and bringing in different ethnic groups. Also you are encouraging women to become conductors by having a conducting fellowship. Do you think progress is being made or do you think the classical world is still shockingly slow? Just on the women's side for example, when you step down from the Baltimore later this year, there will not be another female conductor of a major US Orchestra, will there?
M: Not at the major orchestra level, there are some wonderful women Music Directors at the next level but not at the top level. I think that the pandemic has been a tremendous blow for the arts. I think on some level it has been a wake-up call and I hope it endures. Finally there is an openness to women, to people of colour, to composers outside of the white male mostly dead Europeans. Well it was forced on them, so whether it will sustain because it needs to be intentional. These things need to have visionaries behind them. I hope it will sustain. I am a little bit concerned that women were finally breaking through, I think it's basically a result of the Me Too movement. I don't think it would've happened otherwise.
I am worried that the focus on women and equality will get side tracked again as we look towards underrepresented minorities, which of course I'm completely supportive of. Often women get pushed to the side "well you've made advances enough that's good, you have enough". But we really can't let that happen and I think in many ways it's important to be more vigilant now than ever before.
J: Well clearly you have done an awful lot to push that forward and you're very visibly out there for the public to see. You are excited about what you are going to be doing in Vienna in that male bastion. That's fantastic.
It has been a real honour and a real pleasure to interview you. You have been truly inspiring and without doubt are a Powerfully Petite Woman. I don't know if you have ever thought of yourself in those terms?
M: Never (laughing), never - you are the first to call me that! I will take pride in that. Good luck with your wonderful business and much success.
You can watch a YouTube clip of an extract of my interview with Marin on
The Taki Conducting Fellowship was set up by Mr Tomio Taki and Marin Alsop. Over the past 18 years, the Fellowship has provided intensive coaching, mentorship and financial support to aspiring female conductors. Today, all 24 recipients are working to ensure a more equitable future for classical music, and 18 now serve as music directors or chief conductors of orchestras around the world. For details of how to support this Fellowship and to learn about their worldwide concerts see http://www.takialsop.org
To see a clip on the String Fever Ensemble Marin created early on in her career see https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=703085817118439.