Hear Me Roar
July 2019 Issue
Musical Director and Conductor
The Coastal Symphony of Georgia
Conductor Michelle Merrill just completed her first season with The Coastal Symphony. And what a 2018-19 season it was: One of great variety and talent played by superb musicians, who smiled widely through each note created under Director Michelle’s baton. Always “in tune” with life and always on the go, Michelle took some time out with Paisley to share some insight and thoughts…
Conductor Michelle, is it true some people possess an ear for music? Is it a gift, or does it come from years of training?
I actually just saw a meme about this the other day. It went like this:
Person: How do you perform so well?
Person: It must be an innate gift...
Musician: It’s practice.
Person: I’ll never understand how some people are so talented... a mystery
I laughed pretty hard, because that really is the essence of it. So much time and practice go into creating music and bringing that to the public ear, both personally and together with other musicians. Years and years, decades upon decades. Most musicians start an instrument before they even reach a two-digit birthday and keep perfecting their craft for life. On the other side, though, is this love, I think, that hits some people and makes them choose this field in the first place. There is no point in sacrificing so much of yourself if you don’t love what you do.
What is your career background and what instruments do you play?
I have a great “origin story” of sorts in that I came to study music initially because of Halloween. I was trick-or-treating when I was around 7 or 8 years-old, and one lady was handing out her business card for piano lessons along with candy. When I got home and dumped my treats out, I found it, asked my parents if I could take lessons, and they said, ‘Yes.’
Also, around the same time, my sister, who is eight years older than me, was playing saxophone. A few years later when it came time for me to pick an instrument to play at school, that was the one I wanted, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Little did I know there is basically no saxophone in orchestra, save for great moments in a few select pieces. I had already been interested in conducting before I got to college, but this knowledge helped push me to the career path I have now. I started taking essons on violin and cello to understand how the strings worked, and began doing more score study to really get to know the music.
Both you and your husband, Steve, are in the symphony. How does that work? Is your son, Davis, showing interest in music?
We love getting to go to work together and making music together. We met in college when we were both undergraduate students, and used to perform a lot together then, so it’s nice to be able to continue that in a different way now.
Davis is extremely musical. I was conducting up until I was 37-weeks pregnant, so he was right in the middle of it before he was born. He also loves “bah-m, bah-m” (his word for playing drums) and is really into guitars right now because he heard my brother-in-law play when we were visiting. We also listen to the soundtrack from the Disney/Pixar movie Coco quite often. He loves to pretend like he is playing and singing along; in fact, he is doing it this very moment while I type these answers!
What three things must a conductor never leave home without? Scores, baton and clothes.
What brings you joy from composers who wrote music centuries ago and those who create and have composed in more recent times? The music that has stood the test of time has done so for a reason. Music from the past has such meaning because it is what all music that comes after it was built upon. Beethoven was an inspiration to Bernstein; Bach was an inspiration to all. Gregorian chant from Medieval times still speaks to composers today. For me, any piece is about discovering what the composer is trying to say, trying to convey about the world around us. Some music is beautiful, some is tragic, some is piercing and brutal, and this range of human emotions needs to be explored and experienced. Music helps us do that.
What are you doing this summer for your family and yourself before the 2019-20 symphony season begins? I am spending eight weeks with the San Francisco Opera this summer, assisting Maestro James Gaffigan on the production of Carmen, where I made my company debut on the podium on June 20, 2019, in his absence. It is a thrilling show, and the singers have all been incredible. And, both myself and my family are happy to be out of the southern heat for a while!
Do you sing? What is your favorite song you sing to others or sing to yourself? I grew up singing in church choirs, and I love singing to my son. One particular song we sing at night is the Abendsegen (“Evening Prayer”) from Humperdinck’s opera Hansel und Gretel. It’s so beautiful and peaceful, and actually a part of one of the pieces, I put on our program for next season. There is a lot of “Wheels on the Bus,” “Twinkle Twinkle,” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider” going on in our home at this time, too!
What pieces of advice do you have for “budding” conductors—both girls and boys? Become the best musician you can be. Study, practice, ask questions (lots of questions—don’t be afraid of what you don’t know), and listen to great music, not just classical. Go to live performances, watch how performers respond and communicate with each other. This is so important in our field.
What are the most interesting or inspiring concert halls you’ve ever seen or been in, and why? Hmmmm... this is difficult. Many times, it’s more about the music itself. But the Detroit Symphony’s Orchestra Hall is quite beautiful, and growing up near the Meyerson in Dallas, it’s hard to deny the beauty of that hall. And then there’s places like the Felsenreitschule (featured in The Sound of Music) or Mozarteum, both in Salzburg, Austria. Getting to see a production in those spaces is quite an experience, as well.
How do you make sure you don’t’ “miss a beat”? Lots of study, practice and making sure I, myself, stay healthy. I love to run, and it always makes me feel better, even if I don’t feel like it when I’m starting out. Running helps to clear my head and gets my heart pumping—good training for the workout of conducting an orchestra!
Conductor Michelle, what are you Roaring about these days?
My son, Davis, He is just about to turn 2 and pretty much every minute I’m not studying and practicing, I’m spending with him. He is at that age where the world is his oyster, and he is learning things at the speed of light. Each new day he says, or does something new, and I love seeing life through his beautiful eyes.