Kelly Corcoran’s pursuit to transform lives and communities through classical music and Intersection

 

Why has music been such a pivotal part of your life and what continues to spurn the desire to be a driving force for music in your community?

For me, I was a shy little girl. I remember being a little kid and listening to “On My Own” from Les Miserables. I realized then that music could be a way for me to  express my inner feelings, emotions and experiences. Music became a way for me to reach people and reveal my inner self, so to speak.

Now, as an adult and an artist, I care about making a positive impact on the world through positive social change and contributing to my community. One way I am able to do this is through music.  Music and art are vehicles to understand other people, hear other people; to listen, to respect and to come together. This is a vital, critical rendezvous place. You can listen to the music of someone else’s experience, life, culture or place from which they belong, and you get a little window into who they are, in a way you can immediately respond to.

 

You went to school for vocal performance. Tell us about your journey to becoming a conductor.

I chose to move to Boston for my undergraduate degree, and while a singer with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, a part of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I had the opportunity to be on stage with many amazing conductors & musicians, such as John Williams.

I was fascinated with how a conductor, as a leader, had to use their time effectively and efficiently, as well as how quickly you could lose people. It was the idea of how a conductor interpreted a piece of music, how they made choices for a piece, and how they had to stand in front of these musicians, who had been doing this for decades, and get them to buy into their interpretation. It was then that I realized I wanted to be more than just a singer.

At the beginning, I was like, “Look, I am going to pursue conducting, and if nothing else, it will make me a better singer and a better musician.” Before I knew it, I was completely hooked and knew this was exactly what I wanted to do.
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You tie conductorship to leadership. How do you gain credibility with orchestras you are meeting for the first time?

First, it’s coming in with a clear vision. Every situation is different, every player is different. There is this kind of intangible and unique dynamic with these musicians coming together. They might bring you something that isn’t quite what you had expected, but the result is great and may send you in a very different direction. You have to be willing to allow these moments to evolve without being too rigid.

Musicians get very annoyed when conductors come in and they have their list of everything they think is going to be a problem. So, being very in-the-moment and alert, is critical.  As a conductor, what’s really challenging musically, is that you have to be sculpting, creating and inspiring that moment, as well as keeping a list of all of those things you need to go back and address. It’s really listening to what the orchestra is playing and acknowledging those moments when they do.

 

How does body language play a part of your role in leading an orchestra?

With your technique, you are always preparing for every gesture, because they are what forecasts where you’re going musically. I have the responsibility of understanding the level and capacity of my orchestra, and being able to shift my style accordingly. Perhaps to some extent, it’s setting your expectations, as a conductor, as to what you are willing to let go or to triage with the orchestra.

I try to create an environment where people are enjoying themselves. As musicians, we can have high expectations of ourselves and want to do your best, but there are times where you aren’t feeling on top of your game. You have to be aware of how this impacts creating a music making environment.  Even if the music is dark, deeply emotional, desperate music—the person still has to want to buy into that and be a part of it. So it’s cultivating this place of mutual respect where you are hopefully inspiring people to feel like they can be themselves, and then sculpting it in a way that is unified.  It’s nuanced, because you are always steering the ship, and through these gestures, you almost give the impression that it’s not only you steering the ship.

 

How would you describe the role of a conductor to someone who has been outside of that world?

That’s a good question. I get this question a lot when I am speaking with kids. They ask, “Why do we need a conductor?” The reality is that I am not making music, but I think on a very basic level, my role is keeping people together in terms of the time and tempo. For example, in an existing work like Beethoven 5, there is allegro con brio, and the orchestra has to know how fast it is. Depending on the hall and the reverb, I might pick a different tempo and have to ask myself, “How short do I want the notes to be?” At any given moment, I have to assess the balance. As the conductor, you are totally the one that is sculpting the whole big thing. Being a conductor is being a leader.

 

Obviously you don’t see a lot of women conductors. How does one become a conductor and what does this process look like for most individuals as they are starting their career in this field?

In this country, it’s important to find a good graduate program and teacher. First you need solid training and education in an instrument, whatever you choose. This becomes your foundation. It makes sense, because even in solo work, you have to know how are you going to execute something and make decisions.

Getting graduate experience and hands on experience is critical. What’s different with conducting is that you can’t just go into your garage by yourself and practice; you actually need an orchestra. I think a lot of conductors have this period where they are buying their friends pizza and getting people together to do readings. That is a huge part of the process. You get your friends to help buy into your study.

There is also the path of pianists who work in the opera world. They will play and accompany operas, and are able to make their way up into the conducting role. But once you get the degree, a lot of times, it’s getting a job as an assistant conductor at a major professional orchestra or working with a community orchestra. Unfortunately, it’s a profession that is highly siloed, and can be a challenge when you are an artist that doesn’t necessarily fit one box. I feel like making music is making music. Ideally, a conductor should have the skill set to work with multiple kinds of orchestras and people.

 

As you reflect on your experience, are there any low points in your career?

(laugh) I remember in my early days with the Canton Symphony Orchestra, where there would be times during, say a concerto, where I literally forgot to bring the symphony back in! I can only imagine what the musicians were thinking. Reality is, you are going to mess up when you are young in your career. There will be times when your brain goes somewhere else. I think back on this fondly, as it was an important opportunity for me to learn in an environment where it was safe to make mistakes.

It’s funny how Intersection is a high but is also a point of my lows. After the first season, we had all of this excitement, consistent audiences, but we finished the season with a deficit. We weren’t sure what to do. We asked ourselves, “Are we going to move forward? How are we going to deal with this deficit?” We realized that while we had put so much into this thing, we weren’t sure it was going to keep going. It made me appreciate, as a leader of my company and my orchestra, with any given day, anything can happen. Things may not work out the way you think.  The end of that first season was such a weird, emotional thing because it was such an incredible high of what we achieved artistically, but a real low of trying to understand if we could sustain this.

 

What have been some of your biggest highs?

On the other hand, one of my biggest successes was conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. That was incredible! They are one of the world’s most incredible orchestras. Additionally, starting and conducting Intersection, is something I am very proud of. It’s a unique approach for both Nashville and across the country, and serves a need and a gap.

The first concert for Intersection was in March of 2015. We had almost 400 people! The collaborations were so real and authentic. I got so emotional and excited about these relationships, which had been built over 10 or 20 years, and could see the amazing potential there for what we were doing.

Another huge high for me was working with The Nashville Symphony. I had the honor of conducting the Martin Luther King Jr. concert for 8 years, and that was always such a special experience. We were able to bring different parts of the community together, like the Civil Rights Movement and the Nashville Library.

 

This seems to be a part of your particular journey in supporting racial equality and music education.

Yes, absolutely. Family programming and community programming are important. Listen, at the end of the day, sitting in your home or wherever, sipping a glass of wine listening to a great symphony offers such great joy, peace and fulfillment in your life. But for my personal work as an artist, I want to be making an even bigger impact.

 

What has motivated you to keep moving forward with Intersection, even after having a challenging first year financially?

I think, frankly, if you just believe in something, you kind of have to. Right? We play regularly at one of the homeless shelters here in Nashville, and one of our accordion players was playing Billy Joel songs. The most incredible thing happened. Everyone starting singing Billy Joel! It didn’t matter their hardships or why they were even there. In that moment, the only thing that mattered was the music. When you see these things happen, you know you have to keep going.

With Intersection, having gone through the Project Music Accelerator, it was interesting being coupled with all of these for-profit companies, pitching revenue-generating businesses, solving problems and having this investor mindset. I think we came up often against this idea of what a nonprofit is. People think of nonprofits as serving needs in the community like poverty, hunger, and abuse, and it was and is hard to articulate the value of the arts. Particularly in this environment. Sometimes, until people experience and see what we are doing for the first time, it’s hard to get this across. It’s being able to help articulate what drives us to do our performances as to why our mission is so important to us with Intersection. It isn’t about making money, rather Intersection’s goal is to make our community better.

 

What sort of hurdles have you had to overcome? And perhaps, more specifically, how do you feel being a woman has positively or negatively impacted your work as a conductor or now as founder of Intersection?

I would say foundationally, I think our struggles makes us stronger, and while I have had a lot of fortune in my life, I have also had to work really hard for the things I have achieved. I can’t begin to imagine what it would feel like to walk in anyone else’s shoes. I only know the shoes which I have walked in. I am glad I have experienced a little bit of being judged on things like being a woman for example. That’s who I am.

I struggle with this whole thing because I do want to stand up strong for women, and I do want to be honest about what I have experienced. These things are real. But, it’s steering the conversation towards the things matters, which is hopefully the music and the content we are sharing. That said, we need to address issues head on, and I want to be doing work that drives this sort of collaborative change. It is an interesting balancing act.

 

How do you feel like you have been able to have that voice or that space where you feel you can push back on others when what they are saying is irrelevant or inappropriate? It’s a tough balance for women being perceived as too vocal or pushy. Are  you finding there are ways to drive more positive conversation?

Change what you can change. My husband and I have a 6 year old daughter and we get riled up about children’s programming, media, and what people are consuming. I choose to create the content I want to see. I choose to take action.

If I am working for an employer who isn’t treating me fairly, I would say, stand up for yourself and don’t give them the pleasure of having your talent and capacity, bring your talent and capacity to someone else who will value those things. You want to be somewhere where you will flourish and shine.

Some may say, well you should stay and try to change the organization, but it’s your life and it’s a lot of energy you are putting into this thing that really doesn’t have anything to do with you. Don’t stand up for that kind of behavior. I believe, as we start to see strong women role models, this will continue to change.

In the conducting profession, there is this mentorship that is so critical to this profession. That is what you do – you pass it forward. When you think about diversity in the orchestral field, it’s critical to support and nurture those looking to stay in the field for a long time.

 

What do you wish you would have better understood about the orchestral landscape back when you were first starting out?

There are lots of things. First thing that comes to mind is how hard it is. You always have to be looking for the next thing and networking. The other part I wish I had I had known was this concept that you don’t have to forecast your whole life today. I think it’s important to recognize that life throws you things and you have to be open to the joy of not always knowing what’s going to happen, or where life is going to take you.

 

You are an innovator and someone who is focused on really changing the perception with the way that music is experienced and consumed. Why is this so important to you?

In Nashville, for years I worked at the symphony.  My life was living in the day to day grind of preparing scores, and it wasn’t until I did Leadership Music that I got a broader understanding of the music industry in Nashville. I really feel like there are a lot of potential opportunities for cross pollination. Back when I was going through Leadership Music, it seemed like classical music lived in one corner and the rest of the music industry lived in another. There is a stigma around classical music. Many think it is for elitists. Some say they don’t know when to clap. This is the struggle point for me. I am like “Hey, wait a minute. This music is great! Why do people feel this way?” In fact, an interesting note, even in Billboard Magazine, you rarely see anything about classical music and you certainly don’t see classical music charts.

It’s easy to get riled up about it, but this is the reality. So, rather than get riled up about it, my goal is to change it and get classical music into more mainstream consumption.

With Intersection, we want to cultivate this environment that music is for everyone.

 

I know you are an advisor for Music Makes Us, Nashville’s music education initiative for Metro Schools. What have you seen come out of the work you have done with Metro Schools. What can we be doing better as a community?

Music is a way for kids to express themselves, to find confidence and develop teamwork skills. I always felt that music was this complete combination of mind, heart, math, history, and culture. It is so important for kids and such an amazing way to learn.

But specifically, what people can do to support this initiative, on a very basic level, is go to the website Music Makes Us, and you can see by individual schools what the needs are of the teachers in those schools. It could be supplies, reeds for instruments and so on.

We should never diminish this idea of pure advocacy. Music is going to help keep kids in school, and help them graduate. If we can recognize that music is essential, we recognize the opportunity for students to get a well rounded education, and that comes with music education.

When we think about the evolution of women in the workplace, regardless of what that looks like for all of us, I think it’s more than just this notion of “we have to support each other.” Do you feel there are there some practical things we can do to truly influence progress?

I think a big part of this comes down to conversations we have with others and being able to separate the statement from the person and the comment.There will be a lot of folks challenging the notion of women in any capacity, down to the clothes we wear.

 

Kelly Corcoran. Portrait by Bill Steber and Pat Casey Daley
Kelly Corcoran. Portrait by Bill Steber and Pat Casey Daley

You have been interviewed countless times before. What is one question you wish people would ask you that they don’t.

That’s a hard question. This one! (laugh) Honestly, the one question I hate when people ask me is,“What is it like to be a woman conductor?”

People just always want the quick run of the mill answer. I try to, at least now, just follow my path and really try to close myself off from what the world thinks. We all deserve the same respect. It doesn’t matter what you have chosen as your profession, no one deserves to be judged unfairly. It’s hard though because most people don’t treat others this way. How do you operate in a world where the values you believe in are so counter with the way that most people operate? This is my internal struggle right now. To be respected or perceived by some, I need to play the game or climb the ladder, and all I want to do is just want to do meaningful work.

 

 

Watch this short video which answers the question, Why Intersection?  Intersection is a truly innovative approach to making classical music highly accessible to all, while bringing valuable programming to youth through music education outreach.

 

 

You can find out more about Kelly Corcoran at Kelly Corcoran and Twitter.

You can learn more about the great work of Intersection Music on Intersection MusicTwitterFacebookInstagram, and Vimeo.

 

Kristin McKinney
With over 20 years experience as a professional recruiter and 10 years experience in the music industry partnering with independent artists like the Blackfoot Gypsies, Love Trucker, The Ramblin Jaks, Factory Girl and others; Kristin brings her desire and passion to help young women build and sustain their own careers.

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