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When Michelle Merrill was riding barrels on her quarter horse Falcon Prince at age 5, she thought she wanted to be a veterinarian or zoologist one day, maybe even a teacher.
Born in Dallas, Merrill, who speaks with uncommon speed, energy, and enthusiasm, says her family was mostly tuned into sports. She calls her father, a semi-professional football player and fireman who loved golf, a “man’s man.” Her mother was a homemaker for many years before working as a secretary for a law firm.
Merrill, though, was interested in everything. “I was always happy to be doing anything, always curious and always wanted to learn new things.”
She sang in the children’s choir at the church her family attended in their hometown of Canton, about 60 miles east of Dallas. When out trick-or-treating one day, a piano teacher gave out her business card with the candy. So, Merrill took lessons.
“I got used to being on stage as a child. I loved acting, singing … I was an outgoing introvert,” she says. “I love being around people.”
Following in a sister’s footsteps, Merrill took up the saxophone and eventually joined band. By the time she was in high school, she knew her real passion.
“We went all state in band and played for a weekend for people from all over the state. I told my parents I could do this every day.”
Who knew Merrill’s love of music would lead to her becoming associate conductor for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and a finalist for the position of music director of the Boise Philharmonic?
It’s not just that her profession is so far from her childhood ambition of providing medical treatment from animals, but while it’s increasingly common for women to run boardrooms and governments, the number of female conductors and music directors is still low.
“When I started out in the orchestra business, back in the late 1970s, women conductors were few and far between and women music directors even fewer,” says Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras in Washington, D.C.
Recent research puts the numbers at 90 percent of music directors being male and 10 percent female. While 80 percent of conductors are male and 20 percent female, Rosen says, “Those percentages have not changed appreciably over the last 10 years.”
Of the 24 large-budget orchestras in the country, Conductor Marin Alsop, music director for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is currently the only woman leading a major U.S. symphony orchestra, leaving one to think the road to orchestral conducting for Merrill was tough.
Not so, says the 33-year-old.
Female conductors such as Alsop, JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Virginia Symphony, and Susanna Malkki, principal guest conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic, paved her way, she says.
“They were told women can’t do that. I was told, ‘OK, I’ll teach you.’ No one ever said, ”This is something you can’t do.’ I didn’t really think about,” says Merrill.
Paul Phillips, a professor at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts where Merrill holds a Master of Music degree in conducting and a Bachelor of Music in performance, didn’t concern himself with Merrill’s gender. However, the sheer competitiveness of orchestral conducting worried him.
“My only concern with Michelle was that the profession has so many people who would like to conduct. Many of them are very talented, and there are not that many jobs,” says Phillips, Merrill’s mentor and the man she calls one of the greatest musicians she’s ever known.
There were few female conductors when he was “a young person,” says the 65-year old. “When I started teaching, I did not have very many women who wanted to study conducting seriously. I would say the big explosion has come in the last 15 years of my own teaching career.”
Geneviève Leclair, assistant professor of conducting at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and a guest conductor for the Boston Ballet, says her male students outnumber women, although she is starting to see that change. “Where the divide still exists is where they land jobs at major orchestras. You have a lot (of women conductors) at the community level and in academics.”
Just as Merrill never experienced setbacks for being a woman, she chooses not to emphasize gender. “Conducting is conducting. It’s different from person to person because of personality. It doesn’t make a difference based on gender or race. Even the summer I spent in Salzburg, which is notorious for being male-centric, I never got a comment about being a female in this male-dominated world. These days you can see a female pilot, and you don’t think anything about it. I’m extremely fortunate,” she says.
Leclair applauds Merrill’s outlook. “Male or female there are people who are going to like what you do and those who don’t. You have to be yourself and present an honest front as an artist.
“Successful conductors, successful musicians in general, are those who can get completely focused on what you’re doing. When you’re a conductor, part of your attention needs to be focused on what’s coming up next so you can choose a gesture on the moment that’s appropriate. At the same time, part of your attention needs to be focused on what happened and whether you need to make any adaptations to the sound you’re hearing and what’s ahead. And to the gesture itself, with your hands. You have to be able to block everything else and be entirely in the moment. Hopefully, this complete focus on the music and sheer joy of it comes through and the audience can experience it.”
Several assets give Phillips faith in Merrill’s ability to succeed.
“I thought (her) friendliness would be a huge asset for her. It’s evident to the players and the audiences,” he says. More than anything, though, he’s assured by her intelligence and persistent need to know more.
“She was the kind of student everybody wants. When she would come to a lesson, she would come with a list of questions a mile long. I never had to convince her she needed to work on something. It was always, ‘How can I do this better? How can I do this job more effectively? How can I learn more quickly?’
“The conducting profession is … very much about leadership. Michelle has this effective way to work with people in a very friendly and outgoing manner and at the same time asking a lot of them. She understands the balance.”
Just after college, Merrill and her husband, Steve, moved to Massachusetts where he continued his studies and she taught jazz band, helped put on musicals for a middle school in a small town without a budget, and taught beginning strings at an elementary school.
“I was trying to decide what to do when my husband graduated, and I was considering orchestral conducting thing. My dad said, ‘Why not try it?’ I’ll never forget that phone call from him. He died in 2014. He saw me do a show with the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic but passed away before I got to this part of career.”
This part of her career is what Merrill calls a “dream come true.”
“I had worked extremely hard preparing for this audition, and I wanted this job, with this orchestra, in this city,” she says. “So many great things were happening here, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
“There is no question that Michelle is one of the leading lights on today’s conductorial scene,” said Leonard Slatkin, conductor and music director for the DSO, when she was hired.
After being hired in Oct. 2014 as assistant conductor at the DSO, the organization promoted her to associate in Sept. 2016. “On and off the podium, Michelle inspires others to do their very best, and her connections to people … show that she’s an excellent role model for the next generation and a fantastic addition to the orchestra,” says Anne Parsons, DSO President and CEO.
Chris Felcyn, classical radio host and producer for WRCJ-FM (90.9), compares Merrill’s “tremendous energy” and “charisma” to that of Neeme Järvi, music director emeritus for the DSO.
“So far as I can tell, she’s a solid professional and is probably going places,” he says, noting her candidacy for the Boise Philharmonic. “This season they have seven conductors coming through. We could lose her. I’ll be disappointed if she leaves and surprised if she’s still here in another two or three years.”
Though there’s always the possibility of Merrill leaving Detroit, she likely won’t leave the music industry anytime soon.
Despite using a lot of airline miles to spend time with her husband, who is principal percussionist of the Jacksonville Symphony in Florida, Merrill loves her life and her ability to share her passion.
“You can be in a sad mood and something tragic can be in your life and you can release those emotions, says Merrill. “Music has a way of communicating feelings that you can’t really describe in words. I love introducing new crowds to music, whether that be children or first time symphony-goers. It’s almost intoxicating because that music transforms or makes them feel something they didn’t know they could feel before.
“If I won the lottery now I wouldn’t change my profession. It’s truly my profession. It’s definitely my dream job. It’s work but it’s not it’s my life really.
The Ford Motor Company Fund has a long history of supporting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra by enabling new audiences to share in the joy of a performance. Ford Motor Company and Ford Fund are major contributors to the DSO’s first international tour in 16 years. The orchestra will perform 11 concerts, July 14-29, 2017, in Japan and China, including Shanghai and Chongqing, where Ford has a major manufacturing presence.
Main photo: Michelle Merrill, associate conductor Detroit Symphony Orchestra.