Hannah Grasso on Becoming a Conductor at a Very Young Age

Version 2Hannah’s prodigious musical talent was obvious from the day she enrolled in United Choir School (UCS) at age 11. She had perfect pitch, an excellent sense of rhythm, and an innate musicality that set her apart from the crowd. She quickly rose through the ranks of UCS, earning a spot in the most advanced division of the Elm City Girls’ Choir (ECGC) after just two years. As a member of that rigorous ensemble, she got to perform complex works by composers like Krzysztof Penderecki and Augusta Read Thomas; but, in truth, she had little difficulty learning even the most sophisticated repertoire, given her brilliant mind and “ears of steel.”

What did turn out to be a formidable challenge for Hannah was stepping onto the podium to conduct her peers long before she was old enough to get a driver’s license. Suddenly the set of skills that she had so handily mastered as a singer were insufficient for the tasks at hand, and she found herself at the beginning of a long learning curve. In her new role as conductor, she was responsible for things like cueing entrances and cutoffs, indicating dynamics, articulations, and expressive nuances, addressing balance, blend, and diction issues, giving clear and concise verbal instructions, and making important interpretive decisions. She also had to motivate and inspire singers of various ages, establish a positive group dynamic, and handle the many unanticipated setbacks that arise in “real life” rehearsal and performance situations. The process of becoming a confident leader was nerve-racking at times for this perfectionistic and somewhat introverted adolescent, but it was an empowering and life-changing journey.

Hannah began serving as an ear training instructor and apprentice conductor of the United Girls’ Choir (UGC) when she was 13 and became principal conductor of a UGC ensemble shortly thereafter. During her high school years, she directed countless rehearsals and performances as well as festivals featuring as many as 600 singers. By the time she graduated from the program at age 18, she had spent hundreds of hours on the podium.

Hannah is currently a first year undergraduate at Smith College, where she is majoring in music. A few days ago, she came across this video, which features a talented fifth grader conducting the United Girls’ Choir in a recent performance of the Star-Spangled Banner:

The video reminded Hannah of her own experience in UCS and prompted her to share the following reflections on the organization’s unconventional approach to leadership development and its practice of inviting gifted young singers to become conductors:

Last week, the United Girls’ Choir sang the National Anthem at a Yale vs. Princeton basketball game. Conducting the group was a ten-year-old chorister, Katherine, who was younger than most of the singers she was leading. This would be a shocking sight to most choral musicians; surely, only an adult with years of training and a music degree or two would be able to assume the conductor’s role? Not so. As Katherine and UGC demonstrated, given the opportunity and a little guidance, even an elementary schooler (granted, one with strong musical capabilities for her age) can prove herself a strong leader.

This is but one example of the ways in which the directors of United Choir School disregard the norms of the choral world, thereby empowering choristers to realize levels of potential that far exceed the wildest expectations of most conductors. After seven years with UCS, I know that this concept runs deep in the organization, affecting every element of each rehearsal and performance.  Choristers are held to dauntingly high standards: they’re expected to sight-sing almost perfectly on the first go, they’ll spend an hour working to refine two measures, and they can be called out individually to answer a question or demonstrate a technique at any moment. And it doesn’t end with singing. Every singer is expected to think like a conductor, always actively considering ways to help the ensemble improve. And choristers take on significant leadership roles; they teach ear training and conduct rehearsals and performances, for starters. They can step outside of their comfort zones to do all these things because of the fiercely supportive community – everyone knows that if she falls, her sisters will support her and lift her back up.

While in UCS, I became an independent musician and was granted so many opportunities to advance as a conductor that, even as a first-year undergraduate, taking the podium feels like second nature. These musical skills are serving me well as a music major, but it’s other UCS teachings that have made me into the person I am today, that every chorister will carry with her forever regardless of her chosen career path, and that are really at the core of UCS’s expectation-defying training. We’re pushed to “be the best we can be” both musically and as human beings; in fact, the two are closely intertwined.  By virtue of being a part of the choir (and especially by serving in leadership positions, including musically-centered ones like conducting) we grow accustomed to taking risks, interacting with all sorts of people, and trusting in our own abilities. I utilize the confidence and leadership skills that I acquired in UCS every day – certainly as I conduct my college choir, but also as I speak in the classroom, meet new people, and navigate the many unknowns of adulthood.

By placing Katherine at the helm during that basketball game, UGC’s directors sent a clear message to her, to other choristers, and to anyone who witnessed that performance: she – and others like her – are capable of incredible things. I can’t wait to see what’s next for her and her sisters in song.

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