Associate Conductor for the Seattle Symphony
Growing up in a small town in Montana, Lee Mills never imagined a career in music until he went to college, where an advisor opened his eyes to the possibilities.
While he liked playing instruments, Lee didn’t love the hours of isolated practice time. When he tried conducting he discovered his true passion.
Lee also studied physics in college, and he says there are a lot of similarities between the scientific world and the musical world.
There is a great deal of competitive pressure in the conducting world, but Lee says when he is able to be part of a beautiful moment on stage, he realizes he’s doing something that makes a difference.
IVAN STEGIC: Hi there! You’re listening to ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us! I’m your host, Ivan Stegic. This podcast is supported by TEN7, a technology studio whose mission is to Make Things That Matter. Online at ten7.com
We all have a story, don’t we? We’ve all had successes and failures, joy and disappointment, love and sadness. And yet, we’ve all made it to here… to right now! Our stories are one amongst eight billion others… eight billion other stories, each of them unique, each of them grand in their own way, and each of them a window into the humanity that connects us all. ONE OF 8 BILLION tells the life stories of people from around the world.
Our story today is about Lee Mills, the associate conductor for the Seattle Symphony. Growing up in a small town in Montana, Lee thought he was going to be a physicist until college, when he discovered his passion for music. Now, whether he’s bringing new life to great compositions, or he’s helping an audience connect with the music in a meaningful way, Lee finds joy in creating moments of beauty… Let’s listen!
IVAN: Welcome to ONE OF 8 BILLION. Would you please introduce yourself?
LEE MILLS: My name is Lee Mills. I'm an orchestra conductor. Currently, I'm the associate conductor of the Seattle Symphony, which is where I am currently living. I just really love making music and using music as a way to engage with the people around me.
IVAN: That's wonderful. Thank you for being on the podcast with me today. I am just so enamored with the style of conducting that you have. And that you exhibited when I was at the Minnesota Orchestra watching you perform. What was amazing to me was that you were actually filling in for the resident conductor. And so, it must have been very short notice. How do you prepare for something like that? I mean, this is an orchestra, it’s not a four-person band. It’s such a large, complex thing that you have to conduct. What does that feel like? How did you prepare for that?
LEE: Fortunately, in this case, I got a very teeny tiny heads up earlier in the week. The orchestra had contacted me because the conductor Sarah Hicks, who was scheduled to conduct, had an idea that she may not be able to go that weekend. So, they kind of already had started putting out feelers, so I had a sense. But I receive those kinds of emails quite frequently, because people like to cover their bases. So, when they feel they might need somebody to replace them, they send out a bunch of emails to a bunch of people, and they say, hey, are you available for this weekend? This is what we're doing. And I respond and say “yes”, and then a lot of times you don't hear back.
So, I kind of thought maybe I wouldn't need to go there. And I had actually planned to vacation to San Francisco with my husband. So, we still went ahead with that plan, but I just kind of made sure I had the scores that I needed for the concert and my suit, and everything packed in the car with me. And we were driving down to San Francisco and during the drive, I got a call from them, and they said, “oh yeah, we're definitely going to need you this weekend. So can you come out here?” So, I finished the drive to San Francisco. We were going to visit friends. I left my husband with our friends in San Francisco and immediately went to the airport and flew to Minneapolis to do the concert. Afterwards, I flew back to San Francisco, and we drove back to Seattle. It was the longest commute to the airport I think I've ever done.
IVAN: Couldn't tell that you had flown in, done the performance and then flown back, that was not evident at all. Did you have a chance to practice before the actual performance?
LEE: Well, this actual program, the second half of the program, which is the part where Rick Steves kind of takes us on a tour of Europe with his videos and the music from various countries, that half of the program I had actually done before with Rick Steves here in Seattle, which I think is possibly how they came up with asking me if I was available to do it. So, since I had already done that half of the program, that part was already in my head. The first half of the program, however, we did a different program in Seattle, every orchestra that does this sort of project with Rick Steves, they do this tour of the Americas before we go to Europe, and each orchestra chooses its own first half of North and South American music to feature on the program. So that, I did have to learn very fast. A lot of cramming on the plane and overnight in my hotel room.
IVAN: Wow. That’s just amazing. I love hearing about your 'now'. Thank you for talking about that. But I want to go back and try to understand how you all came to be. So where were you born? Where did you grow up? Who was around you at the time?
LEE: I was born in 1987 in a very small town called Belgrade, but not in Europe. It was here in the United States in Montana. Very small sort of farm community railroad town of about 10,000 people. So, I grew up running around outside and riding bikes and jumping off cliffs on my skis and doing all of that stuff that you do when you grow up in the wilderness. And I started playing music when I was four years old. My dad's a mechanic, he actually just retired. And my mom, they owned a shop together, so my mom did all of the administrative side of the job, and my dad was the mechanic, and they had a couple of other people working for them.
So, we grew up in this small town, and they had some friends that were moving. And I was very young, so I only know this through stories, but I think what happened was they had helped their friends move and their friends had this little spinet piano, which is a piano that's upright, but it's not one of the tall upright ones, it only comes up to about maybe your chest, when you're sitting down, it's quite small. And they gave it to my parents, kind of just as a thank you for helping them move, or they didn't want to move it wherever they were going, I don't know. But it ended up in our living room. That was when I was three and I started plunking away at it and exploring it and doing things on the piano.
But I started asking my parents to give me piano lessons. And after about a year they gave in, so when I was four years old, I started taking piano lessons. And that's where it all started. I grew up playing piano, when I got into grade school in band, I started playing the trumpet and I sang in the choirs, and I was just always really drawn to music and being involved in music. It's just been something that makes me tick this whole time.
But I never thought it was something that I would do as a job. Because you don't have a lot of examples of that when you don't grow up in a city. There's not a lot of reference points for somebody who wants to be a musician, professionally. So, I think maybe it just didn't occur to me that it was even really possible until I went to college. So, I was very involved in all of the music things through high school. And when I went to college, that's when I thought I would be a physics major, but I actually went on a scholarship as a music major. So, I was doing the music major, but only just to get the money. [laughing]
IVAN: I see.
LEE: Planning on doing a physics double major alongside it. Because when I was in high school, that was about the time that this computer game called Roller Coaster Tycoon came out and I played that so much. I don't know how many kids thought this, but I decided I was going to be a roller coaster designer as an adult. That was what I was going to do. I was taking physics and music classes; I went to Whitman College, which is a very small liberal arts college in Walla Walla, Washington. And you have to take a lot of courses in a lot of different areas.
And I was really drawn also to history. And what happened was in my second year, I had a very difficult physics class that I actually got a D+ in and that was the end of that trajectory for me. I was not going to continue in that major, so I decided to focus on music and I also, at that point, had a little bit more inspiration around being a professional musician. My academic guide, his name is Dr. Robert Bodie. He definitely was my mentor but at the time, early in college, you’re assigned with a faculty academic guide to help you pick your courses.
IVAN: Oh, and advisor?
LEE: Yes, that's what the word is. He was my advisor. And he conducted the choirs, and he also taught the conducting course that all music majors have to take. So, if you're a music major, one of the required courses that you have to take is one semester of conducting because you never know when you're going to have to conduct a group or whatever situation you're in as a music major, eventually, you might have to do some basic conducting.
So, we were required to take a conducting course. And all of the sudden, things started clicking. I mean, I had played trumpet and piano and voice and I was trying to decide which of these I was going to major in, because there's not enough time to major in all three of those plus physics. I loved making music, but the act of practicing, I didn't really like being alone just for hours on end working on minute details of technique, which, it's something that every musician has to do, and I can handle two or three hours of it, but when you're talking about trying to be a professional musician during your university years the expectation is much higher, it should be 5, 6, 7 hours of practice every day. I loved it, but I didn't love it that much. Trying to figure out exactly how to get that perfectly in tune on the trumpet for hours.
But when I started conducting, everything changed. I learned how to read a full orchestral score. And then I would start checking out scores from the library, and I would just sit. I would wake up in the morning and go to my desk that was in my bedroom on the weekend before going to get breakfast or anything, and I would just sit down and start looking at the scores. And before I knew it, it would be six o'clock in the evening, and I hadn't had breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or even really gone to the bathroom or anything, I had just gotten so lost in the score, in the intricacies of it. That's where things really clicked, I just became really focused on conducting.
I put together an orchestra of my peers at the college, so we rehearsed every Saturday afternoon my both of last two years of undergrad. And we put on about four or five concerts every year, I had a friend who was a piano major, so for his piano recital, he was playing the Piano Concerto. And instead of playing it with the second piano playing the orchestra part, he asked if my orchestra could play in his recital, so we played in his recital.
There was a voice major who was double majoring in theater, so his senior project for theater had to be to direct a show and his voice major’s recital had to be to sing in a concert, so he kind of combined the two and put on an opera production that he also starred in, and my orchestra played for. It was a really dynamic and fun time, and the school really supported it. If I had to buy music, or rent music, the school paid for it. If I needed an extra musician that wasn't at the school, like a harp player, for example, they would hire a harp player to come in for my concert. It was really just a magical environment for me to explore that process. And that's kind of where I've completely fell in love with it.
IVAN: How long have you been a conductor now?
LEE: So that was 2007, when I put together that orchestra. So, I think you could say 15 years. Professionally, the first time I got paid to conduct was in 2011, so about 11 years as a professional.
IVAN: Now when you're sitting at that desk, and you are missing out on breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it's all of a sudden 6PM, when you're reading the score, do you hear the music in your head? Do you hear each of the instruments individually or as a whole? What is that experience like as you read the score?
LEE: I think at this point, yeah, I mean, at the time when I was just starting to read scores, I wouldn't say that I could hear the whole score just from looking at it. I can hear individual parts in my head, I can follow an individual line of music and sort of piece it together. But at the time when I was starting, I would listen to tons of recordings, if it's Beethoven Seventh Symphony, for example, there's 1000s of recordings of that piece out there. So, what was really interesting to me at the time, was just listening to a multitude of conductors and orchestras performing this piece and seeing what all the different possibilities are for it because we think, it's music, it's written down.
It's been around for 250 years in the case of Beethoven, but it's not. It's a living, breathing piece of art. It's not something that's fixed. It’s not like a plastic art where that's what you have, it occupies a physical space and that's what it is. It's a recreative art really. So, it doesn't just depend on the original creative artist being the composer, it also depends on the artists who are interpreting it. There’s a whole world of interpretations. You can have a Beethoven Seventh that's sprightly and cheerful and zippy, or you can have one that's draggy and not very much fun.
There’s a whole range of ways to do it even just in the minutia, like that particular oboist might play a particularly soulful rendition of their solo that they have at the beginning, or it could be a really plain-spoken, soft-spoken opening solo. So, there's just really millions of ways to interpret the music. So definitely when I started, I was listening to a lot of recordings. At this point for most scores, I can open and sort of get a really good understanding just from looking at the score of what it's going to sound like. But of course. that all changes when you're in front of the orchestra, because musicians are recreative artists themselves.
As a conductor, we try to bring together all of the 80 people on stage to agree on one underlying mission for the music. But at the same time, as a conductor, I really love leaving a little bit of room for the musicians themselves to exhibit their artistry. I might be inspired, maybe that clarinet wants to play their solo a little bit differently than the way I heard it in my head. And when I hear it that way, I'm like, oh of course, why would you play it any other way? I would say, I can imagine it in my head, but it's never, ever the way that it actually comes out at the end of the day with the orchestra.
IVAN: Thank you for describing it as a recreative art. I never thought of it that way. It’s just such an eye-opening idea to think of these people as artists, but to think of the act as recreation, and that it's different every time. I used to be a physics major as well, so I totally get the physics connection. One of the things I had to struggle with was this decision between, am I going to major in physics or am I going to major in psychology? So, I had this left brain, right brain thing going on when I was in college? Did you experience something like that? And then the additional question is, how does your physics brain, how does your mechanical methodical A plus B equal C, influence the way you conduct and the way you think about a score in music?
LEE: The first part of Physics I aced completely and that was all the Newtonian stuff. If you drop a ball, it falls on the ground and it's really easy to understand how that works. I get the math behind it; I get the mechanics behind it.
And I was actually having a conversation with somebody about this the other day as a conductor, or as any musician at all, when you're talking about music, music does follow sort of the laws of physics, it's written by humans who are here on this earth experiencing physics, not necessarily in a mathematical way, but in an intuitive way that we experience it every day. If you throw a ball, not even just humans.
If you throw a ball a dog knows where to put its mouth so it can catch the ball when it comes down. There's an intuitive nature to physics. And I think that that carries across into music a lot of times. There are genres of concert music today, that have evolved out of Avant Garde, music that started the beginning of the 20th century that don't necessarily follow, they would be closer to probably the thermodynamics of physics, they follow big complicated mathematical equations and things like that.
But for most of the music that we listen to, and what we call common practice classical music, which is stuff that follows the normal rules of harmony that have been established for hundreds of years, that music does fall in line with the intuitive nature of physics. If you go up, you have to come down. Usually a composer, you start a symphony, the symphonies in C major and over the course of the symphony you modulate, and you end up somewhere in the middle of the symphony, you might be in G minor. But then by the end of the piece, you have to come back down to C major, come back to home.
So, in that moment, when harmonically the piece is the farthest away from what we call the tonic, which is the key you start in, so that would be C major. When you're the farthest away from that harmonically speaking, that's usually the moment of the most tension in the piece, that’s the climax of the piece. So, if you can think about it like, if you're on the roller coaster, that's when you're going up over the top of the really high hill, and everybody flies out of their seats and puts their hands up, right? That’s like that moment. And then you have to bring it all back home.
So, music really does follow these same principles. And speaking about the art form of music, but when I'm talking about physically as a conductor, I also think about these things all the time, because when I give a beat to the orchestra, I have to think about how my hand is coming down out of the air in such a way that the musicians can predict where the moment of impact of the beat is going to fall. So, in some way, my arms have to move in a way that's physically intuitive. As I come down from the top of the gesture, the hand has to accelerate on the way down, the baton has to accelerate on the way down, and then it sort of bounces off the beat, and then it goes back up and you decelerate as you go up so that people can interpret based on how your arm is moving.
The musicians aren't looking at me all the time, they'll glance up for instance. And if they catch my hand three quarters of the way up, they need to be able to see from that motion, where it's going to end up after it goes up and comes back down to where that next beat is going to be. So. it all has to follow sort of the laws of physics in that way.
IVAN: Gosh, I love these analogies between going up and coming down and how there's this mythology to it. I've always been fascinated by how someone in front of an orchestra can do the things they do to get this team to be more than the sum of its parts to sound like a whole. Are there any instances of orchestras playing successfully and beautifully without a conductor?
LEE: Oh, yes, there are many. A lot of chamber orchestras play without a conductor. Probably the most famous one that you are close to is the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. They play very frequently without a conductor and musicians can play. Occasionally I give a keynote thing for business people where they asked me to talk about the role of the conductor to the orchestra and related to the role of an executive to their team that they're managing.
And I do it with an orchestra, and I always start off, and I say “okay, I'm going to show you how important my job is. I'm going to show you what it is the conductor does that is so crucial that it's really, really important.” And I walk off to the side of the stage. Last time I did it, I was in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro. I walked off the side of the stage and I made a Caipirinha, and the orchestra started and played the piece all by themselves. [laughing] That's how crucial our job is for an orchestra to be able to play. So that kind of starts you off from a point of humility, and also just an understanding that if you're going to be in front of the orchestra, the number one thing you have to do is not get in the way of the musicians making beautiful music.
I think a lot of people think of the conductor’s up there making everything happen, but we're not. The musicians are making everything happen. So why are we there? Why are we in front of the musicians? To me, it's all about, can I add something to whatever they're doing that's going to push that art to the next level? Can I either open a space for somebody to make a really beautiful solo, that maybe the other musicians when they're trying just to stay together, and everything are not going to give that space? Or can I bring an attitude to the podium that's going to inspire the musicians to play in a different way. Can I bring an energy to the podium that's going to alter the way that the musicians might play?
And another thing that we do for musicians is we give them a sense of security. It’s very risky making music live. Anything can go wrong. Your instrument could squeak or maybe it doesn't sound or maybe you play the wrong note or maybe you got lost in the rhythm somewhere and you don't know where you are. I mean, a whole lot of things can go wrong and then you are in front of thousands of people messing up. We give the musicians a sense of security so that they know no matter what happens, I'm right there with them. And I can show them where their next entrance is, or I can give them the encouragement they need to take that risk to play that solo.
One of the things I love is when an orchestra plays really pianissimo, which is very, very quiet. And there's something magical about having 45 string players play, whisper quietly together, but it's risky. When you approach those extremes of dynamics, the way that the instrument physically responds is less controllable. In the middle is where it's very controllable, we can control the sound, the tone, all of that. But as you get closer and closer to playing the quiet, making the quietest possible sound that you can play on the instrument, that's where you run the risk of something physically going wrong with the contact of the bow on the string. There's a whole lot of things that can go wrong when you're playing on the extreme, both loud and soft extremes.
And I think just being that person, sort of their hype, man, just being able to be like, yeah, you can do it, you could do it, like, go take that risk, giving them that extra confidence to get there. I think that's really, really important for a conductor. And then there's this other role that the conductor has, that I really believe strongly in. And I think it's just as important as what we're doing for the musicians. Here's another physics lesson. If you think about a conductor from a physics standpoint, what is a conductor, right? It’s a conduit through which energy flows, right? It can be electrical energy, or heat or anything like that.
If you have a copper wire, and you have a battery on one end, and a lightbulb on the other end, and you put them together, a light turns on. Why? Because the energy is flowing through that wire. So, if you think about the conductor in the concert setting, I'm standing right in the middle, at the front of the stage and I'm a point of reference for everybody in the audience to connect through to the orchestra and vice versa, right? The orchestra is all connected to me, and that energy goes out into the audience and the audience can look at me to connect to the orchestra. So, I'm a lot of times managing the audience. Sometimes I'll look at the bassoon player, while he's playing a part that I think is really interesting and I'm not looking and conducting the bassoonist because he's off or he needs my attention or something, I'm focused there because I want the audience to focus, listen to what this bassoon player is playing.
I know the strings are doing something wild but there's this really magical line coming up through the middle of it in the bassoon. So, if I give my attention to the bassoonist, the audience will also go there as well.
IVAN: That’s wonderful.
LEE: Yeah, it's really an interesting part of what we do.
IVAN: And just to take that analogy a little further. In that circuit with the battery and the light bulb, it goes from the battery to the light bulb and that's the music going from the orchestra through you to the audience. But there's also the return of the current from the lightbulb back to the battery. And that's your interpretation of how the audience is responding to the music and you feeding that back into the orchestra.
LEE: Yeah, exactly.
IVAN: I love that. One of the favorite things to hear from an orchestra from my perspective is when instruments aren't used the way they were potentially designed. So, when I hear the strings that they’re plucking or something like that, that's the thing that comes to mind now. Those are magical. Those are incredible to hear. Do you have a favorite sound from the orchestra? Is there something particular that you enjoy hearing more than others?
LEE: I was a trumpet player, and when I played a lot. like in my university days, I was mostly playing big band lead trumpet, really loud and high. A lot of people would call it obnoxious. But I love the sound of the brass section just playing full steam. But there's a really haunting sound that I find quite captivating that appears every now and then. I think Prokofiev uses it; a lot of the Russian composers use it. 20th century composers use it, which is when you have a very high instrument paired with a very low instrument playing an octave. So, they're playing the same note but octaves apart from each other like a piccolo and contrabassoon playing something in parallel, and it's just got so much open space in between and it’s so difficult to identify.
When you get to really high pitch registers and low pitch registers to the human ear, it becomes harder and harder to decipher the pitch, which is why everybody thinks when the bass player in a jazz combo has a solo, it’s like it just sounds like a bunch of noise, right? Because he's playing the notes but when it's so low, our ears have a harder time discerning the individual pitches that are in there. And I think that just spreading that out, between the high and the low, you can hear what's going on. But it just creates this really haunting sort of unsettling effect. I love that sound. Whenever music takes us out of our comfort zone, to me, that's really magical.
IVAN: The podcast is called ONE OF 8 BILLION. There’s so many different people with so many different talents and things to share on the planet. And when I think of being one of 8 billion I personally, sometimes feel very small and insignificant, but sometimes I feel like I'm pretty large, like I can have an effect on the local community that I'm in. When you think of yourself as one of 8 billion, of one of this multitude of people on the planet, how does that make you feel? What thoughts come to mind?
LEE: [laughing] Sometimes it makes me feel okay. I think about that a lot when things aren't necessarily going the way that I want them to go in my life at that moment. And I think it's okay, there's 8 billion people on Earth. So, it's not really that important that my life's not going exactly right, right now. There's so many other things that are more important than me going on, that it kind of makes it easier to not fret the small stuff, even some of the bigger stuff. And it's interesting, becaus as a classical musician, we're constantly reproducing work that was created by artists 300 years ago, 200 years ago. So, you say there's one in a billion, but how many billions of people have been on this earth over all of time?
IVAN: What does that number look like? Yeah.
LEE: Then maybe I just want to crawl into a little hole and be insignificant. But it's interesting, because if you think about it, talk about one of a billion, like, the music of Bach. I mean, how many people from right now are doing something that somebody 300 years from now is going to be connecting with in a meaningful way?
IVAN: Yeah, that is really interesting. I was just struck by the fact that we're one of a billion right now and you brought up the fact that there have been billions before us as well. And we can look backwards and see what someone 250 years ago wrote, and how it's influencing us now. And what did they think would happen in 200 years or in 250 years? It's astonishing to think what 250 years from now people will be doing and how they will be connecting with the music that we have now, and also what other new music will be written, and new things will come up.
LEE: Exactly. I really find that interesting to think about the composers of today. Bach's music wasn't popular when he died. After he died, it was forgotten. And it wasn't until Mendelssohn really made a big effort to resurface it, that it started becoming popular again. But that was 100 years later, almost. So, it's really interesting to think who are the composers from today, that's going to be on everybody's, I don't know, cell phones are going to be long gone by then, but whatever it is, ringtone, it's going to be a melody from their composition. Like, I don't know.
IVAN: Yeah, that's crazy. Yeah. What brain implant is going to be in existence that’ll have the symphony from the latest. It’s insane. Wow. What is your ringtone since you brought it up?
LEE: I don't know. I never hear it. My phone's always on vibrate because I'm terrified of being in a concert and having my ringer go off.
IVAN: Of course.
LEE: I think it's the standard iPhone one. I think it's the one that goes dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, with all of the reverb and everything going crazy on it.
IVAN: Yeah, that's great. Do you remember a memorable boss or leader or mentor, or someone you looked up to, and what kind of an effect did they have on you? And when did you talk to them last?
LEE: Definitely the biggest mentor that I have would be my faculty advisor that I told you about in my undergrad, Robert Bodie. He just loved music more than anybody I think I've ever met in my life. He was our choral director, and I sang in all of his choirs, but he was also the conducting teacher that I had, and he was my faculty advisor, and he really saw my passion and knew what was inside just waiting to come out. He’s had many other students after me and had many students before me, and I imagine he does this with everybody that he sees that has that sort of fire in them. But he really encouraged me to pursue conducting even though there wasn't a conducting major at the school I was at, and I had to put together my own orchestra to conduct but it was him that facilitated it. I mentioned that the school always paid for, if I needed a guest artist, or renting music or any of the expenses I needed to run my orchestra, the school paid for it.
I'm pretty sure he had an endowed chair, and they have a certain expense budget that goes with that. I'm pretty sure that's where that money came from. At one point, he even got the school to pay for me to do a conducting workshop. Actually, that happened twice during the summers. There's a lot of orchestras in Eastern Europe that have these programs for younger conductors, where you can basically rent the orchestra for a week, and it's not that expensive.
And so, this one summer, he actually sent me to Romania to conduct this orchestra just to get more experience conducting orchestras. He brought me to Seattle to hear the Seattle Symphony where I am now, and which was the first all professional orchestra I'd ever heard in my life. So just really, he fostered that love that he saw that I had for conducting and really made it possible. Without all of that support, I wouldn't have been able to get into Peabody, which is where I went to do my graduate degree in conducting and the rest is history. But that all started just because when I expressed that desire to be a conductor, he embraced it, and really nurtured that in me. And, that’s amazing.
And the last time I saw him was a few months ago, he was here in December, I believe. He used to be the Music Director of Choral Arts Northwest, which is a choir here in Seattle, and his last concert was in December. We went out to dinner, and it was very nice to see him.
IVAN: How wonderful that you have that connection, and that this person has had such a great influence and positive role in your life.
LEE: Yeah, irreplaceable. Really.
IVAN: I want to change the tone just a little bit and ask you about your greatest struggle in life. What has been that tough thing that you've had to deal with?
LEE: That's a hard question. For young conductors especially, there's so much pressure to get the sort of attention, and all the good gigs. There's so much pressure. I had a conversation once with somebody from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, when I was being cover conductor there, big orchestras always have a cover conductor, which is sort of like an assistant conductor who sits in the hall and listens and checks for balances and exchanges notes with the conductor around the breaks and stuff. Oh, I can't hear the trumpet here or whatever.
And then also your sort of insurance policy If the conductor gets sick really last minute, you have to step in and conduct the concert. So, I was doing this with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and somebody there, we went out to get coffee. This is about 10 years ago. And we went out to get coffee and I was like; I just feel like I need to be doing more. I'm not being invited to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in a subscription concert and all these huge things. He’s like, “calm. Calm. I don't know why all these young conductors these days feel like they have to be doing everything from the beginning. You’re on a great trajectory. Don't feel like you're not good enough or something. I don't know why people feel this way these days.” And I said, “Are you kidding?”
This is like two years after Gustavo Dudamel had started as a music director with the LA Philharmonic, at 27 years old. So, there’s a lot of media and there's a lot of attention around the sort of wunderkind young conductor. And it happens in other instruments too, and I'm sure it happens in other fields. I'm sure computer science engineers have people coming in that are 16, that can program a whole operating system overnight or something. So, I struggle a lot with just feeling like what I have to say is important enough, or that my way of interpreting music or my artistry of conducting is good enough or at the level it needs to be just because you’re constantly bombarded. Instagram doesn't help or Facebook. Colleagues seem to be having so much more success all the time. So and so is conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra next week, or this person is conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. All these crazy things that haven't happened to me yet but hopefully will happen at some point. And I just have to take a minute and breathe and just trust that I'm doing good work. And also, it helps for me to think what I am doing is valuable, and I sort of have the honor and the blessing of being able to touch so many people's lives with the work that I do. I think one of the most incredible parts of my job is when I'm conducting something, and I'm standing on that stage. Yeah, okay, really loud, bombastic music's amazing. But like I said, I love when the whole orchestra is playing very softly, and you're just creating a super tender moment in the music, and you have 2,400 people sitting in a building and there's not a single sound from the audience. No coughs. No talking. No anything. How many times do 2,500 people sit in complete silence, 100% wired into something that's going on in front of them? It’s pretty rare and we bring people together in this shared emotional experience that everybody experiences based on their own history and their own traumas and their own happiness, and the things that have happened in their lives, everybody brings that, and they individually have a separate experience because of that.
But as a collective, we have a general emotional journey together that we're all on. And, outside of the performing arts, I don't know of a single other place where that happens. I mean, you could maybe say sports teams, but even then, you've got two different sides. People are for this team, and against that team. Or, in politics, it's, whatever. And then in churches, everybody's got to be of the same denomination, and music and performing arts when you're in a theater, it doesn't matter the politics, or the religion, or the favorite sports teams, or anything of any of the people around you, and you're all together, having this experience together. And I think that's really magical. And that kind of eases the pain of the fact that I don't think my career is going as fast as I want it to or whatever. I’m still doing important work every day.
IVAN: Of course, you are. And you bring joy to so many people in the moment at the same time. It's wonderful, I can totally identify with being there and being tuned into what you're creating and how the performance is going. That really is a joy that I've experienced, and I'm sure that the rest of the audience experiences as well. What brings you joy these days outside of conducting perhaps?
LEE: Outside of conducting what brings me joy? The sun. It’s been a lot of rainy days here.
IVAN: Oh my gosh. [laughing] Same here in Minneapolis, I hear you.
LEE: The sun comes out and I feel like a completely different person. This is sort of random but I'm actually doing my MBA right now for many reasons. Partly because the pandemic just meant such a lower workload and I felt like I was doing nothing. I should maybe go back to school just to keep myself occupied. And then the other part of it is because if I do one day want to be a music director of a major symphony orchestra, and I feel like a lot of times the artistic mind of a music director doesn't necessarily allow for space for the sort of business concerns of running an organization of millions of dollars a year with however many hundreds of employees we have and making sure that we're doing everything in a way that's healthy for the organization.
Sometimes we could do Mahler Aid and have 1000 musicians on stage every single night, but that's not going to be very financially viable in the long run. I’m kind of just doing it so that I could have a better business sense for one day when I am leading an orchestra to be able to do that. But I'm really fascinated by economics, doing some really interesting things in economics and game theory and things like that. I'm just really fascinated by the course I'm doing right now. That brings me a lot of joy.
IVAN: That sounds so great. I'm so glad that you're doing that. And one final question. What are you reading these days or watching on TV? Or binging? What’s sort of in the mind right now from a pop culture perspective?
LEE: What am I reading these days? Well, I'm reading The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. I have to admit, it's a book that I started reading a while ago, and I have to put down every now and then because it’s a lot to think about. It's a pretty intense read. It's not a casual read. And I do love the idea of being present with your consciousness and not letting all of the noise all the time keep throwing you off; all the things we perceive from outside. That's my heavy reading right now. Let's see. Of course everyone remembers Downton Abbey.
IVAN: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
LEE: So, Julian Fellowes has a new series on HBO Max that’s the “Gilded Age.” And it's all of the same, very brushed over, ignore what the problems are, a kind of retrospective in the 1875 era. It’s some fun, light entertainment. I really enjoy it.
IVAN: Wasn't the Met Gala’s theme, Gilded Age? If I'm not mistaken. My daughter was telling me about this.
IVAN: So, there's a connection there, right there from something that happened really recently.
LEE: I do really like that period of history. Growing up I was a huge nerd about trains, specifically steam engines and stuff. Diesel trains aren't as interesting to me. But that whole era of steam power, and everything was really just fascinating what we did with hot water, basically.
IVAN: It's pretty amazing. I totally agree. Here's something interesting to think about. The Gilded Age is, before the turn of the century, the 1900s. The oldest person on the planet right now was or is about 120 years old. So that means that there isn't a single person on the planet right now, that was alive in the Gilded Age. So, all of the billions of people that were on the planet back then, so they are no more. So, all of those 2 billion people, they're all gone.
LEE: It's really fascinating to think about. Also, sometimes it's a little bit worrying when you look at those charts, and you're like, oh wait. Up until 1920, there were only over 2 billion people on the planet and now there's eight. What is it going to be like in the next 80 years? I mean, that's just one lifetime. It was like forever, fewer than two billion people on the planet, and now, it's just exploded. So far it seems to be handling it, like kind of, okay, maybe if we can get our stuff together around being respectful with the climate and our resources. But it is a little bit concerning what's going to happen when there's 16 billion people.
IVAN: Yeah, it's concerning. Well, I've really enjoyed talking with you. I'm so grateful for you to be on the show. Thank you for responding to my email. Thank you for agreeing to be on. It's been wonderful finding out more about you and about the music that you conduct. I wish you the greatest of success in the future. And good luck with the rest of your MBA and I hope to watch you perform again soon.
LEE: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure to be here. I'm very happy that you enjoyed the concert, of course. That’s my mission in life. Music is art, but it's also entertainment. It's kind of a wonderful confluence of the two. So, if I can make some people enjoy their afternoon or their evening then my mission is accomplished. So, thank you very much.
IVAN: Yes, thank you.
IVAN: I hope you’ll join us in the next episode of ONE OF 8 BILLION… when we hear from Amy Spurling, the co-founder and CEO of Compt, a company focused on helping businesses simplify inclusive employee perks and rewards.
AMY SPURLING: There's lots of things that are inspiring me. One thing that jumps to mind is the fact that I see so many non-birthing parents, so not the partner carrying child but the other parent, but demanding their seat at the table and demanding their parental leave.
I love that. I think that is phenomenal. It changes so many dynamics in our world to have both parents. When you have two parents, not every situation has two parents, but when you do have two parents, having both of them be active participants in a child's life is obviously great for the child. But it also means that that birth parent has the opportunity to continue their career, because they've got an equal partner in having a child.
I see a generation of parents that both are requiring that. And I love that. I think that's phenomenal.
This has been ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us... online at 1of8b.com. Join us again next time as we listen to one of eight billion other stories!
This is episode 135 of ONE OF 8 BILLION. It was recorded on May 03, 2022 and first published on June 08, 2022. Audio length is 42 minutes. Transcription by Roxanne Chumucas. Summary, highlights and editing by Brian Lucas. Music by Lexfunk. Produced by Jonathan Freed.