Picture an orchestra conductor. In your mind, the conductor is likely standing on a podium in front of a large group of musicians. There's a good chance that this conductor in your imagination is holding a baton, waving it forcefully in the air. Maybe the conductor's expression is intensely serious, focused on the task at hand.
But is the conductor you picture a man or a woman? Today, the answer depends on whom you ask. But for hundreds of years, that would not have been the case. Up until recently, most conductors were men.
Even in the 1960s, when JoAnn Falletta was a kid growing up in Queens, New York, few women led orchestras. Falletta's parents would take her to concerts at Carnegie Hall, and she always saw men on the podium. "But my parents never displayed a distinction between what boys did and what girls did," Falletta told TFK. They let her know that girls could work at any job. By the time Falletta was 11, she had a big goal. One day, she would lead an orchestra.
Big Dreams, Hard Work
Falletta has loved music from the time she was a little girl. On her seventh birthday, her father gave her a small guitar and arranged for a teacher. "Since that first lesson, I always thought of myself as a musician," Falletta says. "Music had become the center of my life."
Falletta spent long hours practicing guitar and was accepted to Mannes College of Music, in New York City. There, she asked her teachers to let her study conducting. But they worried that she would not be able to have a career. "'We don't want you to work and work at this difficult profession and not have opportunities simply because you're a woman,'" she remembers their saying. But it was a time when women's roles were changing. "All of a sudden, women doctors were common," says Falletta, "and there were women CEOs of businesses." Eventually, she convinced her teachers to give her a chance to pursue her dream.
After years of hard work, she became a top conductor. Today, Maestro Falletta travels around the globe, leading three well-known orchestras—the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Virginia Symphony and the Ulster, in Northern Ireland. An important part of the job, she says, is recognizing and encouraging the talent around her. "The greatness comes from the team, the musicians," she says.
Pioneer on the Podium
Many people call Falletta a pioneer and compliment her for being courageous. But she insists that she does not deserve credit for that. "For me, it wasn't a point of proving anything," says Falletta. "I loved the orchestra, I loved the music that it played, and I had to be there."
Still, her accomplishments have had a great impact. When Falletta became a conductor, she was one of the few women in the world to hold that post. Today, there is a growing number of female conductors. Falletta helped pave their path to the podium.
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