On October 27, GBH 2 will air the PBS documentary „Behind the Baton: A Conductor’s Journey.” It tells the extraordinary life story of the legendary Thomas Wilkins and his journey through the world of music as a black conductor, leading large orchestras from humble beginnings to Wilkins being Principal Conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Composer, laureate of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and artistic advisor to the Boston Symphony and longtime family and youth concert conductor. On October 28, he will be back in town, conducting the Boston Symphony for a family concert called „May I Have Your Attention Please.” Arun Rath, host of GBH’s All Things Considered, spoke with Wilkins about the documentary. The following is a slightly edited transcript..
Arun Rath: I’m a huge fan and really looking forward to talking to you. This movie is really cool and it’s great to know about your biography which I don’t know much about you. I mentioned your humble beginnings. You grew up in Norfolk, Virginia during a radical era [with] A single mom on welfare and — well, I guess I’ll start there.
Thomas Wilkins: Yes. I speak of the fact that I come into this life very differently, perhaps, than one might suspect, only because of those humble circumstances. There is no other way to explain that such a child is from a single mother housing scheme [on] Nelan finds himself on stage and in front of some of the world’s best musicians. I think, first of all, it tells me that this is a gift. But the other thing is that it really speaks to the power of music, its transformative power for humanity, and really, when I was 8 years old I could find my life’s calling from the middle of the sound. It’s a powerful message about how powerful music really is.
Rath: and raw talent. The prize is amazing. As we learn about it, you learned the piano and many other instruments, [but earlier] You conduct your school’s band without taking any real lessons on any of these instruments.
Wilkins: Yes. But what I did was the teachers and adults in my life who were very supportive. I mean, maybe they saw some talent there, but they were demanding not just musical integrity, but personal integrity as well. They informed my work ethic and informed my whole idea of what it means to be a servant musician who cares about the people in my nest first as people and then as artists.
Rath: Teaching is really a theme that runs through your biography and this film. You have this wonderful scene with your teacher, Richard Pittman, and he mentions that there aren’t those lessons, it’s through him that you learn that you have to work like crazy to catch up.
Wilkins: Yeah, when my wife first met him, I made him come to Omaha because I wanted my band to see who influenced me as a conductor. So I had him as a guest conductor, and my wife met him for the first time, and she said, „You know, you’ve turned my husband into a servant.” He says, „Yes, that’s the only way now.” But he was the one who basically said, „You’re going to have to work really hard or I won’t hesitate to kick you out of school.” You can imagine an 8-year-old boy who dreamed of becoming a conductor, and here I am at NEC, on the threshold of another opportunity to make it a reality, and someone says, „Yes, but…” I was his graduate assistant in the second year. So he lit a fire under me. Even in my old age, when I come to conduct the BSO for the first time, he is in the audience, he walks around, he is proud of his student standing on the stage in front of the BSO. So he came into my dressing room during the break and after a while said, „Do you mind if I give you two comments about your behavior?” I said, „Yes, go now.” But always the teacher, always the builder, this guy.
Rath: There are some beautiful scenes of you teaching and conducting that always struck me as something like, well, how do you teach conducting? Because it seems like it should be different from teaching violin or piano.
Wilkins: One of the things you teach is leadership. To answer your question more specifically, conducting is really a craft and a lot of the movements, the body movements we do, even down to the correct posture, demonstrate something to the band. All those things must be viewed or acted upon through this lens or within the realm of leadership. Our job is to really equip everyone in the orchestra to be their best selves. My mantra is, „I always want the best and the most from the least.” So there’s all these other psychological things, eye contact issues. As I said, there is the issue of posture. One posture may be welcoming, while the other may be a hidden person within themselves. All of those things, believe it or not, help you stay physically clear. They help you successfully do the job of making the people in the orchestra better people. For example, if you’re not always in place and the players can pull it off on their own, you’re not always winning much of the time. It demonstrates the confidence and trust that they can facilitate what they’re trying to do musically, but you also have a certain respect for their own aesthetic sense. It’s a lot of give and take. Sometimes it’s their turn, sometimes it’s my turn.
Rath: It’s amazing to hear you talk about these kinds of artistic endeavors—and we hear this in the film, you talk about them more in a moral, ethical framework.
Wilkins: Yes, everyone comes to the rehearsal space with their own challenges, desires, aspirations, and they come to perform well. They come to work to be better people. We have musical instruments in our hands to help us do it and guide it. If I don’t see their humanity first, I’m not only going to put a brick wall between me and them, but between us and the audience. I said to an orchestra last week in rehearsal, it’s something technical, „Your bow needs more time to tell your soul bow before you change the direction of the bow.” And I said, „You’ve got to remember. I’ll be waiting for you, and understand that I’m here for you. You’re not here for me. And we’re here for the people in the audience because they really are. The most important people in the room.” It requires a lot of taking yourself out of the equation or taking your self-importance out of the equation. For example, before the first rehearsal I learn everyone’s name in a guest-conducting band so I can call them by their name rather than their instrument. What it says is, „I respect you as a human being first, and we’re going to do something beautiful together.”
Rath: There’s a remarkable scene in the film where you’re on a video call with four black conductors, and you’re talking about finding a way to keep a career going, but go for a career.
Wilkins: I often say that sometimes we have to draw our own doors on the brick walls in front of us. Someone once wanted me to complain about how I couldn’t get a job because I was black, and I said, „First of all, I don’t know that, I know it happened, but I can’t. Get into someone else’s head or heart, control my own ignorance, and my own. Fighting ignorance, learning the things I still need to learn, studying the grades I still need to study. That’s the only way I can get better.” If I can do that successfully, I don’t have to worry about winning. I don’t want to carry the extra baggage that if given an opportunity, I might have been hired just because I’m black, or that I might have to act differently in any situation.
Rath: Thomas Wilkins, It was a pleasure talking to you. Love your job and everything you do. Will call you back soon.
Wilkins: Thanks. It would be my pleasure.
„Totalny pionier w sieci. Specjalista od piwa niezależny. Ewangelista popkultury. Miłośnik muzyki. Nieprzepraszający przedsiębiorca”.