In her senior year of high school, in Grandville, Michigan, Dr. Wendy Freeman auditioned for the position of drum major. She won the position and enjoyed a successful year with the band, which performed all across the state of Michigan. While Freeman had always loved music, practicing flute from an early age and singing in the church choir, it was this leadership opportunity that sparked her interest in music as a conductor.
“I actually thought I was going to be an architectural engineer,” says Freeman, speaking on the phone from Westmount Charter School in Calgary. “After I realized how much I enjoyed being at the helm of the music, that sort of took over my scholarship applications and my dreams.”
Today, Freeman is the music director at Westmount, where she conducts students from grades 5 to 12. She is also an adjunct professor for the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. (Freeman received a Master of Music in Conducting Performance from U of C.)
“I teach the undergraduate education students interdisciplinary learning,” says Freeman about her duties at the Werklund School. “I’m a field instructor, so I’ll watch the student teachers teach and give feedback on their lessons.”
And at the U of C’s School of Creative and Performing Arts, Freeman helps with the Music Education courses.
“I’m a pretty busy gal.”
“I decided early on that I didn’t want to just be a tenure track professor,” Freeman says. “I wanted to have a farther reach. Part of that for me is seeing young people grow their technical capacity and being able to influence future teachers.”
When I ask about the work that takes place before rehearsal, Freeman tells me there are two essential things that happen: “picking repertoire that suits the ensemble well” and rigorous score study.
“Before you can get on the podium and lead a group, you have to be able to sing every possible part,” Freeman says. “You have to know the music inside and out, and you have to have a vision for how you want it to go.”
Score study is important for building trust between the conductor and ensemble.
Respect is earned, says Freeman, when it is clear that a conductor has studied the score and they can deliver feedback that helps make the music sound better.
“I think in adults, anyway, it garners a certain amount of respect.”
With younger people, it’s more about “communicating effectively.” When a change is made, Freeman helps her ensemble to listen to the sound result. “We always refer back to, do we like that better? And if so, why?”
But building trust can also happen outside of rehearsal. “I try to know as much as I can about my musicians and who they are as people. I think it’s about caring for the whole person.”
“And when they do trust you and you have a journey in a concert that goes well, there’s also that sense of shared joy. If you can get to a place of shared joy, I think that’s really important.”
“And also [shared] disappointment. It’s how we handle the challenges that teaches others who we really are as people. You could be a crazy conductor with horrible stick technique, but if you are a lovely person who cares about the people in your ensemble and you can show empathy and you can be a kind person off the podium I think that goes a long way for adults and children.”
What advice does Freeman have for young conductors?
“Breathing with the musicians,” says Freeman about conducting orchestral and/or wind band musicians. “That’s really key for young conductors to remember, that they want to take the same breath with the musicians to start each phrase, to start each piece or to start each new entrance as they would use to play their own instrument.”
“If you breathe with the musicians, they will breathe with you. You will get a much more beautiful attack or start to the phrases. That’s something that young conductors often forget, to breathe with the musicians. It’s weird, because we don’t actually play. The baton isn’t making the music. We have to remember to breathe, because when we breathe with them they also take a nice breath.”
And practice self-assessment: “In my master’s journey, I videotaped every rehearsal.” Later, Freeman would go back and think about what gestures were helpful (or not) for musicians. She also considered the effectiveness of what was said to members of the ensemble.
Freeman also recommends watching videos of the great conductors and “going to a lot of symposia over the summertime.”
What does Freeman find rewarding about music?
“What I love about music is that it breeds a feeling of community and belonging. Whether you are in an orchestra or a wind band or a school band, you belong to something greater than yourself.”
“We always hope that the end performance will be the best time that we’ve ever run the work and we often do find that it is. To me, the hard work, the best work, and the most rewarding work is done in your eight rehearsals that led up to the concert. That’s where the team really grows.”
That brings Freeman to her last piece of advice for conductors.
“When you take a bow at the end of the concert, you are also doing that on behalf of the players that made the music. After the concert, I think it’s really important, no matter what age level, to say thank you.”
The Calgary Wind Symphony will be presenting Starry, Starry Night on Sunday, December 16th at 2:30PM. The concert will be held at the Eckhardt-Gramatte Hall (Rozsa Centre, University of Calgary).
About Starry, Starry Night: “A collection of music to highlight the best parts of a Canadian winter, including the endless night sky.”
Dr. Wendy Freeman, an associate musical director with the CWS, will be conducting part of the concert.
Tickets are $20 (12 & under free) and can be purchased online.