Sarah Hicks, the conductor for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Disney’s Ratatouille, was gracious enough to take the time to answer some questions for me about music, the industry, and kids and music. Here is what unfolded.
HTM: Welcome to Toronto! You picked a great time to make your debut as Winterlicious (annual food event in Toronto where popular and high-end restaurants have special lunch and dinner prix fixe menus) just wrapped up. Is cooking something you enjoy?
SH: I loooove to cook. I grew up with a mom who went to cooking school in her youth so I picked up a lot of pointers growing up. I love the tactile and meditative qualities of chopping and mixing and sauteing. And, of course, eating is fun too.
HTM: How did you choose Ratatouille as your next performance?
SH: Conductors don’t necessarily get to choose what they’re going to do – at least I don’t as I’m booked all around the world to conduct various films as orchestras want to perform them.
HTM: That’s amazing! Did the movie that appeal because of the food aspect?
SH: Pixar stuff is so genius. And Michael Giacchino writes the most charming scores! Have you seen UP? That’s his music too.
(*I have seen UP and some scenes were particularly difficult to watch due to past health reasons).
HTM: You trained at Harvard and have spent many years travelling around the U.S. and being a part of different orchestras. You’ve also worked in Korea and overseas. Is there a particular city you’ve enjoyed the most and can you tell me a bit about it?
SH: It’s too hard to choose a single favorite, but I’ve most recently really enjoyed working in Prague with the Czech National Orchestra on a Frank Zappa project. They’re a great group, the music was really out of the box, and being in that beautiful city is always so special. (I lived there in the 90’s for a year, so that’s part of it too). Film side note: did you know that “Amadeus” was filmed there?
HTM: I’ve watched Amadeus numerous times as a child. Some scenes were just embarrassing to watch with my family, but it’s a great movie. (Ha ha.) I’ve read that you started out with piano, but due to health reasons, you turned to conducting. Your dad told you to “stop crying” and “you can still hold a stick.” How did you manage to accept that harsh reality and turn that into a positive?
SH: I think kids are more resilient than we think – certainly looking back at my 17 year old self I give myself credit for being able to bounce back from disappointment, but I also think of it as accepting a new challenge; I’m always looking for things to master or conquer or kick butt at, so I think that had a lot to do with it.
HTM: Perseverance is a virtue I always try to instill in my students and yours is a real-life example. I’m not sure how the conducting world works. Tryouts? Have you ever missed out on the job you wanted? What did you say to yourself to bounce back on your feet?
SH: Conducting is a tough profession. In my early days, I certainly went to tons of auditions (there can be a hundred candidates for a single spot). It’s challenging from a practical standpoint because if you think about it, an orchestra may have 100 musicians in it, but there is only a single conductor. So jobs are pretty scarce. I’ve certainly not gotten jobs I wanted. And often you have little choice in where you end up living because you need to go where the gig is. Very few conductors make their living simply conducting – many also teach or play or have non-performing jobs as well. I feel lucky to be doing this full-time. As for getting back on my feet after a disappointment, I remind myself “this is the life I chose.” It ain’t easy, but the rewards for me are worth the disappointments and rejections.
HTM: That’s a wonderful attitude to take. You’ve been great at merging pop and classical in the past working with artists such as Sting. You present yourself as not only as a strong conductor, but I feel someone who is very comfortable in her own skin, a bit of a rock star. Are women growing in this industry as conductors and not just musicians?
SH: Absolutely. There’s a ton of young female talent out there, so different from even a generation ago.
HTM: How have you been treated as a female conductor?
SH: Musicians generally don’t care what you are as long as you know what you’re doing, but I have gotten a lot of comments on what I wear (sleeveless tops) and my hair (I don’t put it up, ponytails give me headaches and I like it long and down). I don’t think men would garner the same sort of attention for their appearance.
HTM: I can totally see that. Have you faced any challenges in the profession in general?
SH: I think men and women have different approaches to leadership. Not to generalize too much, but men can get away with being a bit more authoritarian – if a woman behaved in the same way she risks the backlash of being called “difficult” or worse (b**** comes to mind). I tend to lead more by persuasion and consensus and with the understanding that everyone has their own individual responsibility and my job is to create a cohesive vision out of it. It’s a slight different approach than some are accustomed to, but generally people start to understand my groove pretty quickly when I’m working with them.
HTM: I understand. It’s still different how men and women are viewed in a leadership role. Now what do you think about technology? It is everywhere now. At school, I came back from maternity leave to a school with whiteboards instead of blackboards, iPads and Airplay instead of overheads and transparencies. What’s your take on technology and music these days? Does it take away from the basics of sound or enhances them? Do you like incorporating technology when you compose? Does the TSO use it?
SH: That’s an interesting one. I think of technology and music, from a performing standpoint, as incorporating things like film and amplification. I think there’s a place for everything. I’ve even done a piece with a live DJ onstage, which was totally fun. I don’t really compose anymore.
HTM: That’s too bad. Finally, my students are really into music. They are usually into Top 40. If I could introduce a few symphonies to them, what would you recommend? Do you have a favourite composer?
SH: In terms of accessible music I think of pieces like Ravel’s Bolero, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and The Triumphal March from Verdi’s opera, Aida. My favorite composer changes a lot, depending on mood. I love Chopin and Mahler and Bartok and Mozart for different reasons at different times, but nothing cleanses the mind and soul like Bach!
Thanks very much to Sarah for taking the time out of her extremely busy schedule to answer my questions about music and the industry. Wishing her well in the future and certainly, an open invite to pop into my classroom whenever she’s in town!
Please check out the Toronto Symphony Orchestra here.