'I Overcame My Own Obstacles' : Meet Conductor Sarah Hicks

Mar 19, 2015

All this month, during Women’s History Month, The American Sound will feature performances by noted American women conductors, and online stories showcasing the conductors’ careers and accomplishments. Tune in Saturdays at 6 p.m. and Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on Classical 101, and follow this blog as the series unfolds.

When in 2009, conductor Sarah Hicks took over for the retiring Doc Severinsen as principal conductor for pops and presentations with the Minnesota Orchestra, even she said Severinsen could not have had a more different successor. So she’s not surprised that the Minnesota audience might have taken a little while to adjust to her.

“I can’t think of a larger contrast from myself and Doc, and to get audiences to go along with that – I think it’s jarring the first time you see that transition, to have something that you’re accustomed to and to move to something completely different, with a very different style,” Hicks said in a recent phone interview.

While Hicks notes that particular transition as a bit of a challenge for her audience, for Hicks herself it was a career move that not only brought her regularly to the Minnesota Orchestra’s acclaimed podium, but also opened the door for her to become one of few women conductors to lead some of the top-ten U.S. orchestras.

Now the principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Live at Orchestra Hall series and a staff conductor at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, Hicks occupies some pretty swanky musical real estate. Still in the early days of her career, she may also be poised to assume leadership roles with other major orchestras in the U.S. and abroad as her career unfolds. And since, as she put it recently, she enjoys “being a girl,” she plans to do whatever may come with decidedly her own style.

“You Can Still Hold a Stick”

Any musician’s early life and career is peppered with pivotal moments of inspiration and opportunity. One such moment for Hicks came when, as a child, she watched a television special in which Leonard Bernstein conducted the Vienna Philharmonic.

“It was inspiring and it left an impact on me that this dynamo of a man was creating all this incredible excitement and sound by not creating sound himself, but by drawing it out of other people. It wasn’t that at 7 or 8 I was thinking of becoming a conductor, but that certainly was an image that stayed with me throughout my teen years,” Hicks said.

Hicks spent much of her teen and pre-teen years studying the piano and aspiring to become a professional pianist. But severe tendinitis sidelined the teenage Hicks and, in a devastating blow, ended her piano career before it began. Hicks’ father, an international banking lawyer by profession and himself a well-versed pianist, gave her some life-changing advice.

“I was 17 and crying in my room,” Hicks said, “and my dad found me and he said, ‘Sarah, stop crying. You can still hold a stick.’ So that’s when those two things sort of came together, this inspirational memory of Bernstein on TV 10 years before, and that moment when I thought, Okay, well, let me see if I can do this.”

Ironically, or perhaps fatefully, the end of Hicks’ piano career cleared the way for her to start learning how to conduct while still in high school, much earlier than when many begin studying conducting during their college years. Hicks asked the orchestra conductor at her high school if she could give conducting a try.

“He just tossed me the baton, and to this day I think he and my father were in cahoots,” Hicks said. “But it was a really great high school orchestra, and we were rehearsing Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, so that was the first piece I conducted. And the response I had was immediate. It was just this visceral connection with sound that was amazing and so much more than one person can create, bringing all these elements together. And I was hooked at 17.”

“I Was a One-Woman Deal”

Beyond high school, Hicks studied composition and conducting at Harvard University, and later pursued conducting studies at the Curtis Institute. In 1991, after her first year at Harvard, Hicks wanted more conducting experience. So in the tradition of any number of women conductors who came before her, she created her own opportunities to get it.

“I was home for the summer, and I thought, Maybe I can get together a group of people and put together an orchestra, with that youthful naïveté of, ‘Oh, this can be fine, I can do this.’ – not realizing I have to be my own librarian and stage manager, personnel manager, aside from being a conductor, putting together programs,” Hicks said. “I was a one-woman deal. I felt like a one-person band.”

As “personnel manager,” Hicks recruited players for her orchestra from among those in Honolulu’s musical community – other students home from college for the summer, high school students, music teachers and members of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. Hicks wanted to pay the musicians union scale, and so added “development director” to her list of self-designated titles. She describes her earliest ventures into arts fundraising as “knocking on doors,” cold-calling friends, teachers, and people whom her father had brought to her attention as financial supporters of other arts organizations – all of this an education in, for a conductor, the all-important skills of advocating and raising money for an orchestra.

“I learned how to explain what my vision was and what I hope to accomplish and how it would impact the community,” Hicks said. “There were points where it was a little bit uncomfortable, and my first cold-call was absolutely frightening. But it’s something you eventually become accustomed to and realize that there are people who are willing to help, and the worst you can hear is ‘no.’ And that’s not so bad. You haven’t lost anything.”

And in fact, Hicks gained conducting experience from the enterprise, and Honolulu gained an orchestra. Hicks ran the Hawaii Summer Symphony for five summers, leading the group in countless works of standard orchestral repertoire and learning those scores herself along the way in what she describes as a low-risk environment.

“It was my project, and if it failed, it wasn’t disappointing anyone else, it was just disappointing me,” Hicks said. “And I took full ownership of it.”

“I Enjoy Being a Girl”

Today, Hicks says she’s extremely conscious of owning every aspect of her professional presentation, from how she as a woman in leadership must communicate with the musicians she leads in order to be effective, to her appearance on the podium. Both arts – communicating with a group and presenting oneself professionally, comfortably and authentically – often require different things for leaders who are women than for leaders who are men.

“I think that people still have a difficult time – not always, but occasionally – with a woman who is too direct in asking for what she wants,” Hicks said. “I’ve learned, at least for myself, to couch things in broader terms and be demanding in a more gentle way, where it’s more about buy-in to a larger vision, rather than saying, ‘This needs to happen because I want it.’ I might couch that in terms of, ‘That didn’t feel right to me. This is what I want to accomplish, this is the gesture I’m trying to get, and let’s try that again.’”

Hicks learned that lesson in communication over years of practice, during which she also struggled to arrive at a way of presenting herself that honored who she was as a woman without undermining her authority as a conductor. That struggle began during Hicks’ student years at Curtis, where she wore suits and female-style tuxedos and put her hair up in a bun when conducting, in an effort to appear more masculine on the podium. That look, Hicks says, didn’t feel genuine to her. So she decided to wear on the podium what she usually – and most comfortably – wears.

“I dress like a woman on the podium. I wear flowy clothes, I wear sleeveless tops, and I wear my hair long, I wear five-inching platform stiletto heels, which I don’t think a lot of female conductors do. And I enjoy being a woman – I say I enjoy being a girl,” Hicks said. “And so, for me, the way I look often impacts how people perceive me. And I realize that, so I have to sort of be aware of that component, as well.

“I Overcame My Own Obstacles”

As everyone knows, perceptions are powerful things, powerful enough – whether accurate or not – to stall or end careers. Hicks says she can’t point to any specific obstacles in her career that she’s certain arose because she’s a woman. But her move from associate conductor to pops conductor with the Minnesota Orchestra was a strategic one that Hicks made in a conscious effort to sidestep the fiercely male-dominated field of purely classical orchestral conducting and have a chance of stepping onto the podiums of America’s Big-Five orchestras.

“When Doc (Severinsen) was retiring, I told my then-agent, ‘I want to sell my soul to the devil and go to the pops side,’” Hicks said. “So I essentially left purely classical conducting because I felt there was more of a future for me in this other arena, in that there were fewer people doing it and certainly no women doing it at this high level, so there might be a better chance for me. And because I made that very conscious choice to move to a genre in the orchestral world where there was demand for quality, it enabled me to stand in front of the LA Phil at the (Hollywood) Bowl, the Boston Pops, the Chicago Symphony, the Philly (Philadelphia) Orchestra – you know, orchestras that if I were a purely classical conductor, I might not have been in front of them yet. But because of what I do, I’ve been with all these major orchestras. So I overcame my own obstacles, in a way.”

Hicks says she’s very much at home on the podium of the Minnesota Orchestra – flowy clothes, long hair and all – because the audience and the orchestra’s musicians have gotten used to her, and vice versa. And although she’s still acutely aware that some musicians in some orchestras might have issues with women conductors, Hicks says she’s convinced that quality and being able to communicate clear artistic intentions will win professionals over every time.

“If you get up in front of an orchestra, if you know exactly what you’re doing and are clear with your musical intent, they may not like it (that you’re a woman), but they will begrudgingly follow you, because they realize what quality is, or what competency is,” Hicks said. “In the end, if they are professional, in this situation of creating a concert, they will come along with you and they will do what you say. And if you are good, they won’t really care. If you know what you’re doing, they’ll follow you.”

Sarah Hicks leads the Vermont Symphony Orchestra in David Ludwig’s Concerto for Violin Cello and Orchestra on The American Sound, 6 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Tuesday on Classical 101.