Talking Women and Leadership with Conductor JoAnn Falletta

Mar 12, 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.

You might think JoAnn Falletta – the acclaimed music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, a two-time Grammy Award winner with nearly 100 recordings to her credit, a globetrotting guest conductor who has stood on the podiums of the world’s most prestigious orchestras and the recipient of eleven honorary doctorates – was a born leader, taking to galvanizing the musical masses of the orchestra like an idea taking flight.

So it might come as a surprise that, in the early days of her career, Falletta had to learn leadership, in one sense, the hard way – by crafting a way to communicate with musicians accustomed to masculine models of authority and creating her own way to inspire them to trust her artistic vision, all in an era with precious few, if any, other women on the podium as models to follow.

“I think the door was just opening for the idea of (women orchestral conductors), but there were no role models, really, at that time, or not a lot of them that had had satisfying careers for themselves,” said Falletta in a recent phone interview. “There were some pioneers, like Antonia Brico or Sarah Caldwell in Boston, but these were people who really had to struggle. They really had to prove themselves, and no matter how talented they were there was a real skepticism.”

Today, after three decades of success on the international conducting scene, JoAnn Falletta stands as one of the trailblazers, a woman who, with the help of a visionary mentor, found her own voice as a leader amid the clamor of those who questioned women’s ability to lead. But all this came on the heels of the hard lessons about leading as a woman in a man’s world that Falletta had to learn in order to chart her course to the podiums of the world’s finest orchestras and to a career of astonishing international acclaim.

“Not a Career That Is So Open for Women”

Falletta’s early years in music brought no hint that her sex might later be an obstacle to her career. The classical guitar her father gave her for her seventh birthday and the guitar lessons he arranged for her to take set the stage for her later professional career as a guitarist. But attending orchestra concerts in her native New York broadened her musical horizons.

“I realized, as much as I love the guitar – and I do – that the symphony orchestra was an incomparable instrument,” Falletta said. “And I would sit in the audience at the age of 10 or 11 and I’d just be dazzled by the sound that I heard and how I felt listening to this music. And I was fascinated, too, by the group – the idea of all these people coming together. And they seemed so intent on doing something so beautiful that I decided that I had to be in the middle of that when I was about 11.”

Falletta’s dream of becoming a conductor was born, and it went undeterred through years of piano and cello lessons and even Falletta’s own exploration of a conductor’s raw materials – orchestral scores.

“My parents loved music, but they were not musicians, so they were really unaware of the lack of women conductors at that time or exactly how one became a conductor,” Falletta said.

At 18, Falletta gained admission to the Mannes College of Music, where as an undergraduate she studied conducting amid a mixture of encouragement and skepticism.

“That was the first I really heard people say in words, ‘Well, you know, this is not a career that is so open for women.’ But at that point, like most young people, I wasn’t deterred by that. I just was in love with the orchestra. I had to do it,” Falletta said.

After finishing at Mannes, Falletta entered the Juilliard School where, she studied with Jorge Mester. Falletta credits Mester with giving her keen, if painfully eye-opening, insights about how her enculturation as a female in a man’s world was undermining her success on the podium.

“I remember at Juilliard, especially with my teacher there, Jorge Mester, him being very, very aware of the differences between men and women and ways in which I was not utilizing the strength that I needed to excel because of being brought up as a girl,” Falletta said. “And he was very enlightening about body language, about verbal language that women and men use in different ways, and helped me see that I had to develop a kind of authority that was comfortable for me, but I had to develop that sense of leadership.”

And Mester got specific. He pointed out instances when Falletta was, simply put, not direct enough in working from the podium. These were lessons Falletta alone – as the school’s only woman orchestral conducting student – was granted.

“For instance, one of my male colleagues would say, ‘Play from (rehearsal) letter B,” and I would say instead, ‘Let’s please play from letter B.’ Or they would look right at the player when they were talking to them and say, ‘The A is sharp,” and I would look at my score and say, ‘I think the A might be sharp.’ Just these little things that to (Mester) indicated that I had learned to be deferential, and I had to learn to be a little bit more of a leader.”

“You Don’t Have to Be Like a Man”

What Mester did not tell Falletta was that, as a woman, she had no hope of success on the podium. Neither did he tell her that, in order to succeed as a conductor, she had to model herself after men. Mester did precisely the opposite, encouraging Falletta, in a manner of speaking, to find her own best self as a leader who happened also to be a woman.

“I do have to say that Jorge encouraged me. He said, ‘You don’t have to be like a man, you don’t have to pattern yourself after any man. You have to find your own way of having authority that will be natural to you.’ Because, as he said, the only thing musicians can sense on a podium that they’re uncomfortable with is someone acting something that they’re not. So I’ve been conscious of that now ever since then. It was a kind of surprising and difficult lesson to learn, but I began to realize that the orchestra needed and expected strength and a kind of assuredness from a leader. This is a group of a lot of people who needed to be guided by someone who had a kind of confidence. And in talking with other conductors, women conductors especially, I try and share with them what Jorge taught me. Because I think he was really phenomenal to be able to see that and to be able to express it to me in a way that made sense and made me think about how I needed to change a bit.”

Leading with Empathy

Falletta’s experience with Mester’s tutelage points up the obvious reality that, once a conductor’s musical skills have reached a certain level, his or her job performance hinges on the ability to communicate with and lead people effectively. In fact, Falletta gives leadership pride of place over musical skills in the conducting profession. But in a world that often rewards men for assertiveness and often views assertive women with suspicion, if not outright scorn, the lessons Falletta took from Mester also beg the questions, Are there specific strengths that women offer as leaders and, if so, what are they?

“It’s really more about leadership than musical skills,” Falletta said. “It’s about the sort of trappings of leadership that we’ve come to expect, and maybe women are a little bit different in what they present. But I think that women can bring to the table as leaders a great deal of empathy, a great deal of inclusiveness that seems to be natural – whether partly upbringing, partly chemical, I don’t know, partly training – that they can be very effective leaders in a way that is more inclusive. And in fact, to me, that is the best way to deal with an orchestra, where everyone is valued and everyone feels that they are part of a great whole. I think we just have to get used to different leadership styles.”

Falletta is quick to point out that certain tactics male conductors have used through the ages simply do not work for women. Arturo Toscanini, Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky – three of the most formidable conductors the orchestral world has ever known – might have been able to get away with slinging insults at musicians during rehearsals, firing players on the spot for errors that could have been more gently corrected or other overt displays of fury. But anger is off limits to a woman conductor, mainly because she is a woman.

“I’ve seen women sometimes become angry, and it has an effect that she’s losing control, that she doesn’t know what to do, that she’s not leading us, she’s not in control of herself,” Falletta said. “Now, is that fair? No, but the perception is there. So I don’t think that anger, while it might work for men, is an effective tool for women somehow in the way we perceive women leaders. But empathy is.”

“Be Totally Comfortable with Where You Are”

Falletta’s early lessons in the communication aspect of leadership also came with an education about what a woman on the podium should look like physically – in essence, whether a woman conductor should aim to appear more masculine, or be comfortable revealing her femininity. And since the days of her studenthood and early professional career, Falletta has seen other aspiring women conductors run the same gamut of questions about physical appearance – questions that their male counterparts don’t have.

“You might think some of these (questions) are silly, but actually for a young woman who’s trying to find her way, they’re not, such as, What should you wear? How do you interact with the (orchestra’s) board? How do you interact with people on the staff? Do you wear a dress? Do you wear a suit? How should you keep you hair? Lots of things that might seem silly, but when you don’t have any examples, it’s very interesting to talk to women who have struggled with the same issues.”

It might seem obvious that donning men’s attire on the podium in an effort to look like a male conductor is fruitless, since women aren’t men. But if women’s clothing is distracting, then that, too, undermines a woman conductor’s credibility as a leader. The solution? Dress comfortably.

“Especially in the past, some women conductors felt they had to dress like men. And that did not work because it conveyed a message of, ‘I’m trying to hide the fact that I’m a woman so that you’ll think I’m a man,’ and it doesn’t really make sense,” Falletta said. ”I try and encourage women that when you’re on the podium, or when you’re in any leadership situation, you have to be totally comfortable with where you are. I mean, you can’t be fussing with your hair, you can’t be fussing with your blouse, you can’t be fussing with your pants. You’ve got to be completely able to focus on your job. That doesn’t mean you have to look like a man, but you have to be able to focus on your job. You can’t be either distracting to the orchestra or distracting to yourself.”

The Most Incredible Place

As Falletta enters the fourth decade of her professional career – a career launched with her 1985 professional conducting debut as winner of the Stokowski Competition – Falletta says she’s grateful for having had the opportunity to study conducting at Mannes and Juilliard at a time when there was little precedent for women having successful conducting careers.

And while Falletta says women have been breaking into the conducting world more slowly than she had earlier anticipated, they are breaking in in increasing numbers and enjoying careers at higher levels than ever before.

“As much as the orchestras themselves have changed – more women in orchestras and women soloists and women composers – the conductor has been the last element to change. I’m sure it will happen. And as more and more women are seen on the podium, it will become not a rarity anymore,” Falletta said.

As girls, in particular, see more women on podiums, they too might strive to stand there and eventually come to own with ease that position as first among equals in what Falletta describes as the best place in the world to be.

“I feel like I’m living my dream now, really, that it all came true and I can actually work with orchestras,” Falletta said. “The most incredible place to be is in the middle of an orchestra.”

JoAnn Falletta leads the London Symphony Orchestra in a world-premiere recording on The American Sound, 6 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Tuesday on Classical 101.