A Q&A with Michelle Merrill

Who was, or has been, the biggest influence on your life?
"Definitely my band director when I was in high school. He was a fabulous musician, a percussionist. We lived in a tiny, tiny town, and there weren’t a lot of private lesson opportunities. Even though he wasn’t a saxophone player, he would help foster that desire of music.


Michelle Merrill

Associate Conductor, Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Born: Dallas
Education: Studied conducting with Dr. Paul C. Phillips at Southern Methodist University's Meadows School of the Arts, where she holds a Master of Music Degree in conducting and a Bachelor of Music in performance
Family: Her husband, Steve Merrill, is principal percussionist of the Jacksonville Symphony in Florida.
Career: Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Toledo Symphony, Louisiana Philharmonic, Symphoria (Syracuse), Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera, Boise Philharmonic, Orlando Philharmonic, New Music Detroit, and the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic, assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Fellowship: 2013 the prestigious Ansbacher Conducting Fellowship by members of the Vienna Philharmonic and the American Austrian Foundation, which enabled her to be in residence at the world-renowned Salzburg Festival
DSO responsibilities: Merrill helps plan and conduct more than 30 concerts each season, including the DSO’s educational webcasts. She gives pre-concert lectures, leads adult music education seminars, interacts with students and the community and helps host Live from Orchestra Hall.
Award: 2016 Solti Foundation U.S. Career Assistance Award.

Learn more about Michelle Merrill.

Also, my conducting teacher at SMU, Paul Phillips, one of the greatest musicians I've ever known. He taught me how to really find a phrase, how to make music and how to be a musician on a professional level. It wasn't necessarily about how to move the stick, how the movements you’re doing reflect in the sound you’re going to hear. There was a lot of in-depth thinking and connecting to the world, music as related to art, music as related to literature, not music in the insular world but connected to the world at large.

How has your life been different than what you'd imagined?
It's been a lot more traveling. It's a great thing. My husband is in Florida and I am in Detroit ... We have a lot of (airline) miles and try to spend to as much time as possible together. Definitely a lot different than when we both started out. But we're both very encouraging of each other's careers and just see the sky as the limit.

Marin Alsop has been heard to say that some movements would be called sensitive if a male conductor made them but girlie if a female conductor made them. How would you describe your conducting style?

I differ from Marin. I don't think it matters whether you are male or female. It is all about your physical makeup. Some are tall, some are short, some are round, some are thin, some have long arms, some have short. I think the minute people start trying to imitate others is where a disconnect happens. You must work within your own physicality and figure out how to best show the music within your own framework.

What lessons has your work life taught you?
Talent is one thing but talent means nothing unless you have a strong work ethic — not at the expense of your family or relationships — a real nose to the grindstone work ethic. It's that bell curve, if you want to be at the tip top of perfection, you have to work even more. The commitment to putting in the time and putting in the hours is the difference between mediocre and good. People don't always know the difference between mediocre and good, but they know great when they hear it.

What would you tell your 22-year-old self?
Keep working hard, keep dreaming big, and don't stop. Don't limit yourself. And I don't think I did. It has always been my (ideology) to see how far I can go, and I'm still seeing how far I can go. It's been great. And don't forget to have a little fun along the way.

What's your guilty pleasure?
I love movies. My husband and I love movies, especially around Oscar time and it's really fun around this season and all the good movies are coming out.
I love to be outdoors, to go away into nature, hike and get physical, to disconnect, re-energize.

Read the full story on Michelle Merrill, the associate conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra who is showing promise on the podium. Leslie D. Green is on the Detroit Symphony Orchestra board of trustees.


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