Emily Wilson ’17
Soprano vocalist Tony Arnold will be a guest of the Sage Chamber Music Society. She will be performing with Smith’s own Judith Gordon, a professor in the music department, on Dec. 10 in Sweeney Concert Hall at 8 p.m. in a free, open-to-the-public concert. She’ll be performing “works reflecting and celebrating the natural world, featuring The Book of the Hanging Gardens, op 15, by Arnold Schoenberg.” I recently spoke with her about the concert, her journey to becoming a professional musician and her experience as a woman in the music business.
What is your all-time favorite piece to sing?
Whatever piece I am singing right now, in this moment.
Out of the works you’re singing at the Dec. 10 concert, which do you find most moving?
It’s hard not to choose Schoenberg’s “The Book of the Hanging Gardens,” simply because the weight and scope of the piece is so dramatic. Schoenberg sets 15 of the most sensual symbolist poems by Stefan George in a highly original manner, unparalleled for its time — which is saying a lot, since we’re talking about an era (pre-WWI Europe) fecund with musical and stylistic innovation. It offers a landscape of seemingly endless nuance that keeps revealing itself to me, even 15 years after I first performed the cycle.
When did you know that you wanted to be a professional musician?
Music has always been the lens through which I understood the world; I can’t ever remember wanting to seriously pursue anything else. But I had no aesthetic grooming, nor parents who had any musical knowledge or idea about how to do the “right things” to train a passionate youngster. However, they were always steadfastly supportive. I attended a public school in Maryland from K-8 that had an exceptionally strong music program, both instrumental and choral. When I reached high school, […] I happily flung myself headfirst into all the music programs available to me — which were substantial, and all in public education. The teachers I had […] were formative for me — not just in music, but in literature, theater, languages, math, visual art and history. Looking back, I see what exceptional role models they were, and how skilled they were in evoking the best from all their students.
What was your first job out of college?
My first job out of college actually started while I was still a student at Oberlin College, where I conducted a choir and played organ at the local Catholic church. When I moved to Chicago after graduation, I picked up several other leadership jobs in liturgical music in Catholic and protestant churches, and also at Anshe Emet Synagogue, where I sang and later conducted the choir until I moved away from Chicago when I was 35. I learned much of my craft by working with community organizations. And I mean “craft “not only in terms of the music, but also the people skills and organizational tools necessary for making — a living and a life! — as an independent artist.
What advice do you have for aspiring musicians coming out of college?
Never say “no,” until you come to a point where you absolutely think you will die if you say “yes” one more time. This will happen precisely when you are 33-years old (or 10 years after you graduate, whichever comes first.) What this invariably means is this: you will learn so much more from experiences that you thought you never would have (or want to have) than from trying to engineer a career according to what you think you already know you want to do. Try things that are both way beneath and way-way-beyond your level of expertise. Take leadership roles. Start something where nothing existed before. Don’t decide on any one thing until you have tried many, many things. The goal is to be so completely invested in each component of your life that you sacrifice neither depth nor breadth of experience.
What challenges do you face as a female professional musician?
The challenges are no different than those of any female in any other profession or in the world. We all, regardless of our identity, navigate life with a set of expectations that shifts according to the situation we find ourselves in. We must all develop acute awareness of cultural forces at play so that we can make a place at the table, not just for ourselves, but most especially for others. This is the human directive.
To learn more, visit her website: www.screecher.com