Have a mission or purpose. Know who you are making your art for, or for what purpose you are making it. The mission or purpose might be quite simple, or it might be more complex. For me, my mission is to use music as a vehicle to connect people, build community, and inspire positive change. As a musician, one experiences starts and stops, successes and failures, and acceptances and rejections. You can feel that your career flitters between periods of moving at light speed and being at a standstill. Having a mission or purpose helps you center your goals and keep your eye looking into the future, no matter what is happening in the short term.
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Michael Repper.
GRAMMY® Winning conductor Michael Repper is a sought-after young music director. His work has spanned four continents, and he has an international reputation for engaging and exciting audiences of all spectrums, and for promoting new and diverse musical talents. He is the youngest conductor from the United States, and the second youngest of all time, to win a GRAMMY® in Best Orchestral Performance.
Michael is the Music Director of the Ashland Symphony Orchestra, Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, New York Youth Symphony, and the Northern Neck Orchestra of Virginia. From 2020–2022 he was the Principal Conductor of Sinfonía por el Perú, one of South America’s most versatile social impact music programs. Recognizing his success at these ensembles, and his growing profile as a guest conductor all over the world and as a past Conducting Fellow of the Baltimore Symphony, Michael was awarded a Solti Foundation US Career Assistance Award in 2020, 2021, and 2022.
Michael works so that Classical music reaches more equitable representation, within ensembles, audiences and repertoire choices. Alongside beloved standard repertoire, Michael introduces audiences to vibrant new music and incredible new artists.
In addition to receiving a GRAMMY award, his 2022 album with the New York Youth Symphony features debut recordings of works by Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery, and Valerie Coleman. The recording achieved widespread critical acclaim and reached #1 on the Billboard Chart.
Michael’s most influential conducting mentors are Marin Alsop and the late Gustav Meier. He believes that a conductor’s main role is to connect people and to use performance as a vehicle for positive change.
To see his schedule or learn more about Michael, please visit http://www.mikerepper.com
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Thank you very much for having me! I grew up in Orange County, California and lived there all the way until I went to college. On top of my musical activities, I played AYSO soccer, Little League baseball, and even basketball. It didn’t take me long to discover, though, that I wasn’t destined for a professional career in sports, music was really my passion. I remember my childhood in Southern California very fondly, it’s still home to me as my family still lives there!
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
My grandmother (who was a pianist herself) used to take me to concerts at the Pacific Symphony which were designed for young audiences. Even though I was 3 or 4, she noticed that once the music started, the orchestra on stage had my complete attention. She suggested to my mom that I take piano lessons.
Nearly 30 years later, here we are! I am so thankful for the Pacific Symphony for opening up that door of imagination and wonder for me, and I am so pleased that there are orchestras across the country programming incredible concerts for younger audiences. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if not for my early experiences. I do my best to make sure I am doing the same for young people in my communities.
I also should note how fortunate I was that my family had the resources to provide musical opportunities for me, and that they supported my dream all the way.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Of course, it goes without saying that I am grateful for my family, and their support.
If I had to pick a specific person to thank in my professional career, it would be Marin Alsop. I so admire that she has been able to be one of the world’s leading conductors, and yet also has taken the time to be one of my closest mentors. Not only did she teach me about the technical aspects of conducting, but she imparted to me the true nature of what music is, and what conductors should be aiming to do. Fundamentally, we aim to connect people. And high-level music performance is the vehicle we use to accomplish this.
On a concrete level, Marin was responsible for bringing me to the Baltimore Symphony, where I was Conducting Fellow for two seasons. She also brought me to my debut with the São Paulo Symphony, one of South America’s finest ensembles. And she also recommended me for the New York Youth Symphony post, where we just won a Grammy. My life wouldn’t be the same without her!
You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It’s so recent, but I think it would have to be that we just won a Grammy Award! It’s truly an honor to have won a Grammy, and it’s absolutely not something that I thought would happen when I was 32 years old. The entire experience of being nominated, becoming welcomed into a wonderful new community of artists who I am so grateful to know, and to have actually won, was life changing.
Most classical musicians aren’t accustomed to the barrage of cameras that accompany a trip to the Grammys. It was incredibly fun to walk the red carpet, and to be surrounded by some of the music industry’s most recognizable and successful artists.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
To be honest, I’m having a hard time coming up with a mistake that I made which seems funny. Everyone makes mistakes, but perhaps I’m too close to my own to find them humorous!
But I can tell you about a recurring error that I made a lot early in my career, and how I have grown from that.
For whatever reason, as a young pianist, performing from memory was not something that came easily. During performance, I would allow my nerves to take control of my brain, and I would inevitably have a memory slip. I would get incredibly discouraged in my seeming inability to keep music memorized.
The mistake, exhibited by my discouragement, is valuing perfection more than energy and intention in music performance. Perfection is a great goal, of course. We all want to perform the composers’ intentions flawlessly, and without any wrong notes for example. But a perfect performance is meaningless without lots of energy and a sincere effort to convey meaning through the performance. So the lesson I learned (and it took me years) was to re-sort my priorities!
Today, I conduct from memory all the time. I love the way that conducting from memory allows me to connect with the musicians, without the trouble of reaching across a big bulky book in front of me!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I have just started as Music Director of two orchestras: the Ashland Symphony in Ohio, and the Mid-Atlantic Symphony in Maryland and Delaware. Both organizations are bursting with energy and are expanding with new initiatives. I’m really excited about the growing audience at both ensembles, both in how we are welcoming them and in who is showing up.
In Ashland, we have a wealth of community-focused programming that is, in particular, showing young people in the region that classical music is their music.
We started a “fan club” of high school and college students, and it took off and just keeps growing. Our fan club members come to our concerts with their families, and bring their friends too!
One young woman told me she is interested in pursuing a career in conducting. I gave her the opportunity to conduct in our most recent concert, and am working to connect her with other conducting opportunities.
Another member is interested in becoming a luthier, so we have connected him with luthiers in the Cleveland area. I am over the moon with how many young people are coming to the Ashland concerts and it’s nice to see young people explore the many different ways arts can be part of their lives.
At the Mid-Atlantic Symphony, we are expanding our engagement in similar ways. Our annual concerto competition will, next year, allow not just one young soloist to play with the professional orchestra, but three!
I’m also excited to be working with a growing number of orchestras as a guest conductor. In just a few short months I’m returning to Brazil at long last, to work with the Porto Alegre Symphony. The last time I was in Brazil was in 2016, with the São Paulo Symphony, so I’m looking forward to refreshing my Portuguese!
Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances” and why? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
This is such a wonderful question. In reality there are closer to 5,000 things that one needs to create a highly successful career, including things such as opportunity and resources (which are unfortunately not equally dispersed). Here however, I have made an attempt to highlight five of the many critical components of a successful artistic career:
1. Have a mission or purpose. Know who you are making your art for, or for what purpose you are making it. The mission or purpose might be quite simple, or it might be more complex. For me, my mission is to use music as a vehicle to connect people, build community, and inspire positive change. As a musician, one experiences starts and stops, successes and failures, and acceptances and rejections. You can feel that your career flitters between periods of moving at light speed and being at a standstill. Having a mission or purpose helps you center your goals and keep your eye looking into the future, no matter what is happening in the short term.
2. Have a commitment to total preparation. As an artist, so much about your career is out of your control. Luck plays a big part of one’s success, and those who have more resources have a decisive advantage. But one does have control over their own preparation. The most successful artists are always the one committed to being the most prepared person in the room. Earn a reputation for being completely prepared and ultra-reliable, and the work will come!
3. Have or build a network of advocates and teachers. Making art is a process of never-ending growth. To be successful, you want to have a team from whom you can always rely on honest feedback, and who can advocate your work to others. So much of building a career in the arts, particularly from the beginning, is done through this kind of advocacy. And please don’t be intimidated if you need to build a network from nothing! Great artists look out for the next generation and will want to get to know you and your art. Don’t be shy about reaching out to your idols or seeking out help from those who have made it…you never know what might come of it.
4. Have humility. The most beautiful thing about art is that it is not a zero-sum game. There is and always will be more art to be made. So, when you get a job, be humble. And when you lose a job to someone else, remember that there are so many additional directions your path may lead. Don’t get discouraged. This is particularly important to remember while building a career in a field where rejection is far more common than acceptance. Remember to be true to your mission while you support your fellow artists, and things will fall into place.
5. Have patience. It may take twenty, thirty, even forty years or more to achieve your goals in art. That can be frustrating, but if you are true to your personal mission, and you continue to judge yourself only against yourself, and not against anyone else, you will make it. Another beautiful thing about art is that you can always be exploring, and always be improving.
For the benefit of our readers, could you describe how the skill-sets you need in a theater performance are different than the skill-sets you need for TV or Film?
As a conductor, working in a hall vs TV/Film incorporates many of the same skill sets. The chief difference between the two is that theater is a live performance, and usually TV and Film are done to tape. Ever wonder at how perfect some television or film recordings sound? Or even albums? These are typically done in sections, with the objective of producing the most pristine recording possible. Fundamentally, doing pre-taped recordings is a different medium than live performance. One is not better than the other, they are just different.
Of course, in an orchestral hall, you attempt to be as perfect as possible, too! But, the nature of live performance means that there likely will be errors — and that’s what makes live performance fun! What matters is that you are pouring every ounce of love you have into your music making…and that always translates to the audience!
I LOVE conducting for live theater, ballet, and opera. You will have a different audience which will react distinctly at each show. Every night might be different! Performing under these conditions is extremely fun!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Every young person needs music and art education. While pursuing a music career is not for everyone, neither is math. But, like math, music and art are integral parts of the human experience. I wish I could personally put an instrument in the hand of every young person or encourage them to sing. I worry that, with the continued destruction of arts education in schools, young people are not learning how to create. How do we expect future generations to be creative when we have decided for them that tapping into their creativity is not worthwhile from a young age?
Fewer and fewer schools offer music education. This means that, more and more, the only people who have this experience are those who have the resources to pursue it. This isn’t right. We should be encouraging every young person to explore their creativity actively.
I think back to Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” which for a time were so popular that they were broadcast on CBS during primetime hours. Thousands of young people across the country, glued to an orchestra performance, learning about music and tapping into their own creativity. How did we allow that to go away? It’s a dream of mine to host the reboot of a television program like this, with an orchestra, so that music is accessible to everyone.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was in high school at the Orange County School of the Arts, actor Susan Egan came to our school to teach a masterclass. I played piano for her voice students. Afterwards, she advised me to “play music like you play Monopoly.”
In Monopoly, the most successful strategy is to purchase any available property that you land on. Even if it means making a sacrifice elsewhere, take the chance. She stressed that it was important to do the same in music. Unless it is something that absolutely does not fit with your mission, or which you know you would not succeed in, her advice was to take any opportunity that comes your way early in your career.
This advice served me extremely well. Now, I am able to play my career a bit more like chess than monopoly. I am still eager to pursue all opportunities, but I am able to be more strategic about how I pursue them and am able to fine-tune my mission. Everyone’s path is different, but I would encourage artists who are just starting out to consider the strategy of “Monopoly” at first. If nothing else, eagerly pursuing opportunities may expand your boundaries as an artist, and you may develop skills you never thought you might have!
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Oh, this is incredibly difficult. I suppose my biggest idol who is working right now in the music industry is John Williams. I admire John Williams because he has managed to connect millions of people, both to each other, and to their love of music. In the end, it’s these connections that are the most potent components of what we are trying to accomplish as artists.
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
I highly encourage everyone to find me on TikTok (@reppertoire), Instagram (@mikerepper), Facebook (@mikerepper), and on my website www.mikerepper.com. As I say in my TikTok bio…I bet I can make you ❤ music!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Thank you for having me!