Sarah Hicks is a young American conductor whose star is on the rise. She is currently Staff Conductor of the Curtis Institute of Music and conducts both pops, standard, and contemporary repertoire throughout the United States and overseas. She is also a composer. Ms. Hicks originally trained as a pianist, and when off the podium, jogs, practises yoga, and has an adorable Papillon dog, Pinkerton.
What’s impressive about Sarah is not just that she’s keeping track of so many things at once during a film/concert – she actually enjoys it. She has a click-track in her ear – something all musicians wear to keep time for particularly intricate pieces of music. She keeps an eye downward on the musical score in front of her, with the other eye upward on the screen. I often multi-task too – at the level of watching TV while folding laundry – and not the Marie Kondo way, either. Let’s get to know Sarah Hicks, in this Q+A.
I love this – a Q+A from one hapa to another (Vancouver-born, also half-Japanese). So to start, okagesamade, and arigatou gozaimasu for doing this. I’m curious about the repertoire you do – it’s quite the mixed bag of hard core classical material and pops concerts that include conducting the orchestra playing the score to popular movies. How to you shift from Batman to Brahms?
Hi fellow hapa! To me good music is good music, so I don’t really approach anything differently from philosophical or musical standpoint. Whatever I’m doing, it’s contingent on me to not just keep things together but to have a clear vision of how the music is speaking and to guide my musicians through that. From a technical standpoint, in many senses doing the film in concert shows are the most difficult, because there are so many extramusical elements to contend with (monitors, click tracks, streamers, punches, measure counts…) So that’s definitely a shift in mindset!
I’m guessing people don’t quite realize what goes into conducting the live score of a movie. The thought of a click track while making music makes my head spin. And you’re dealing with way more than that. Please tell our listeners everything that’s going on, and how you take pleasure in disseminating so many details coming at you into a seamless performance??
Basically, I’m looking at a version of my film on my own monitor that includes a lot of information to help me coordinate live music with the film. I have the measure number of the cue (the section of music) in the upper right hand corner, along with the beat of that measure as it goes by. Every few measures I’ll get a circular flash of light called a punch that also helps me line things up, a line of light that moves across the screen called a streamer, that alerts me to a tempo change, or that something is happening on film that requires tight coordination. Sometimes I’ll have an audio track in one ear called a click track, and that literally is just what you would imagine it to be – clicks in rhythm to the music that help line things up! All of this information lines up with the information I have in my printed music (score), which I then need to transmit to the orchestra via my gestures. It’s multitasking times a million!
Ok, my head’s spinning. Wow. I hate to ask this, as I long for the day when even asking about being a woman conductor is antiquated, but when your teacher at Curtis, the venerable Otto-Werner Mueller, said women were weak and Asians weren’t expressive, how on earth did you reply to that? Why did he even take you on as a student? He would have received the ADG (Asian Death Glare) from me, which I learned from my mother, The Matriarch.
You need to teach me your ADG. I think Mueller was really just testing me, seeing how tough I was by saying these awful things. I had no reply at the time, but my larger reply to him was to become a conductor who has forged her own path, worked with musicians of all genres, made connections with audiences across the world and is respected in the field. Success, as they say, is the best revenge!
Good for you. You have solid, samurai genes. In December, the New York Times ran this obituary about Liza Redfield, the first full-time engaged woman conductor on Broadway. Like you, she started on piano, and like you, faced some hurdles in her career. Do you identify with her? Have we progressed much since then?
Hmm… that’s an interesting one. I’ve not encountered the kind of outright sexism (and harassment!) that Redfield did. That being said I’ve gotten my share of underhanded or veiled comments in passing, enough to know that regardless of how competent I may be, I’m treated ever so slightly differently than a man in my position would be. The kind of subtle prejudice I encounter is hard to put your finger on, which makes it so much more difficult to fight against. We have progressed a lot since then, though I still deal with it on a regular basis. But I don’t think it’s unique in the musical world – the way women, especially women in power, are treated in the larger society is an indication that all of us have a long way still to go!
Tell us about the movies you’re conducting with the TSO. You’re doing Star Wars: A New Hope and later in March, The Empire Strikes Back. How do you prepare for these concerts? Do we call them concerts?
I study and learn the music much like I would learn any other orchestral music – I’ve got my scores, I figure out who plays when and where and how loud, etc. etc. Then I study the score with a conductor study video, which is the full film with all the stuff I was talking about earlier – streamers, punches, measure numbers, click track, etc. – and see how it lines up with the film. I end up watching the film nearly a dozen times to make sure I know how it all lines up. Yes, it gets a little tedious, but I love love LOVE the Star Wars films so it’s less of a chore. And yes, we call them concerts! It’s a live orchestra playing live music, and in my book that’s a concert, even if there’s a film playing.
Sarah Hicks conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for two Star Wars films: Star Wars: A New Hope (Jan. 23 – 26, all at 7:30 pm) and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (March 20 – 23, all at 7:30 pm, 2019). Click here for info on the complete TSO Star Wars Film Concert Series.