Michael Repper is currently a freshman studying music at Stanford University. An accomplished pianist, Michael first attended the International Institute for Young Musicians at age eleven. Through his teenage years, Michael developed a love of conducting and has had many successes guest conducting numerous ensembles.
Mike, I know your dream is to become a professional conductor. When did your interest start?
Many people ask this question, and it has no obvious answer, because I’m not exactly sure where my interest came from! All I remember is being in my 7th grade orchestra and simply asking my orchestral director if I could have a chance to conduct a piece, and she said yes! From there, I became incredibly interested in the art and started taking conducting lessons once per week.
I guess I’ve always been interested in leading and taking charge (I’m about as Type A as it gets), so it’s an art form that seems to fit. I also have an interest in music theory and history, and conducting meshes all of these areas quite nicely. IIYM sparked my interest in instrumental conducting with Dr. Knowles’ conducting course. He was an incredible instructor and really enhanced my conducting skills over the seven years I attended the institute.
How does one prepare to be a conductor?
Actually, it’s not too different from preparing to be a pianist. On its most basic level, it’s practice, practice, practice. It’s actually a little easier to find time to practice, because all you need is a mirror! A conducting student takes one-on-one lessons just like a piano student, and attempts to find opportunities to conduct just like a piano student attempts to find opportunities to give recitals and other performances. A conducting student studies scores away from the practice room, delving into the historical and theoretical background of the piece.
What is most difficult is getting orchestral opportunities. When I started, I was only about 13, so it was very challenging to find an orchestra to conduct. After all, who gives their orchestra to a middle school student? This is unfortunate, because the easiest way to learn is in front of an orchestra. There is only so much you can learn in front of a mirror or in a lesson with no instruments. This would be equivalent to practicing piano with only a picture of the keyboard on a table. While you may be able to learn the fingerings and even memorize the piece, you can’t really know how it sounds and how you’re doing until you have a piano in front of you.
I went to an arts high school, the Orange County High School of the Arts, which gave me many orchestral opportunities, including some in Australia! In college, I have continued to take lessons as part of my Music Major at Stanford University, and have branched out into other areas of conducting. For example, last year I conducted Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and this year I will be conducting Into the Woods.
Another way to prepare is to attend professional orchestral rehearsals. When I was in high school, I attended rehearsals of the Pacific Symphony, and now that I’m in the Bay Area, I attempt to attend as many San Francisco Symphony rehearsals as I can! Watching professional orchestras rehearse is one of the key ways to study conducting.
How did studying the piano inform your study of conducting?
Piano was INCREDIBLY helpful in my pursuit of conducting. Firstly, it is one of the very few instruments that require you to read in two clefs at the same time. This is a very important skill to ascertain as a conductor because conductors must read multiple parts at the same time. Of course, there can sometimes be upwards of 20-30 different parts in an orchestral score, but once a conductor is able to read 2 at the same time, reading several others isn’t as challenging. That skill is an interesting plateau.
The polyphonic structure of piano pieces also helps my mindset as a conductor. A pianist has to think about multiple voices within each hand, whereas an oboe player, by contrast, only has to think about one.
Most importantly, though, my piano studies taught me how to learn, think critically, memorize, and practice! All of these things are necessary to become a conductor.
What are your future plans?
My aspiration is to become an orchestral conductor. This is a very difficult road, and one that requires starting very low on the totem pole. I am attempting to meet as many people as possible and keep up with my contacts in the conducting world. In the near future, I plan to conduct an orchestral recital and a musical.
IIYM Academic Professor Greg Knowles holds a doctorate in music and is on the faculty of The Juilliard School in New York. He works as a record producer in all styles of music, and is a former Governor, Trustee, and Past Los Angeles President of the Recording Academy. As a life long percussionist, he is a session and touring drummer with many rock and pop bands, and just formed Aegean Chamber Percussion, an ensemble that specializes in percussion arrangements of symphonic music.
Students at the IIYM Summer Music Academy know you for your great teaching in our academic program. What do you do the rest of the year?
During the school year, I teach seven sections of theory and harmony, two sections of music business, record production, conducting, and score-reading at The Juilliard School. Besides that, I produce about four albums per year. Just finished a new jazz album and am about to start producing the soundtrack for a new children’s television show. After IIYM each year, my wife and I go to our place in Mykonos, Greece for the rest of the summer.
What do you enjoy most about working with a new generation of musicians at the Summer Music Academy?
It is really great to see the enthusiasm and especially all the talent that comes through the Academy each year. For me personally, it is the e-mails I get from former students who tell me that especially my classes in music theory saved them their first couple years of college.
Theory, Counterpoint, Ear-training, Music History, Conducting, and Music Business are just a few of the classes you offer at the Summer Music Academy. How are you able to teach such a diverse range of subjects?
Theory, Counterpoint, and Ear-training are related as subjects so it’s not as diverse as it may seem at first. I studied harmony for many years with Kendall Briggs at Juilliard, and he opened my eyes up to a very unique method of teaching. I was lucky enough to be the content editor on his new theory textbook, which is sure to become the gold standard in harmony. Spending way more years than I care to think about as a record producer was a natural evolution to Music Business class, where we introduce students to the non-performance side of the music industry. When I was in school, I did my Bachelor in Music Education, Masters in Performance (Percussion), and my Doctorate in Conducting. It is nice to have conducting classes each summer to put those studies into practice.
Reading Exercises for Solfège is the text book you wrote to teach ear-training at Juilliard. It is also used at the IIYM Summer Music Academy. What prompted the creation of the book?
Necessity! When I entered Juilliard as a student, I had only used the A-B-C method of notation. Being an international conservatory, Juilliard used solfege … Do-Re-Mi notation. Imagine being a doctoral candidate and you can’t read the music! I created these exercises for myself and some friends so we could quickly transition ourselves to solfege. I am very lucky. I understand this book is being use at some 70 colleges and university now.
As past Los Angeles President of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the organization responsible for putting on the Grammy Awards each year, you've been deeply involved in the record business. Do you have any advice for young musicians looking to win a recording contract one day?
It’s a new and changing world out there. Record stores are closing. Record labels are losing money. The invention of the iPod and legal downloading of music is changing the recording industry. We have always had format changes (records, tapes, CD’s, etc.), but there has always been something tangible to purchase. Not so now. That, combined with home computer recording equipment, which can be purchased for the cost of one recording session, makes the expensive recording studio almost obsolete. My advice is to keep in touch with trends in the industry with regard to professional home recording and independent releases. You can now upload your music to all the internet sites (iTunes, CD Baby, etc.) and have your music just as available as music released by the major labels (Sony, Warner, etc.).
You were the producer of the debut albums of the Julliard Jazz Quintet and the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra. What was that like?
They were great sessions. I was able to bring in a longtime engineer friend from Los Angeles to work the project with me. We recorded principal tracks at Avatar, which is one of the finest studios in Manhattan, and mixed at ConcertD, which is one of the most state of the art mixing studios around, plus the fact that we did the Quintet album in 5.1 SurroundSound. I do have to admit the sessions were pretty easy due to the talent of the Jazz Faculty at Juilliard … Victor Goines, Wycliffe Gordon, Ben Wolfe, Carl Allen, and Adam Birnbaum … all of whom play with Jazz at Lincoln Center under the leadership of Wynton Marsalis. It was “can’t miss.”
As an experienced pilot, you are licensed on many different types of aircraft. What are some of your favorite planes to fly?
Ah … my former life. I first learned to fly simply for the love of flying, but in music you sometimes have to have a “day job.” This was my day job early in my career. But now, I really enjoy it again just for the love of flying. I have to say my favorite airplanes to fly are the older transport planes. I am rated on the DC-3, which was the standard for airlines from the 1940’s through the 1960’s. I am also one of 8 pilots in the U.S. rated as a captain on the Ford Tri-Motor, which was the queen of the sky in the 1920’s and 1930’s (sadly, there are only 6 flying Tri-Motors left). But to be honest, my real passion these days is helicopters. When I lived in Honolulu, a friend of mine and I used to take a helicopter with pontoons out to the Eastern side of Oahu, land on the water, go scuba diving, then fly home over Waikiki at 200 feet. Great fun!!!
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