A symphony conductor who's a woman is still something of a rarity, even in these enlightened times: Changes come slowly in the tradition-bound world of classical music.
But a symphony conductor who's also a woman of color is still more uncommon. Marsha Mabrey's goal, ever since her arrival last fall as music director of the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra and a music teacher in the Bellevue School District, is to focus instead on being uncommon as a first-rate teacher and conductor.
Forthright and decisive, Mabrey in person has the manner you'd expect of a conductor - someone who is used to giving directions and also building a musical consensus. She has poise and tact. Her face reflects a cultural crossroads of African-American, Sioux, Blackfoot and Caucasian influences. Mabrey is the first conductor in a family that enjoys music but doesn't specialize in it.
A full-tilt schedule
These days, Mabrey has the kind of schedule that just doesn't quit. Finding time for an interview is a major feat; finally we meet at the mall near the high school where she teaches, before she heads for a rehearsal with the Seattle Philharmonic. The rehearsals are pointed toward a big concert next Sunday in the Scottish Rite Center Auditorium, when Respighi's "Pines of Rome" shares the program with the "Celebration Overture" by Ellen Taafe Zwilich and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.
Still energetic after a full day of teaching, Mabrey says she's
"running too fast from dawn to dusk to have any kind of private life." The basics of her past are straightforward: born in 1949, happy childhood, grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich.; nice, supportive parents; one brother, one sister.
"I got my violin along with all the other kids in the fourth grade," she recalls, "and I wasn't a very good practicer at first; my parents kept encouraging me to work at it. Beginning strings are torture to listen to, even if the player is good. Then I gradually discovered it was fun, and I practiced all the time - my parents were begging me to stop."
It didn't take long for Mabrey to gravitate toward the podium instead, where she was "just fascinated by conducting. What a great instrument - an entire orchestra!"
Mabrey knew from the beginning that she was interested in teaching as well as conducting, so she pursued bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Michigan. There was no conducting degree offered, so she chose the University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music for the Ph.D. program, aided by a grant and a fellowship.
Why not apprentice with an orchestra or opera company?
"Women weren't apprenticing," says Mabrey. "There were no connections for you as a woman. Besides, I always knew I wanted to teach, too."
Teaching led her to public schools and universities from Ann Arbor and Denver to Winona State University in Minnesota and Grand Valley State, then to the University of Oregon, where Mabrey decided to go into administration. She became assistant dean of the School of Music at the University of Oregon, and she conducted the university's orchestra as well as the Emerald Chamber Orchestra for 14 years.
Mabrey's interest in education also led to her work as a consultant for orchestras, including the Detroit Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
"Seattle always was at the top of my list of cities to live in," she says, which led her to apply for the Seattle Philharmonic post when the music-director vacancy at the region's longest-established community orchestra was announced. She also applied for local teaching positions; the Bellevue School District offered her a job, and, after two years of auditioning and paperwork, so did the Seattle Philharmonic. She started both this past fall.
Helping public schools
She could have looked for a university position, but Mabrey feels she's of more use in the public school system.
"The school system across the country has disintegrated," she says. "There are bright spots, but there's also so much that has disappeared. Some programs are great in elementary school, and then there's no place to go. I told myself, `Well, Marsha, you've done the gamut of teaching. Where could you do the best service?' "
In Bellevue, Mabrey says she has found a place where she can help make music thrive. Bellevue students have choral or instrumental instruction every day, which is "a dream come true" for her.
"Not everybody is going to become a professional musician, which is fine," Mabrey says.
"Learning music helps kids grow in so many ways. They sit down, practice, contain themselves, improve their skills and work together. They become better students and better people."
Isn't it tough, dealing with teenagers all day? Mabrey, who teaches at Newport High and Chinook Middle School, just laughs.
"We have more fun! I'm pretty demanding, but these kids are good kids, and there are really no problems with discipline. The middle-schoolers are cute as buttons, and they play the dickens out of their instruments."
`They love to play'
At the philharmonic, which is the region's oldest community orchestra, Mabrey was struck by the "good, solid playing" and also by the level of comfort she felt among the musicians, who were eager to improve and to develop the orchestra's educational outreach.
"They're warm, receptive and dedicated. They love to play and they love music. We don't have a colossal budget, but there's the eagerness, energy and cooperation."
Were the students initially surprised to have an African-American woman conductor?
"Their attitude was, `Oh! OK.' Period. And that's as it should be. There's a tremendous number of women conductors, after all, though still not at major orchestras. Maybe I've gotten some opportunities because people are curious about me. Maybe some doors have closed for the same reason.
"I've had some unbelievably bad things happen to me. I don't want to go into details, because it's painful and because I've put that behind me now. Let me just say that there are still people in this world who don't get it yet, that the world has changed. You have to decide how much time you spend fighting battles, and how much going on with life. I gather people around me who support me and care about me, and I survive and go on."
Her own experiences have led Mabrey to be a strong advocate for what she calls "being inclusive," and giving opportunities to others - such as women composers. It's a very tradition-bound field, and very competitive. Mabrey says she focuses on ways to make music more nurturing and encouraging.
"We can't get by without the last-chair violin player. Everybody counts."
What advice would Mabrey give parents?
"Make sure your children have connections with some kind of performing ensemble, band or choir, and stay with it. Support them; try to arrange private lessons; check out community education and outreach programs. For example, at the Seattle Philharmonic, we give free tickets to students. Take your children to concerts - it's one of the nicest things you can do for them and with them. Listen to music with them in the home. If we don't connect with young people, they grow up knowing nothing about music."
In our consumer-driven society, Mabrey says, we need to focus kids on more than money.
"High-school students always ask me, `How much money do you make?' They never ask me, `What is the quality of your life?' I tell them I feel very privileged to be in the spot where I am. I find life extremely exciting, and I squeeze as much out of it as I possibly can. As a teacher, as a conductor, I'm part of the future."
---------------- Mabrey in action ----------------
Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Marsha Mabrey, in final of four Series Concerts; 3 p.m. Sunday, Scottish Rite Center Auditorium, 1155 Broadway E. ($5, $7; 206-528-6878).