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Conductor inspires UR students to challenge selves, society

Dr. Rachel Waddell conducts the orchestras at the University of Rochester River Campus.
Matt Wittmeyer
Dr. Rachel Waddell conducts the orchestras at the University of Rochester River Campus.

Conductor Dr. Rachel Waddell describes music as a “performing tool to bring people together.” She views her work with the orchestras at the University of Rochester’s River Campus as a chance to have people challenge themselves, and society.  

She is now in her second year at the University of Rochester as director of orchestra activities. The musicians in the orchestras she conducts now are college students, faculty, and amateur community musicians. Most are not majoring in music or planning to pursue it as a career, but all of them are drawn to the joy and challenge of making music together. 

"I am amazed every day," Waddell says. "And I tell them this -- I don’t know if they believe me, but I tell them that they’re my heroes for putting up with what they’re doing, their biology degrees, their physics degrees, and they want to learn Bernstein’s symphonic dances in their spare time. I mean, that’s incredible to me!" 

Her job, she says, is: " ... helping them to continue to realize their potential, not only as individuals, but as an ensemble. Encouraging them to play together, and to know what that means, and to realize how much nicer when you’re playing with a group, when you’re all on the same wavelength and you’re all doing the same thing."

She wants them to realize that, "It’s not a competition, and it’s not to set people against each other, but to create unity. And I think once you have that, you can invite the community -- the campus community and the larger Rochester community, and even beyond that -- in."

Waddell's own path to music was not exactly a straight line, as she recalls.

"I didn’t start in music," she says. "I wasn’t one of those people who started super-young and always knew I wanted to be a conductor.  I probably wanted to be everything but that.  I wanted to be a marine biologist, I wanted to be a biochemist. I wanted to do historic preservation, and I wanted to be an English major." 

Waddell wants to expand the range of music that orchestras play.
Credit Jeff Richards
Waddell wants to expand the range of music that orchestras play.

She kept getting drawn further into music, first as a composer, and then as a conductor. She found work conducting professional orchestras -- and with a youth orchestra in Canton, Ohio. There, she had a defining experience turning that group around: 

"I will never forget that experience to coming to them at the first rehearsal," she says. "We rehearsed in a basement, really drab and dark, and that was the spirit of the room when I walked in. I had never seen a rehearsal where all the students left all their instruments in their cases in their laps, and I had to tell them to even put music on their stand -- you could take out your instrument and practice.

"They were that scared and that forlorn, and they refused. That broke my heart to see them that way, and so I immediately started working on them trying to build their spirits." 

With her encouragement, the students started playing, and over time, the program grew from 30 to 150 students in three orchestras. They were also voted “Youth Orchestra of the Year” by the Classics Alive Foundation in Los Angeles.

With the University of Rochester orchestras, Waddell has been trying more ambitious projects.

Recent programs have included an exploration of immigration (in collaboration with the university’s Dance and Movement Program), a musical poetry contest for students, and a program commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

"I mean, we’re a liberal arts university," Waddell says. "So if you can’t do that kind of collaboration and interdisciplinary work there -- if it’s not safe to do it there -- you can’t do it anywhere! I think that’s very important, especially there’s a lot of hot topics with orchestras right now on inclusion, diversity, and how we relate to our communities.

"These aren’t issues that are just going to magically fix themselves. You have to take an active role, every day, in thinking of ways to fix that."

And she’s just getting started. Waddell wants to expand the range of music the orchestra plays, find new connections, and ultimately change the world.

"So I’m looking forward to doing even more adventurous programming," Waddell says. "I mean, compared to some of the things I’ve done with the youth symphony in the past, this past season and the upcoming year are adventurous, but it’s not nearly enough to create change, and the kind of change that I would like to see not only in our small slice in the world, but the world at large." 

She says they plan to "bring in a lot more minority composers, living composers, composers we haven’t performed before, by composers we all know, but their pieces don’t get performed as much. And just really continue to have them challenge themselves as musicians, as intellectuals, and as human beings." 

You can hear an extended interview with Rachel Waddell on theWXXI Classical 91.5 website as part of the series "Musicians of Rochester." You can also find more information about these programs through the University of Rochester Music Department