Before the music even starts, there is a story on stage.
Because every time Gail A. Brechting picks up her conductor’s baton and faces the West Michigan Concert WINDS — 80 adult musicians, all looking to her for direction — she defies the odds.
She absolutely shatters glass ceilings.
A music educator for 35 years, Brechting is the first — and only — woman conductor of the much heralded community band. For 16 years, she has led the band in concerts and weekly rehearsals, all while working her “day job” as an elementary music teacher for Reeths-Puffer Schools. She also conducts Muskegon Community College’s band.
Just how rare is she? A woman band director?
Consider this: Only five percent of college band directors are women, according to the Research & Issues in Music Education publication. And who knows how many women community band directors there are? There’s nothing on record: no statistics, no trends, no data collected.
“As women, it’s hard to rise to the top,” Brechting says, “but that’s changing, I think.”
It certainly is here in West Michigan.
On December 15, Brechting and the West Michigan Concert WINDS will share the stage with the Muskegon Shoreline Chorus of the Barbershop Harmony Society and the West Shore Chorus of the Sweet Adelines International — both of which are directed by S. Annette Jurcevic of Ludington.
The concert is at 4 p.m. December 15 at Mona Shores High School Performing Arts Center, 1121 Seminole. Tickets are available at the door.
Jurcevic, who moved to Ludington from Austin, Texas, in 2010, is the first woman director of the Muskegon Shoreline Chorus — an all-male chorus. She also is the founding conductor of the Shoreline Symphony, a community orchestra in Muskegon.
She, too, occupies rarified air when she steps onto that podium to lead the Shoreline Symphony. Of the 800 orchestras in the United States — regional, community, huge professional orchestras — only 20 percent are directed by women, according to the League of American Orchestras. And many of them are assistant conductors or rehearsal conductors.
“There’s not very many of us,” Brechting says.
No wonder whenever she and Jurcevic get together, they discuss more than just the music. Of course, they talk about the details of the December concert they’re calling “A Holiday Harmony of Voice and WINDS.” They talk about conducting styles, rehearsals, the difference between vocal and instrumental, not to mention, professional and community musical groups.
And what it’s like to be a woman conductor.
“It’s nice to know I’m not the only one … the only woman,” Jurcevic says.
Their paths to the podium couldn’t be more diverse.
Brechting knew by the time she was in the eighth grade, growing up in Petoskey, that she wanted to be both a music teacher and a band conductor. She’s had practice disregarding stereotypes. She played trombone in school.
“For years, I was known as that girl trombone player from Petoskey,” she laughs.
She has a bachelor of music education degree from Central Michigan University and a Master of Arts degree from Western Michigan University.
“I always knew what I wanted to do,” she says. Jurcevic started piano when she was just five years old. She learned how to play eight different instruments before even graduating from high school, plus she took conducting classes.
But when she went to college, what did she major in?
“Chemistry,” Jurcevic says, in a voice that really says: “What was I thinking?”
She probably would have made a great chemist, but her musical past couldn’t be shoved aside. She studied conducting and earned her undergraduate degree from Wheaton College. But while in graduate studies at Indiana University, she turned her focus to vocal music — although she studied choral conducting.
Both Brechting and Jurcevic operate in what Brechting calls “a world split” between vocal and instrumental music. And they can be very different. For instance, most of the singers in her barbershop choruses do not read music. They’ve never had to, although Jurcevic is teaching them how to. On the other hand, the musicians in the orchestra do read music — and that makes rehearsal times very different.
For Brechting, there is nothing quite like standing on that podium — whether in rehearsal or concert — and hearing the music … “that amazing sound come at me.”
Although neither she nor Jurcevic wants to give into stereotyping men and women conductors, Brechting says there has been a swing away from times past when the overwhelming majority of conductor was men.
“Musicians used to be brow beaten by their conductors, especially community groups,” Brechting says.
What she hopes she brings as a director — besides a standard of consistent musical excellence — is a “demanding and nurturing style, you know, like mothers ask.”
Jurcevic has been described as “energetic and animated” on stage, “but that’s not my goal,” she says. “That’s my personality.”
Both she and Brechting endeavor to be “minimalists” on stage.
“My ultimate goal is to be a minimalist, to be clean and precise, as well as easy to follow,” Brechting says. “I try very hard not to get in the way of the music being created.”
She went to one workshop, she says, during which participants could only conduct with their eyes. Eye contact was the only form of communication.
To this day, it is one of her favorite exercises; a most valuable lesson.
“You don’t need big movements to get people’s attention,” she says.
It helps that both women have been in orchestras, bands and choirs themselves. Both are also vocal soloists. Brechting was the principal trombonist for the WINDS before auditioning as conductor. She also played second trombone for the former West Shore Symphony Orchestra. Under her leadership, the WINDS hosted the national convention for the Association of Concert Bands in Muskegon in 2011. She is serving her second term on the national board of the Association of Concert Bands and is the first woman selected to be a member of the John Philip Sousa Foundations, Sudler Silver Scroll Award Selection Committee.
Jurcevic, still relatively new to the community, teaches private lessons besides conducting her three groups. Where do they find the time? The energy to work with so many people? To take on the responsibility of leading large groups?
“If music is your life, it’s what you do,” Brechting says. “It’s who you are.”