34 min read

The Magic of the Maestro

The Magic of the Maestro
Photo by Manuel Nägeli / Unsplash

I spent a lot of my childhood watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. In one of my favorite episodes, "The Long-Haired Hare," Bugs takes on the persona of "Leopold," a nod to the renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski, known for his charismatic and commanding presence. Bugs takes on this disguise to exact revenge against an opera singer who clobbered him earlier in the episode. "Leopold" then puts the singer through several vocal tests, making him sustain an excruciatingly high note until it causes the stage to eventually collapse on the singer.

The "Leopold" clip from "Long-Haired Hare"

This cartoon is still the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of a conductor. It suggests something about the conductor's power over the orchestra's performance.

But what does a conductor actually do? What leads someone to pursue this path? And where does a conductor find beauty in their work?

To answer these questions, I reached out to Timothy Myers. Tim is one of America’s most versatile and innovative conductors. He is a frequent collaborator with leading opera companies and orchestras, and serves as the Sarah and Ernest Butler Music Director at Austin Opera where, in addition to leading performances, he participates in the artistic strategy and development of the Company. He is also the Music Director of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, one of the world’s most prestigious ensembles for early-career classical musicians. A leading voice on the topics of leadership and innovation, Tim has made recent speaking appearances at the SXSW Festival, Harvard Business School, The University of Texas at Austin, and Miami Dade College. Tim is also the host of the Listening on Purpose podcast.

In our conversation, Tim helps us understand the métier of a conductor and the challenges entailed with developing excellence in the craft. It is an art form that creates a sonic world, transporting audiences and musicians alike. Tim reflects on the delicate balance between tradition and innovation in classical music, and the way in which he infuses his work with his own creative vision and commitment to leadership.

As we explore the future of classical music and opera, Tim emphasizes the critical need for support and subsidies to sustain these arts. He advocates for increasing understanding and engagement, particularly among digital natives, highlighting the timeless nature of classical music and its ability to convey the depth of the human condition. He shares how orchestras can teach us valuable leadership lessons, and encourages listeners to discover the beauty in the familiar – the classics echoing in our favorite movies, video games, and yes, even cartoon shows about revenge.

Here are some key takeaways from our episode:

  1. Beauty in classical music can be found not only in its ability to transport us but also in the community aspect of harmonious performance.
  2. Classical music and opera have the power to convey timeless aspects of the human condition.
  3. Classical music can teach us valuable lessons about innovation and leadership.
  4. Increasing understanding and engagement with classical music, especially among digital natives, is necessary to ensure a vibrant future for these art forms.
  5. If you'd like to get better at appreciating classical music, the on-ramp is easy: start with your favorite film scores or video game scores and trace what influenced them.

You can watch or listen to our conversation below. Please take a moment to subscribe and leave a review, since it helps get the word out about our show. An unedited transcript follows. 

Also, if you haven't seen it yet, check out my new workbook which can help you design a more beautiful work life. Commit to finding and cultivating more beauty in your work today.

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Interview Transcript

Brandon: Hey, Tim. Thank you for joining us. It's such a delight to have you on the podcast.

Timothy: Brandon, very glad to be here. And I'm really looking forward to this conversation today.

Brandon: Yeah, this is a long overdue topic. I think it's somewhat regretful that I have not talked about music on this show yet. I think classical music really lends itself well to an exploration of beauty. But to get started, I want to ask you. Could you recall a memory from your early childhood of profound beauty and maybe the beauty of music, something that lingers with you till today, anything that was formative or anything that just comes to your mind and stays with you, and that you would now looking back say that was really an experience of beauty?

Timothy: The first thing that my mind goes to, Brandon, is how do we define beauty, which I know is one of the things that we're here to talk about. So I will just contextualize it myself, if that's okay.

Brandon: Yeah.

Timothy: Two things immediately come to mind. The first is when I was — I don't know exactly how old I was. I guess I could probably go back and figure this out. But I know I was less than five. We were at a family reunion. I grew up in Kansas. Both sides of my family were from Kansas, in Oklahoma. There was some Native American heritage on my mother's side. We were at a family reunion in Oklahoma. And, of course, there are Indian reservations there. I remember us going to a powwow at one. Of course, when you're that small, your memories are contextualized by things like, how long did it take to get there? I remember riding in the back of our station wagon for a long time. It was dark. I remember arriving there, and there were just so many interesting things about that world that were foreign to me. I remember things, like the taxation is different on products like cigarettes on a reservation. Those were traded like currency, right? You would see people doing — then I remember the dancing itself and this giant circle, this large drum in the middle, and these drummers, and people dancing. Some people in full regalia, and some not. But just this incredibly visceral rhythmic thing that involved the entire community and a wide range of people, just observing this coming together and this creation of community around this event, that's very impactful for me in what I count as my first musical memory or artistic memory.

Then if I fast forward a little bit to one of the first times I heard an orchestra live — again, growing up in central Kansas, I was the epitome of what you might consider an underserved young musician. As when it came to classical music, my exposure was through radio and recordings. I remember hearing the Wichita Symphony Orchestra for the first time, which was a couple hours away and the closest professional orchestra, and them playing a piece Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov. This is all based around a tale, a story. And so the concert master, for example, has these long, extended solos that are setting context and that are telling the story. Then the orchestra is providing all of this color and beauty and intimate moments and moments of complete grandeur. I don't remember what else was on that program, but I remember that vividly. I remember even the solos of the concert master and feeling like I just entered this completely different world, a world unknown to me — this world of sonic life, and range, and depth that I had not experienced before. I think that's what really began my obsession with the thing, the organism that is an orchestra.

group of person playing violin
Photo by Samuel Sianipar / Unsplash

Brandon: Wow. These are really fascinating examples. Because in the first case, it seems like you're looking at how the power of music, and perhaps even dance and so on, bind a community together. It's that kind of integrative, transformative power. Then the second one is this sort of almost transportational ability to take you to this other world. Are they different kinds of beauty? Do you see these as related in some way? Are they different kinds of aesthetic principles? What do you see as the heart of what makes these experiences beautiful or where beauty lies in these forms here?

Timothy: The thing that strikes me, Brandon, when I look at those two examples side by side is that they taught me different things both beautiful, and that it's possible to relate to beauty in an experience in a variety of ways. I was thinking about reflecting on this today knowing we were speaking and thinking about that different people find beauty in different elements of an experience. Even the same person might shift as they go through their life or their experience.

For example, the community aspect of the first example I gave is something that is really important to me and is a core tenant of why I do what I do. I believe that live performance is a gift, that it's a miracle. It happens once, and it will never happen again. It requires risk. It requires a commitment not only on the part of the performers but on the audience's side. This wanting of something greater than the sum of the parts to happen, to me, that's something really sacred. When we start looking at things like artificial intelligence and just general automation even, as our lives become more digital, my hope and my bet if I were really a betting person would be that these experiences of community around one of these events become much more sacred and sacrosanct to humanity, as we realize that they are the key to not just our success but our continued existence. And so I look at that first example from that standpoint.

The second one, like you say, this way of being transported to a different world, that, to me, is another element of beauty that you can find yourself in this sound world — whether it's Western music, or Eastern music, or anything — that really transports you somewhere else. Being able to give yourself over to that, to me, is a really beautiful thing and a precious thing. It's something that I'm passionate about in my work, of providing that kind of environment where we have that bond with the audience. We are doing this great thing together and providing each other the opportunity to go a little bit to the beyond.

Brandon: Yeah, it's as though what you're talking about is enchantment, which is in a world in which we have largely I think become disenchanted. This is the sort of predicament of modernity, where all of the magic of maybe a pre-modern world, all of the fantasies and the phantasms, have disappeared, have been rationalized away. I think music, particularly these kinds of live experiences, seem to be one of the moments for enchantment, it seems, for people to be transported, to enter something magical, to experience something really unique and sacred, as you say, right?

Timothy: I completely agree. This is why my pitch to the arts is: let's not market ourselves as entertainment. We can't compete in the entertainment space. All of these streaming platforms are putting billions of dollars a year into content, and they can't even find singularity or distinction most of the time, right?

Brandon: Yeah.

Timothy: And so what I've been reflecting on lately is: what if art, live performance specifically in my case, was the antidote to modern entertainment? We provide you the opportunity to disconnect from connection to the outside world through a device, to be specific, and the ability to come into a room and partake of an experience with other people, by the way, with other people with whom you may or may not have very much in common. But the ability to have this connected experience, to me, if we're talking about beauty, that right there, the magic that happens there, that miracle to me is extraordinary beauty.

Brandon: Wow. Great. Well, talk about your childhood. I mean, were your parents musicians? Did you grow up in a musical environment?

Timothy: My parents were both amateur musicians and loved music. My father studied specifically singing through college, then went a different direction. He had a very beautiful voice, and so I remember hearing him sing a lot. We went to a very, very small church when I was growing up. They didn't have a choir all the time. But at Easter and Christmas, they would do have a choir and do a cantata. He would conduct that. And so I remember that. Then my mother could sit at the piano and read four-part harmony and things like that. I have three siblings. We were all required to study piano, plus another instrument. This was not at all with the idea that we would become professionals in any regard. This was merely for edification and discipline, all of the other things — coachability, work ethic, all of these things that you learn by studying a musical instrument and being accountable for it every week. So it's something for which I'm forever grateful, whether I ended up being a musician or not. We were doing that. I studied piano. Then my second instrument was a whole bunch of other instruments. So I would just get curious about an instrument and sit down with it and go through the method books and get an elementary understanding. I'm not saying I gained any sort of great proficiency in any of these, but a little bit of understanding and satiate my curiosity and then move on. So I did that.

I did not know. Being in the small rather sheltered central Kansas environment where I was — I was also homeschooled — I did not really understand that there was a path to professional music making outside of education. For me, I think that when I was telling you that story about hearing that professional orchestra for the first time, I was about 14 years old. So it wasn't really until even then that I started gathering that people made a living making music that weren't just the music teachers that I knew around town — I mean, my piano teacher, for example — and that that was a thing. And so I figured that out. I had a lot of other diverse interests. And so I was very curious. I took three years off in between high school and college. I worked for a film company. I worked in commercial music. I thought I might become a chef, so I did an apprenticeship and applied to culinary school. So I had all of these diverse interests that it turns out collide at some point along the way.

Then I really decided that what I wanted to do was to be making music. I'm not sure that I was entirely sure why. But other than it was something special for me, that felt really important. That began my journey into a profession as a musician. I was a serious pianist and was pursuing that. A couple of things happened. Number one, I sustained an injury to my arm. That really made it clear that, physically, I would not ever be able to manifest a career as a professional pianist. What happened at the same time, around the same time, is I started learning that I disliked spending many, many hours a day by myself in a room with a largely inanimate object. That's not to talk shade about the piano. But I started realizing that I wanted to make music with other people, and that my greatest satisfaction in music making was when I was accompanying a singer or an instrumentalist, or playing in a chamber music group that I started, or playing in the jazz band, or this kind. I loved that kind of music making and the collaborative part. The collaborative part of that was what brought it to life for me. Then that naturally led towards the conducting route. Just out of curiosity at first, and then that curiosity turned into an obsession.

music sheet on music sheet
Photo by Lucas Alexander / Unsplash

Brandon: Wow. What does it look like practically? How do you go from being a musician who was working on piano to then becoming a conductor? I mean, is it credentialing? How do you actually get the experience to go in that direction?

Timothy: Credentialing can be part of it. I myself do not have a conducting degree. But those do exist and, of course, can be very important for the journey for some. For me, it was about becoming the best musician possible. Once I decided I was interested in conducting — again, I'm at an undergrad institution in rural Kansas — I just phoned up every professional conductor within 250 miles. One of them answered the phone. His name was Joel Levine. He, at that time, was the music director of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. He said, "Okay. Yeah, I will mentor you. So here's what we're going to do. You're going to come down when we're rehearsing for concerts. I'm going to put a chair in the middle of the orchestra. You'll show up early, and we'll talk about scores. You'll experience rehearsing them with the orchestra." That was a really formative time for me because I saw what happened inside of a professional orchestra or an orchestra at all. Because when piano was your primary instrument, you don't spend all of your youth sitting in ensemble rehearsals.

Also, he really taught me what conducting was. I remember very clearly our first meeting. He said a couple of things. Two of them in particular stuck with me. One, he said people tend to think they see a conductor like a lawyer, specifically like one in a movie, in a courtroom, who's making some passionate argument and then objecting and that has this incredible rebuttal to something. That's how we see conductors, right? Because we see them in action. We see them on the podium and living the music. It can be very dramatic. But he said: a conductor, like a lawyer, spends at least 90% of their time studying. And like a lawyer, learning precedent and the modern application of that precedent. These things apply for me in historical practice, in style throughout the centuries. And so these are very similar things. He really imprinted that on me right away. Because he wanted me to have a clear understanding of what the actual job of a conductor is and what's required to take it on. And so that was a life-changing experience for me. He and I are still in touch. He's retired now, but I still sometimes reach out to him with questions. What should I do about this? Do you have any thoughts about this? This is 25 years later.

Brandon: Wow.

Timothy: That was my access into learning about conducting. Then I just was determined to be as great of a musician as I could be. Because I could see that knowing how to move your hands was not very much. Having a great conducting technique, meaning knowing the gestural vocabulary, was not really enough if you didn't have something to say either in the head or the heart musically. That was the most important thing that needs to come through in order to be an effective music maker.

For me, it wasn't as much as credentialed as I just followed a path of extraordinary curiosity, where I didn't take no for an answer. I was just determined to do it. At that same first meeting, Joel Levine said to me, "Look. If you pick up a baton right now, I will tell you whether or not you're going to be a conductor. Meaning that, if you look natural with the baton, the stick that we hold, in your hand, I'll tell you whether or not you're going to be a conductor." My reply was, I appreciate that. But it doesn't really matter what you would say because I would do it anyway. I said it completely respectfully and probably a little naively. But I say that just to illustrate. I was just following something about which I was very curious and could not get enough knowledge and experience with.

Brandon: How would you describe that? What is at the heart of it? Because if someone is playing a piano, and they're trying to maybe express themselves or convey a certain emotion through it or express fidelity to a certain piece, what is it that you would characterize as the heart of, say, the aesthetic principle behind what a conductor is doing? What was it that you were yearning to make happen there?

Timothy: That's a good question. In the beginning, I'm not sure that I exactly knew. If I'm being completely authentic about it, I think in the beginning, it was the pursuit of this craft and of doing it. Then you learn how your gestures impact the ensemble. Then it's not until later, for me, anyway, that I started thinking about the finer points of sound. And what am I trying to evoke from the ensemble? Because in the beginning, you're just getting your feet wet. One of the big differences about becoming highly proficient or even virtuosic on an instrument like the piano, or the violin, or whatever, is that those things are available to you for practice. Newsflash: there are not orchestras sitting around waiting for young conductors to practice on them. And so when you're a young conductor, you have to improve exponentially every time you're on the podium. Because that's how you win more opportunity. And so, for me in the beginning, it's just craft in there, in the mix, learning as you go every second, taking in what's happening. What do I want to happen? Are my gestures reflecting what I want to happen? What's the sound reflecting back to me, et cetera? Then I think as I matured into the career, then you start to think more specifically about, how do I create a very specific sonic world? That's something that now I've spent a lot of time thinking about, most of the time thinking about.

For example, at the Spoleto Festival this season, I'm conducting Mahler's Fifth Symphony, which is a gigantic work for a huge orchestra. It's 70 some minutes long, and really has the entire range of human emotion that you can imagine. When I'm studying it, a lot of the questions I'm asking of myself and of the score, in trying to figure out and get inside Mahler's head, is that soundscape. How do I create this feeling? How can I craft the sound of the orchestra here to evoke something specific or to communicate something specific? Because in a piece like that — well, in really any piece, there are a wealth of details to mine and to point in certain directions that can help create something, a whole idea that the audience can, I want to say, they can get inside of and live inside of it with you as a performer. Now it's something I spend a lot of time obsessing about, even how the string parts are bowed, and how the different instrumental techniques that we're talking about that are part of the toolbox that a conductor has to craft a certain sound.

Brandon: Do you have any, I guess, examples of maybe things that have changed in what you consider beautiful in your craft? Maybe there was something when you were starting out that you looked up to or someone you looked up to, a conductor or a technique, that has changed over time? Does anything like that strike you?

Timothy: I don't know that my conception of beauty has changed as much as my depth of appreciation for it and the way that I appreciate it. For example, I love listening to Bach, especially if I'm in a period of my life where I'm doing a lot of big repertoires. For example, Mahler, Strauss, or Wagner that a lot of times coming back and just listening to Bach even played by a single instrument. There's a real clarifying beauty to it that re-centers the spirit in a way that nothing else does for me. I think that's the first part of it for me.

Moving on from there, certainly, as I've developed and matured as a musician, my conception of how I want to create beauty in a way has shifted, as has my ability to do that because I've gotten better at the job. And so that pursuit, now I know more levers to pull to create a certain sound with an orchestra or to create a certain homogeny in an opera between the action that's happening on stage and what's happening in the orchestra pit and bringing all of those things together so that we're actually telling the same story. I think, for me, I tend to look at it more just very practically. What am I trying to communicate? What do we want the audience to feel, and how do we get there while honoring the composer's intention as best we know?

Brandon: That's an interesting thing. I wonder if you could comment on perhaps maybe a tension between something like tradition and innovation. Because if you're talking about Bach, there's an entire, I wouldn't say industry. But I mean, there's a history of conductors throughout the centuries who have been trying to convey a particular piece as it was intended. Then there's innovation, which is you bringing your own original, creative vision. It seems to me there is some kind of tension there. But you have to, I suppose, put yourself into it in a way that is original. I wonder if you could speak about how you do that. What happens there?

Timothy: I love this question because it's one of the favorite elements of what I do. It's this fusion between history and modernity. As you mentioned, I have many colleagues who specialize in doing what we might refer to as historically informed performance (HIP). This goes deep. Even, for example, a violin. Let's take that. It's very, very different than it was during Bach's time. The construction itself is much the same, but the strings that we use are steel instead of gut. The bow is of different size and weighted differently. There are all of these different elements that depending on how deep you want to go into the historically informed side of things, you can go deep. Then they're talking about, well is there vibrato or not vibrato? This expressive device that you hear when people sing, for example. This is the oscillation of the voice. Vibrato has been used very differently throughout musical history. And so that's a big consideration. And so I have colleagues who do that very, very beautifully. They have this incredible understanding of the history, and they're able to largely recreate that in the modern day.

I really admire what they do, but that is not my take on it. If I look at, for example, a Beethoven symphony, just as instruments have developed over the past few 100 years, so has the ability of those playing them. And so what would have been considered virtuosity in the middle of the 19th century would be considered often standard fare for a graduate student now, especially an advanced graduate student. As that has evolved, we have to also realize that in Beethoven's time, there were many of his pieces, especially his symphonies, that he never heard performed by an orchestra of any talent level that we're used to hearing today. Right? He really never heard these things realize, I mean, before he went up or even in a way that would be today.

And so my thought about it is, if Beethoven woke up today and it was said, well, we can give you back the Ford Pinto that you were driving for all of your life, or we've got the keys of this new Ferrari, which would he choose? I'm pretty sure he would choose the Ferrari. And so, for me, that is cheeky as that analogy sounds. How I apply that is saying, okay, I want to understand exactly what was in Beethoven's head. I want to understand the resources with which he was working. I want to understand the political, sociological, economic environment in which he was living and then specifically writing this piece so that I can understand the entire history surrounding it. Then I want to take the tools that I have at my disposal, which is a modern orchestra who plays modern instruments very virtuosically. I want to marry these things, these two things together, the best I know how Tim Myers in 2024. I see that as my chief responsibility when it comes to style. The sonic world that we're talking about is, how do I have utter reverence for the fact that Beethoven was a complete revolutionary, that he shifted the direction of Western classical music almost single handedly than what I have at my disposal now? How do I bring these things together to provide the most satisfyingly explosive performance possible?

Brandon: How do you gauge your impact or success? Because the feedback seems to be — in many ways, it seems like what you're trying to do is, if you're trying to create a soundscape, in part, it is how it's impacting an audience. How do you assess that? It's one thing to see a musician performing whether they're doing what they're supposed to do or not. But it seems like what you're doing is so — it's this sort of gestalt, which I'm just curious to know. How are you sensing it? How are you able to judge whether that's working or not?

orchestra playing their piece
Photo by Manuel Nägeli / Unsplash

Timothy: It can be difficult, especially depending on the project. I do conduct a lot of operas. This is a very different thing from conducting a symphonic concert, where this orchestra is sitting on stage, all looking at you, hopefully, at some point, and that's all you have to focus on. When I'm conducting an opera, I'm in an orchestra pit. There's a large orchestra. That sound is right in my face and pretty loud. The singers are sometimes very far away from me on different levels. Then there's a chorus. They're all wearing costumes and looking into bright lights and singing in the language that's probably not their own. And so you introduce all of these other elements, and so it ranges.

To answer your question is that understanding whether something is effective or not requires other people helping me, especially in opera. I have music staff in the house. Does this balance? Do we hear this? Do we not hear? Are they helping shape the final product? Because I can't be entirely sure what I'm hearing. In a symphonic concert, it's a little more straightforward. But you still have to have help, other sets of ears. I would say that when it comes down to the performance time, being able to let go and sense the energy that's in the room is an incredibly important part of being a successful performer. Because not every performance is going to be the same. But knowing the experience that you're committed to providing to the audience is the starting point. Then sensing along the way — the tricky thing for me is, I have my back to the audience. And so, for me, there's a physical sensation that might be at the base of my spine, or at the base of my skull, or something that I'm feeling and asking myself, what's the energy like there? Are they with us? Maybe. A little bit. Not quite. Do we still have work to do? This may manifest itself in various little things. I may push a tempo a little bit faster to energize the music, just a little bit more if I feel like the audience needs a little push in getting on board. Conversely, if you are in a moment and you know you've got the audience in the palm of your hand, that might provide more breadth in the performance, where it opens up just a little bit and everybody has room to sort of experience it a little more broadly and languish in it a little bit.

For me, in a live performance, I'm trying to always have this gauge going, of what's the energy in the room and how can I impact it? That was something that was taught to me when I was a young conductor. I did an audition. The audition went really well. But it was one of my first auditions, and so I was pretty green. I'd been well-coached going into it. But the music director pulled me aside after and had a little feedback from me. He said, "Tim, never forget that when you are on the podium, you are responsible for the energy of the entire room. That's your responsibility." I've always remembered that. And so in a performance, I'm taking that on for the orchestra and all the other performers and the audience. Because that's, I believe, my sacred responsibility. It's to create something greater than the sum of the parts that creates an unforgettable experience for everybody in the room.

Brandon: Wow. I don't know if you would use this word. In some of the arts, people talk about having a signature style, a unique, creative vision, or a way of bringing about this impact that is kind of unique. Are there any words you might put to that? What is that for you? What is Tim Myers' way of doing this, or what is your particular creative vision, if such a thing is apt to describe what you're trying to do?

Timothy: To me, and it took me a long time to learn this, I am most successful as a leader when my focus is on empowering other people to do their best work. Specifically, to do work that's better than what they thought they could do. And when I'm able to do that, that's when real magic starts to happen. And so I don't think so much about a signature style of sound or performance. I mean, look. I wear Air Jordans when I conduct a lot. But other than that, I don't have any sort of gimmick or anything.

To me, I look at it from a leadership standpoint of, I have this honor and this responsibility of leading this process. How can I inspire my colleagues? How can I create the environment in which they do their life's best work? I find that if I stay focused on that, that guides everything. That guides my preparation. That guides the way that I hear and engage with a question that comes my way. That contextualizes the way that I engage when someone makes a mistake. Because that's a thing of beauty. That's a thing of process. I often tell orchestras I'm working with, like push, push. Use so much bow that you feel like you're going to run out, right? I mean, I would rather get have a loud mistake than reticent playing. Just go, go, go, go. Especially, for example, in Austin, where I'm music director. I've pledged to them. I have your back. If you make a mistake because you were out there on the court playing hard and going for it, I've got your back all the way. I promise you. That's my pledge. And so, for me, when I think about a signature style, it's, how do I want to lead people? How do I want to leave people at the end? That's one of the things that I'm really committed to and focused on as an artist.

Brandon: Wow. That is really fascinating. I noticed you went to Harvard Business School. I'm curious to know what led you there, and how that has shaped your craft and the work you do.

Timothy: I did go to Harvard Business School. Well, I'll back up a little bit as to how I got there. It was during the pandemic when, of course, public performance is halted because they were illegal to do. We were all sheltering, and we were all taking care of ourselves. I started thinking. Okay. First of all, I'm not very good at sitting around. Secondly, I started thinking, how do I work on building a sustainable model for the arts and for artists, and really bringing in more of a focus on innovation? Like you were talking about earlier, how do you fuse these things between the history of this opera as a 400 plus year old art form? By the way, it has always been pretty innovative. But how do you marry that with modernity?

And so I really was able to see that I needed to expand my leadership abilities and also my knowledge, in a way. And so I had a friend who had done this program at Harvard Business School called the Program for Leadership Development which is HBS' version of an executive MBA. So I applied to that program. I was accepted, and I started. It's some virtual, and some in-person. It's a hybrid program. It was really a life-changing experience for me. Because not only was I able to develop as a leader, but I was able to broaden my knowledge about a lot of different things.

Surprising to me is that a lot of these things that I felt with which I didn't really connect, because they were out of my sphere of knowledge. For example, finance. When I started taking the finance classes, Brandon, I was swimming. I was not swimming; I was drowning entirely, barely alive. Because I'm proficient in a number of languages, and finance is not one of them. But once I learned that and then I started learning really about the details about global economics and understanding how to look at the world, all of these things — doing these case studies about different kinds of innovation and how they've happened, and corporate ethics — all of these things really started shifting the way I worked as an artist, and the way that I related to the world, and the way that I thought about making music, and interacting with people, and leading. It was a really life-changing experience for me in a number of ways. I graduated 13 months ago, and it's something that I still use every day.

Brandon: Wow. On that business front, I'm really curious to hear your thoughts on just the industry more broadly, and state, and maybe even future of classical music and opera. Was that field impacted badly by the pandemic? You've mentioned the distinction between entertainment and the kind of experience that you were trying to create. There is a lot of talk about just this crisis of the arts more generally, but certainly the classical arts. I'm curious to hear, what do you see happening, particularly in worlds like opera and classical music? Where is it going?

Timothy: Now is a very critical time for the fine arts, especially classical music opera, chamber music, these genres. It's important to understand that these things were always subsidized, whether that was by government — which is a lot of the tradition in Europe still to this day — or by wealthy individuals. Let's not forget that a lot of composers, Western European composers, we know today were employed by royalty or were commissioned for works by royalty, et cetera. And so this is something that was always seen by society as necessary and as one of the strands that creates a strong societal fabric.

Unfortunately, that understanding has waned. That presents a great challenge. I'm not speaking out of school here. There are many of my colleagues who have spoken very broadly about this. Peter Gelb, the General Manager in the Metropolitan Opera, in an interview recently saying, unfortunately, a lot of the new billionaires don't care about classical music and the arts, which is unfortunate. And so I think there are a couple elements at play here. We have to work very, very hard to do whatever we can to increase that understanding and, therefore, that support by telling the story of how do arts organizations, why do we exist? What do we bring? Even if you're not attending, what does it bring to your community even if it's not your thing? Then telling the story of how we do bring those things.

Then some of the onus is on us in the industry. I believe that for a long time, there was a build-it-and-they-will-come idea, which I think is total baloney. Especially, now that we really have to make sure that we are engaging with consumers where they are, which means that anybody in the audience under 30 — which is certainly also our next donor class — are digital natives, and treating them as such, communicating with them as such. Understanding how this moves into the future and how we're innovating in the way that we do the art, and the way that we communicate it with other people, and the way that we advertise it and bring people in and engage them, and that there's a lot of work inside of the arts. There are some exciting things going on in this regard. I could go on and on about some of the initiatives that we have in Austin and in Spoleto to do this. But this is critical work. It has to happen now. It's existentially necessary. It is starting to happen. We need to all encourage that to grow so that we ensure a vibrant future for these art forms.

I'll tell you. One of the main reasons that I believe it to be necessary is, I remember coming out of COVID, the first thing I ever conducted in a theater — everyone still masks and everything — that felt somewhat normal was Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. This is what we would call like an upstairs-downstairs story or like Downton Abbey kind of thing. It's about classicism. Mozart was giving a big middle finger to the upper class, because they thought he was writing this for them. He was writing a news for them. But the bottom line is, what ends up happening in the opera is that he sort of thinly disguises that the upper-class people are kind of idiots with the wrong priorities, and that the servants are the one who win the day. I remember at that time having the world gone through what it had gone through and was still continuing to go through and looking at it through the lens of this opera that was 200 some years old and saying, you know what? This is why art is important. Because the human condition never changes.

Everything else around us, Brandon, is targeted to make you believe that your condition changes, right? Self-optimization, doing this. Dry January, blah, blah. I mean, I'm doing Dry January. But you know what I'm saying? We're all of these things, and we're constantly marketed all of these things. This will make your life better. This will make you better. It'll make you thinner and your skin better looking, and all of this stuff. All of marketing is meant to make you discontent with what you have. I think art allows us to step back and say we never really change. Our primal desires are the same. There will always be tribalism. There will always be love. There will always be loss. All of these things, these are human emotions and experiences that remain the same over the centuries, and we should keep that in mind.

people playing violin inside dim room
Photo by Larisa Birta / Unsplash

Brandon: What role do you see beauty playing then in conveying that, in conveying that perennial value of art, particularly of what classical music has to teach us?

Timothy: Well, I think that classical music has a lot of different things to teach us. That can be, I have a particular passion for talking about leadership in this scope. I'm going into companies and talking to CEOs and groups of management and saying, you want to look at a really good team and how they work? Go sit inside of an orchestra. What we do largely is non-verbal. There's a high level of performance. It involves immense amounts of risk. So that's one element where I think I'm really passionate about the vibrancy of what we do.

Then there's just the other element of, don't you want to come to a performance and be able to put it all aside and experience something beautiful when there's an incredibly gorgeous passage, and the orchestra is just playing their hearts out? The singers are singing their hearts out. It's the sound that's being made for you, and it will be gone. No one else will experience it. You and the other people in the room get that privilege. To me, there's an incredible beauty in whatever it is, whatever time period or genre or kind of repertoire it is. For me, the greatest beauty lies in being able to do that together and the privilege that that is. Letting what we might consider to be oh, that's a really beautiful part, or, oh, wow, that was really barbaric feeling music. But letting those things marry together into creating this experience of ultimate beauty that is the human experience.

Brandon: Yeah, amazing. Do you think that it requires — There are some people who argue that really being able to appreciate beauty requires education. That it's not just something that comes instinctively to us and given, again, the over emphasis on areas of study that are much more instrumental, whether it's STEM field or something that will make money. This idea that if you don't know how to appreciate art, music, and so on, will that be something you value? Will that be something our society will then stop valuing?

Timothy: Education is certainly a part of it. That helps. I don't think it's an incredibly limiting factor, though. The one that we would believe. I think there are some myths about the arts. Number one, it's expensive. Okay. I'll tell you the two most expensive tickets I've ever bought: Beyonce and Hamilton. Okay? Both are far more than an excellent seat or three times more than the most expensive seat at Austin opera. I think there's that myth. Then the second one, being that if you don't know anything about it, you will not be able to have a full experience. That's really not true. Because what we're doing is telling stories. This is an ultimate part of human connection over the centuries. This is how we gain understanding. This is how we learn about each other in different cultures. Storytelling is a basic human essential. That's what's happening in these performances.

Now, can we do a better job of creating an environment where newcomers feel more accepted? Sure. 100%. Where they feel like they can lean into it a little more? Absolutely. A lot of work we do is focused on that. But I do think that that's another myth that if someone can go to a Lord of the Rings movie that's three and a half hours long and not read the book or read a synopsis and still enjoy it, I don't know why in the world you would think that they couldn't come to a two- or two-and-a-half-hour opera and not have the same experience. So I tend to push back against that kind of thing. If someone says, well, I don't like opera, well, which opera do you not like? Because I think there's something — and please, Brandon, I'm not saying it's for everyone. I'm not saying everyone will come and then say, "Oh, my God. This is the missing piece of my life." That's not what I'm saying. But I am saying there's an experience to be had there that is a very, very special one. I promise.

Brandon: That's fantastic. That's great, yeah. It struck me when I started going to operas. My wife is trained and is an opera singer. When I first started going, which was after my undergrad, it struck me how similar several operas were to Bollywood plot lines. That's what I've grown up with. Because it has drama and comedy, all these different genres fused together. You have really this sort of, as you say, the storylines which are all reflecting something profoundly universal about the human condition. That's what makes these pieces, I think, really evergreen. Tim, what else comes to your mind about beauty that we should chat about, that we haven't brought up yet?

Timothy: I'm inspired by our conversation and by the work that you're doing, because it helps me remember that this is something to look for and to be conscious about looking for it. As I was thinking earlier today about our conversation coming up, I thought, boy, where are times that I am overlooking seeing beauty in a very simple thing? Because, of course, for me, as an artist, it's easy to look at something grand and say, wow, that's very beautiful. But then, I also think about my interactions with my four-year-old and six-year-old and the incredible, completely authentic beauty that can reside in that very uncolored, pure relationship. So my parting thought about beauty is that we all spend a little more time not just being open to seeing it but looking for it.

Brandon: That's very important, yeah. Thank you. Could you offer any tips for our listeners and viewers who may not be very familiar with classical music or might say it's not my thing? Any sort of suggestions for where to start? If that's something they want to try to cultivate their ability to look for beauty there, what might you recommend?

Timothy: Start with the music from your favorite television show or movie. Because all of these composers, well, almost all of them, were trained in a western classical tradition. For example, John Williams is an incredible — this is going to sound — I was going to say an incredible thief. But they say steal from the best, right? If you look at the Star Wars soundtrack, okay. Then go and listen to Gustav Holst's The Planets, and you'll see where John was inspired to write that Star Wars soundtrack. I think you can go through this. Then the thing that a lot of people don't realize is that the underpinning of a lot of movie scores is actual classical music and opera, even television commercials. So I would say go if you have something else, or a video game score, or the score to something like Harry Potter. What a great music. Get into that, and then you can follow that. What inspired that composer? What's that composer's lineage? From whom did they learn? I think what you'll be surprised to find is, there are very few points of separation between that and the classical tradition.

And so I would say start with the most familiar, with what you love. Or, if you hear a piece of music, a piece of choral music that just is enchanting, just follow it down the rabbit hole a little bit and see where it takes you. I think most people are surprised that they don't have to go very far to say, "Oh, I actually relate to this a lot more than I thought. There's something here that I really love."

Brandon: Awesome. Great. Tim, where can we direct our viewers and listeners to your work to learn more about what you're doing? Anything that you're promoting these days?

Timothy: Yeah, so my website is a great place to visit. There's a whole lot of stuff about all of the different kinds of work that I'm doing. That's timothymyers.com. I spend a good amount of time chronicling my work on Instagram. So that's @motmyers. Mo is the shorthand for 'maestro.' So @motmyers on Instagram and, of course, on other social media platforms. I can always be reached by email, and that's mail@timothymyers.com.

Upcoming things. I'm heading to Austin now. We are doing a mariachi opera coming up, which is very fascinating. Talk about a wonderful marriage of two great styles, genres. Then also, looking forward to a full season at the Spoleto Festival coming up this spring. So lots of wonderful music making to look forward to. I hope that any of your listeners who want to be in touch will do that, and come to a performance. I give you my word. You will be enchanted.

Brandon: Amazing. Thank you, Tim. This has been really delightful.

Timothy: Thanks so much, Brandon. Thanks for the work you're doing.

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