ASHLAND — Ashland High School senior Kayla Selan was at a Rodney Marsalis concert in December with the school’s band and directors when she became captivated by the conductor.
She watched as he led the group of musicians to make the song come together perfectly, and as they walked out, she told Director of Bands, Marty Kral, it was what she wanted to do.
Kral immediately knew to connect her with Martha Buckner, Executive Director of the Ashland Symphony Orchestra, so the two programs could collaborate in guiding Selan on such a unique path.
When Kral approached Buckner about Selan’s interest, he was initially just hoping its new conductor, Michael Repper, would talk with her about conducting and how to move from being in an ensemble to leading the ensemble. Buckner wasn’t surprised, though, when Repper was excited to do more than just have a conversation.
“We know that most conductors get that spark because somebody gave them a baton and said ‘Here, try this,’” Buckner said.
It was certainly the case for Repper.
When he was 8 years old, he was at a children’s concert and was called up on stage to conduct.
He said he had no idea what he was doing, but it was a magical experience. Later he began looking into conducting as a career.
“I went to somebody and said I was interested, and I had people who said ‘yes’ and went out of their way to help me follow that trajectory and that dream. I wouldn’t be doing what I am without them. And I want to pay that energy forward,” he explained.
Repper suggested giving Selan conducting lessons, and even offered to let her conduct the symphony in its Family Concert last March.
The opportunity became even more incredible when on Feb. 3, Repper, who is also the conductor for the New York Youth Symphony, received the Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance. He is the youngest American conductor to win the award, and it marks the first time a youth orchestra was represented.
“That he won a Grammy for work with a youth orchestra says something about his desire to bridge young people and music,” Kral said.
Repper considers himself “blessed” to work with young people and with adult musicians, and says he takes great pride when they are proud of themselves. Conductors, he says, utilize some of the same skill sets that a teacher would.
“We want to figure out how we can unlock the pride in themselves and how they can grow as people.”
Selan, who plays euphonium and trombone and serves as the field commander for the AHS marching band, said she was shocked at the opportunity to lead an ensemble like the ASO and to learn from a musician like Repper.
The two met for lunch so he could learn more about her and her interest in conducting, and to get ready for her podium debut she observed him as the symphony rehearsed, and when he worked with the AHS band before their March concert.
Selan said she was very nervous when she walked onto the stage at the performance in Archer Auditorium.
“My heart was beating out of my chest,” she said. “Then when I stepped onto the podium, I was able to focus on just being there to conduct and I didn’t think about anything else.”
When the piece ended, Selan said she was relieved it was over, but very proud. She said she thought to herself, “I just did that! I just conducted a symphony orchestra at 17!”
Providing students with out-of-the-classroom opportunities like the one Selan had are a big part of why the Ashland Visual and Performing Arts program was developed.
Kral says the vision of the AVPA is to create lifelong artists.
“Through events like the Fine Arts Career Fair and the Fine Arts Signing Day, we want to show students that the arts can be more than just a fun high school thing,” Kral said.
AVPA staff works with local and even national artists to give students knowledge and experiences that sometimes can’t be captured in a normal classroom setting.
Buckner agreed that relationships between the AVPA and the ASO can also play a part in encouraging students to be lifelong artists.
“ASO musicians are passionate about music education. When they agree to our school day and family concerts they are genuinely excited to do it. It’s not drudgery. They come and want to perform for the kids and that translates into how they play and what they produce,” Buckner said.
“As funding takes a hit, it’s hard to keep music programs going strong, and these relationships are important. We won’t have an orchestra in the future if we don’t support young musicians.”
Kral said Repper’s attitude with his students made it obvious that he has the same mindset.
“This is his (Repper’s) first year with ASO and he has brought new excitement and intentionality to collaborating with the school. New leadership may not always work well, but he is very interested in growing what’s been established.”
They are all especially excited about the Fan Club that was started by Buckner to engage more with younger people in the area.
“I believe community orchestras should be working for the community,” Repper said. “They have to earn the right to be called part of the community. They should be actually supporting young people.”
Repper believes developing the next generation is even more important than any performance, a lesson he learned from a student of his when teaching a conducting class for young people in Venezuela.
“At the end a young kid brought me a pack of batons that his dad made out of a tree in their yard, and I was inspired. I think of him every time I hold that baton because what he taught me in that moment was that that kind of work is the most important work any professional musician can do.”
Selan will continue to work with Repper and the ASO and hopes to conduct again in future concerts. She is talking with Kral and Repper about the right path for her beyond high school.
“I feel very lucky,” she said. “It’s showing me that music is about making connections, being in the right place and the right time. And stepping out there even if you’re nervous.”