Renowned musician and violinist Kalena Bovell represents a small percentage African American female symphony conductors. She believes her persistence and humility along with receiving exceptional mentoring from some of the industry’s best conductors have been the keys to her success in her line of work. Bovell currently serves as the assistant conductor for the prestigious Chicago Sinfonietta, a professional orchestra dedicated to modeling and promoting diversity through symphonic music. The 29-year-old organization is gearing up for its annual MLK tribute concert billed for Jan. 14-16. Bovell spoke with rolling out to discuss her involvement with the show, her musical upbringing and the importance of music education in the school system.
When did you discover you had an interest in music?
Probably before I could even pronounce the word. I think I was like 6 or 7, which probably sounds bad because I was in the first grade. I was in the car with my mom and I liked the music that was on the radio, but for some reason, that word would not come out.
How did you train growing up?
I actually have a different story compared to most people. I honestly didn’t think I was going to be a musician or a conductor. Both of my parents are from Central America so they came to this country trying to achieve the American dream, which was an education, food on the table and clothes on our backs. Music never really fit into that equation. It was by chance in middle school that I just started playing the violin and I fell in love with it. I thought I would end up being a violin player, but had a lack of financial resources and music education awareness. I didn’t know about private lessons and I didn’t take my first lesson until I was 18. Imagine getting to college thinking you’re really good and then you hear the people around you that have had training since they were four and realize you’re actually not that good. Sophomore year of undergrad, I was removed from orchestra because the director felt I wasn’t good enough. I told him, “I am not my colleagues; I am me.” It was by chance that I started conducting. I was fortunate to attend a music conducting class and workshop and work with someone who was a really big influence. He basically pulled me aside one day and said, “You could be really good if you just believed.” At that point, I started believing and that’s when my life started to change and really started pursuing conducting.
Who are your favorite artists to listen to?
I love [Johannes] Brahms. He is my composer. If I could conduct Brahms 24/7 all day and every day I would be happy. I also gain inspiration from non-classical music. If you ride in my car, I listen to heavy metal and alternative which sounds so weird, but I’m a poet so words are really important to me. Listening to these other genres influences how I hear classical music.
What is your proficiency?
I would say I’m proficient in classical music. Music is constantly changing and how we as people listen to music is constantly changing.
I would also like to say that I’m open-minded and versatile enough to at least conduct or be aware that all these genres do exist. I think it’s really important to know our history, like the Bach and the Beethoven, but also know the Jennifer Higdon and the composer that might live above you in your apartment complex.
How do your training and experience inform your craft to serve as a conductor?
I was a music education major in undergrad. I basically went to the conducting teacher and asked to take lessons. He thought I wanted to get another degree, but I just wanted to take conducting lessons. I went to all of the conducting classes and did more work than his actual conducting students. I sat in every rehearsal and this was during the period where I worked six different jobs to save up money to attend the different workshops. After undergrad, I went to community college so I could strengthen my skills to really prepare myself for graduate school. I studied really hard and I was able to get into The Hartt School, which led me to Connecticut. I met a great teacher who was someone I considered to be a father figure. That is really how my training started with conducting. It started with having the mindset knowing this is what I wanted to do plus I have such a persistent personality that I wasn’t going to stop until I made it happen.
How important is music and art education?
I think they are incredibly important and for someone like me who never thought that these opportunities would be possible they were because I had a music education program in middle school. It was possible because everyone had to take orchestra or choir. I began singing back in elementary school. It’s such a disadvantage because music has saved a lot of children because sometimes children are hyperactive and they don’t know what to do with all that energy. When you get them involved in music and the arts it gives them something to focus on and they realize it’s something that they’re good at.
What is a Freeman Fellow?
Chicago Sinfonietta has a program of inclusion with instrumentalists and then the Freeman Conducting Fellow is basically within that same program. You are getting a taste of the real world and are learning the things that they don’t teach you in grad school. You’re learning how to work with an organization, how to work with donors, how to work with a board, and how to compose yourself on and off the podium. If you have hopes to become a music director you’re getting that training as a conducting fellow. We also get to shadow very closely and work with the Sinfonietta team.
Please explain how significant it is to be a Sinfonietta assistant conductor for Chicago Sinfonietta’s annual MLK concert.
The best way I could describe it is to talk about how significant it was for me. Last year, was the first time I had seen the MLK concert and I remember walking out of the auditorium completely changed. It was a life-altering experience because when I thought about Martin Luther King’s dream and how far we have come as a nation. To see so many people in this space come together and celebrate life and the joy of music was beautiful.
How does the Chicago Sinfonietta give back to the community?
They have an education program where they take music into the elementary and middle schools as well as the high schools. They teach private lessons and group classes. I think it’s amazing because as you mentioned earlier music education is being removed from the classes, but then you have Chicago Sinfonietta trying to put it back into the classroom. The lessons are free once a week for the duration of them being in school. They get to work with top-notch musicians that love what they do. Chicago Sinfonietta is all about working with young people. They are actually collaborating with the Merritt School for this concert. I think it’s amazing!
If you weren’t in this role, what would you be doing?
That’s not actually as hard of a decision that I thought it would be. I would totally be in psychology. It’s so random, but when I was going to my first community college I took a psychology class and it was the most interesting class I had ever taken. I would actually read the textbook for fun because I thought it was so cool. Even as a musician and conductor there is a bit of psychology to it because you have to know how to speak to people and read body language. I think about Dorothy DeLay who’s a renowned violin pedagogy. I believe she also had a psychology degree and she was the greatest teacher ever because she just knew what her students needed and when they needed it. She also knew when to back off.
If there was one thing in the world you could change, what would it be?
If there was one thing it would be child hunger. I love children and I love working with children. I currently work at a high school and it always breaks my heart because there are so many kids that go without food and water because the families just don’t have the resources. There is something so special about a child because you see the potential of what they could be. It’s so devastating that so many young lives are lost because they have no food to eat.