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Conductor Amy Gillingham

Dr. Amy Gillingham, Director of Orchestras at Northern Kentucky University, says that an orchestra showcases a diverse collection of instruments, and that’s one of its strengths.

“I think that any time you can have diversity of any kind, whether that’s diversity of people or diversity of instruments, I think you have set the stage for something really interesting to happen,” says Gillingham.

As one of the few female orchestra conductors in the country, Gillingham herself represents a step toward diversity in what can often be seen as a stodgy profession.

“A stereotype for a conductor, especially a conductor of an orchestra, is a male conductor in a tuxedo and tails,” says Gillingham. “It is a little bit of a harder path right now for a female conductor. I think it’s that much more important that I take it very seriously to be in that role.”

Gillingham’s students at NKU grow as musicians under her direction.

“As a musician and artist, whenever you work with her in any capacity, she will influence you to erase the word ‘impossible’ from your vocabulary,” NKU cellist Gita Srinivasan says of her professor.

“I think Dr. Gillingham was a really crucial part of my development as a musician,” says Corey Watzek, bassist with the NKU Orchestra. “Before she became conductor, I didn’t really believe in myself. Her ability to believe in everyone and push us hard, it kind of made me realize how hard I really had to work to be successful.”

Gillingham comes into her role with a lifetime of music experience. As the daughter of a composer and a pianist, music was part of her life growing up. She started playing the piano at age five, and continually added other instruments to her skillset, including the oboe and trumpet, before picking up the cello, which remained her primary instrument.

“My first experience as a conductor was in marching band,” says Gillingham. “The older I got, the more I realized that it was such a strong calling and passion in my life, and so I ended up pursuing that.”

Gillingham explains that while each musician in an orchestra is playing their instrument, the conductor’s role is to essentially play the entire orchestra.

“As a conductor, I have these big scores, and I need to learn everybody’s notes,” she explains. “I’m constantly zig-zagging through the written musical score, and then zig-zagging with my eyes. As I’m making eye contact with people, I’m making contact with my ears, too.”

The result of Gillingham and her students’ musicianship is a performance that engages its audience.

“What I want the audience to have is really an emotional experience,” says Gillingham. “To feel connection with the music. To experience that sense of flow where you almost have timelessness. I want them to wish there was more. I want them to come back.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life season 25, episode 9, which originally aired on January 11, 2020. Watch the full episode.