By Debbie Laferty-Asbill

Scott O’Neil joined the Utah Symphony staff as Assistant Conductor in August 2000 and was appointed Associate Conductor in February 2002. He has guest conducted the Houston Symphony, Florida Philharmonic, Annapolis Symphony, Tulsa Philharmonic, Houston Youth Symphony, and the Portland (ME) Symphony.

Mr. O’Neil will conduct the debut Honor Orchestra of America in 2005, in concert as part of the BOA National Concert Band Festival. Starting in 2006, the Honor Orchestra of America will perform at the BOA National Orchestra Festival.

You have a background in band, the marching activity and with BOA.

My father was a high school band director so I always related to conducting and that aspect of music. I think all conductors are educators at some level. I started out with Suzuki violin in the second grade. My main instrument is piano. When I got into high school, my first conducting experience was as sophomore drum major of the marching band. Our band director sent me to the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy as a sophomore, and then two more times. That was actually a big part of my learning and my experience as a conductor.

At my school, outside of drum majoring, I didn’t have any opportunity to conduct the band or orchestra. I wanted to conduct badly enough that I started writing brass choir arrangements for my friends so that I could conduct.

When I got into college, a friend of mine, appropriately named Chris Music, had marched with the Garfield Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps. He was going to go back and march his age out year and encouraged me go with him, but I didn’t play a brass instrument. His answer was essentially, “You don’t have to, they’ll teach you.” I went to Cadets with literally a month’s worth of playing Euphonium.

It was pretty messy the first weekend I was there, there was no formal audition process, you go in and they hear you play, but their attitude is as long as you keep getting better they won’t cut you. They kept giving me goals: if you can do this by the next rehearsal, we won’t cut you. It was one of the most important influences I’ve had as far as demanding a certain type of discipline and a certain attitude of looking at obstacles as opportunities.

Tell me more about your view of obstacles as opportunities.

I define obstacles as anything that tends to convince you that you don’t want what you originally believed you wanted. If you convince yourself that you want something so badly nothing will stand in your way, there are no obstacles. With something like my experience with a drum corps, you have no choice, you either do what they ask, or you’re gone. You may think, “I can’t do that,” but you must. Then you start getting through those things you thought you couldn’t do. Don’t fear adversity. Adversity is the catalyst that will get you to the next level. The natural tendency for most of us when you come across an obstacle is to find some way around it, but when you participate in an activity where there is no way past it except through it, you must master it. You must conquer it.

I think many musicians do the same level of repertoire over and over again, when the truth is that real progress isn’t doing something you can already do. Real progress is doing something you couldn’t do before. When you accept that, you take on more adversity and you grow faster.

Why do you teach at the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy?

I seek out people who do whatever they do the best, and George is better than anyone else at what he does. I’ve found that when you are around those types of people, their commitment to quality and their mastery of their subject rub off on you.

I participated in three years of the Drum Major Academy (DMA) in high school and the following year George asked me to teach. I taught one year and intended to continue teaching, but then marched drum corps in 1989 when I had the opportunity and didn’t have a chance to teach again at George’s camps until recently. Occasionally when I was home in Ohio and there was a DMA nearby, I would stop by and I would help as a guest clinician.

You get into being a professional musician and there is a bit of a grind to it. You’re doing this every day for many, many hours a day and I found myself needing something to renew me, so I called up George two years ago and said “I’d really like to teach with you again, I feel like I have something to offer.” Unfortunately, last summer my schedule of conducting didn’t permit me to be at the Bands of America Summer Symposium or any of George’s other clinics. Luckily, this year my schedule allows me to be at the BOA Summer Symposium.

As a conductor, where do you look for inspiration and role models?

While it’s not a big part of my orchestral career, I do take teaching at George’s camps more seriously than a hobby. I like to study people who excel in lots of different areas. In my own conducting, In addition to great conductors, I look at other areas like coaches and generals for role models.

Take coaches Vince Lombardi and John Wooden, for example. The thing that they did best was got themselves and their players to execute fundamentals better than anyone else. John Wooden would recruit a hot shot high school player who said “Look, I can do all these things” and he’d say “Yes, but can you shoot a free throw? Now can you shoot 10 in a row.” Vince Lombardi’s style wasn’t about complex schemes and out-thinking his opponents, it was about teaching his players how to run, tackle and block better than the other team.

If you look at many professional conductors’ techniques, including the great ones all the way back to Toscanini and Furtwangler, the force of their personality conveys as much at their stick technique. The way a violinist uses his bow or a brass player uses his air, the better your stick technique, the better you’re going to conduct. If you adhere to the rules then when you break the rules it’s for meaningful reasons. If you understand the principles of movement and how people perceive things, when you break the rules and change them it’s actually saying something.

Some conductors have habitual ways of moving. Whatever habits you have should essentially be erased from your conducting vocabulary. You need to have a blank and clean pattern that says nothing except tempo, so that anything you add to it actually has meaning. If you always loop on going from beat three to beat four, then anytime you decide you want to use that for expression it is cancelled out because the players have gotten use to it — “that doesn’t mean anything because he always does that.”

It’s good to get back to fundamentals. The main reason I like going back to teach at the DMA is that there’s a certain attitude towards growth, a certain optimism and a certain belief that the world’s going to get better. It comes from the students, it comes from George’s attitude, it comes from the people at BOA, it comes from the people surrounding themselves with other positive people and it starts to come out of you. I think that even if I didn’t feel as strongly about the conducting aspect I would still go back for that.

What was the path that led you to the Utah Symphony?

I studied piano and music theory at the Oberlin Conservatory. I wanted to study conducting with Daniel Lewis at the University of Southern California, but his studio was full. He told me that if I could do something else for a little while perhaps later he could get me into his studio. I didn’t want to sit idle, so I called David Effron at Eastman with whom I had worked on a Joseph Schwanter piece and asked “Can you use someone to help assist with anything?” Eastman doesn’t offer a Masters in conducting, but he invited me to come there and I got a part time job as their ensemble coordinator.

Eastman has two orchestras, the Eastman School Symphony and the Eastman Philharmonia. They would rehearse back to back, so it wasn’t uncommon on a Friday for David to rehearse both groups then conduct a concert in the evening, which is, frankly, an insane amount of conducting. I would go to rehearsals for whichever ensemble wasn’t performing that night, he would sit at the foot of the podium and I would be his “arms.” I would conduct and he would stop the orchestra and tell them things to fix and tell me things to change in my conducting. He started trusting me with more things. As it turns out, since I wasn’t getting a degree and had fewer academic responsibilities I actually got more conducting opportunities.

While I was at Eastman, Daniel Lewis retired, so I auditioned for Rice University and got my Masters with Larry Rachleff. From there I taught one year as an emergency substitute in elementary music education in Ohio. I went back to Houston for a year to teach at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and then got the job with the Utah Symphony.

For me, leaving college meant starting over again, but it was a pretty fast track. I went from teaching elementary school music, to teaching high school the next year, to the Utah Symphony the year after that.

What are your thoughts on the direction of Bands of America’s programs for orchestras?

In Europe for the last several years, it’s been popular to hire American wind players. Because the band tradition is so much stronger in the United States, there are so many more people playing that you end up getting great professionals. Education and training of string players is so strong in Europe they aren’t clamoring for string players as they are for winds. The truth is in the United States bands have led the way in terms of music education. If there is any way we can do for orchestras what has been done for bands in the past, all performing institutions will benefit from it.

You’ll be conducting the debut Honor Orchestra of America in 2005. What do you take into consideration when programming?

I learned something from Max Rudolph, who was conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and wrote a book called “The Grammar of Conducting.” He is perhaps one of the wisest musicians I’ve ever met.

I once spent a week with him and at the end of the week he asked me “What have you learned?” I answered this-and-that about gesture and rehearsal, and he said, “No, you missed it. The primary thing you need to learn is that if you show the musicians just how much you love the music, everything else will come.”

I feel the same way about programming. When programming for professional orchestra, the primary goal is to please the audience. If you’re programming for a high school or college orchestra, your primary goal is developing the orchestra and making them fall in love with the music more deeply. In thinking about music for the National Honor Orchestra, we must find that balance between things that will put the goal far out enough in front of the musicians that it makes them reach for it — but doesn’t make them fall over or actually tear them down. If you’ve got one shot with a group, you need to be as comprehensive as possible with the repertoire.

It’s true the heart of our repertoire is Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Stravinsky. However, if you’ve got one chance that doesn’t mean simply doing Beethoven, Brahms and Stravinsky. There are movements in professional orchestras now that believe our organizations need to change for the future and a lot of it has to do with the kind of music that we program. One thing I love about American culture, it’s eclectic, it accepts a lot of different influences. To me some of the great art being created right now exists between the defined areas. Is this musician a jazz musician, a folk artist, classical? How would you describe them? The best ones are those that aren’t falling into a niche. It’s important to expose high school players to that. I don’t think orchestras should ever believe that Beethoven is not the heart of what we do, however, staying in that one house forever is not going to be as rewarding or productive in the future.

Tell me about the Utah Symphony’s school concert program?

A large part of what we do at the Utah Symphony is because of Maurice Abravanel’s work. Abravanel really built this orchestra, our hall is named after him. He made an agreement with the state that we would play for every single district in the entire state within a three year period. It’s part of the reason we are called the Utah Symphony and not the Salt Lake City Symphony. We are charged with being the major symphonic organization for the entire state. We do over 50 concerts a year where we travel to schools. We have another 10 concerts where local schools are brought to our hall and we have our normal “children’s concerts” our “Family and Lollipop” series.

With the Orchestra Division at our Summer Symposium, BOA is providing opportunities for high school string players who might not be the top in their ensemble…

Despite the fact that I’m a professional musician, I think that’s as valuable as anything. If I had gone to drum corps and they had held to the attitude “we’re only taking the best players right now,” they would have never given me a shot. Taking someone that’s willing to develop himself is what they were all about.

I have a young person in Utah who is a phenomenally gifted pianist and his parents are asking “What should we have him do? Should we send him to a national arts school?” It seems especially popular in modern culture now for people to try to specialize in certain areas earlier and earlier, just to keep competitive. If you’re an athlete, by the time you’re 30 or 40 you’re done, so go ahead and give it your best shot now, but as a musician you get to develop your whole life. You only get one chance to be a teenager — be a musician AND join the debate team, be an athlete, play on the chess team, study science and math. Experience life!

When it comes to the arts, I’m biased towards music. When I was studying martial arts I had a teacher who wouldn’t describe anything. He wanted you to watch and experience and try to imitate. As soon as you put some things into words you translate them into something that they’re not. The thing I love about music is that it’s a non-translated art. It isn’t something where you’re trying to put something into words. It is direct experience with sound. That doesn’t require you to be a virtuoso playing a violin concerto, it only requires people experiencing the sound directly.