Ms. Shou-Ling Wu is a former Associate Conductor at Taipei Symphony Orchestra and Founder of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra Chorus. She was the 2019-2020 Joanna Nichols Visiting Artist.
TAS welcomed Maestro Shou-Ling Wu as the 2019-2020 Joanna Nichols Performing Artist in Residence. In April 2020, she spent three weeks with the Grade 8 chorus, the upper school choirs, and the upper school orchestra. This work culminated in a week-long Arts Festival celebration, with a finale concert on April 25 as they performed Franz Schubert's Mass No. 2 in G Major. This is Wu's third visit to Taipei American School as a guest conductor, after a previous residency in both 2008 and 2014 to work with the middle school string orchestra.
Wu is a trained cellist in addition to her career as a professional conductor. She served for over two decades as Assistant Conductor of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, collaborating closely for many of those years with Maestro Felix Chen during his tenure as Music Director. During her tenure at the Taipei Symphony Orchestra from 1990 to 2018, Wu appeared frequently with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra and Taipei Symphony Orchestra Chorus.
In 1994, Wu's career took another turn, when she was asked to start the Taipei Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Although her master's degree was in orchestral conducting, "sometimes, someone just hands you something and tells you to do it," she said. leading that chorus in numerous operatic and concert appearances in consecutive seasons together with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, including fully staged opera performances.
All conductors, like Wu, are given the professional title "maestro," a word borrowed from Italian, that in English refers to a male "teacher." Wu, a self-described short Taiwanese woman uses the term "maestro," not "maestra," in the same way that many actors choose to use the male-gendered term, regardless of their gender. Gender politics are, understandably, a huge part of the conversation for many female conductors because, with around 95% of the world's professional conductors identifying as male, Wu, a female woman of color, is part of a very small minority amongst professional conductors. However, Wu says that she now embraces her role as a proud female conductor.
When she was studying in the United States—at the University of Michigan for her undergraduate degree and at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music for her master's degree—she only came across two other females in her conducting coursework. She says that no one overtly discriminated against her in her time at those two schools, but she says that the discrimination came in more "subtle ways." "If a big shot conductor was coming to host a seminar for a master class, they would never choose a woman to lead the orchestra," said Wu.
Wu says that she didn't let this discrimination against women give her an "excuse not to become a good conductor." In contrast, she believes that every time she faced difficulty because of her gender (or her short stature) it made her less afraid of leading any orchestra. "You really have to fail so many times to learn that," said Wu. "If you can be strong enough mentally to overcome any discouragement, if you can survive that, then you can probably become a pretty good, strong professional conductor."
The word "maestro" might directly translate to teacher in Italian, but Wu thinks that the role of a conductor goes beyond that of a classroom teacher and that it is more nuanced than the title may initially indicate. She sees a stark difference between how she relates to her orchestral musicians versus how she relates to her choral musicians. The Taipei Symphony Orchestra Chorus always uses the Chinese term "老師" as a professional courtesy to her, a term which also directly translates to "teacher" in English. However, while "maestro" and "老師" might seem equivalent to a mono-lingual English speaker, the first term has a history of musical respect imbued into it, while the other is just a convenient term for what she is to them: a teacher of music. Wu teaches each note of music to each chorus member.
The same cannot be said of the orchestra, who do not "ever" call her "老師." Wu says that the professional musicians in the orchestra do not see a conductor as their teacher; rather, a good conductor, in an orchestral setting, is there as a conduit and source of inspiration, not merely to impart content or teach notes: "I am there to inspire them to do what they already know and to lure it out," she says. "A really good conductor knows how to extract things from their musicians, like a vampire extracting your blood. They know how to get the best out of you without you actually being told to or being forced to do it."
Wu says that there is a "very delicate difference" between a traditional teacher and a conductor, although she admits that TAS probably has many of both, even across the various disciplines. She says that, in the end, a good conductor—regardless of age or discipline—has an idea in their head that they want to see accomplished, and they inspire those that they lead to complete that picture. The difference, to her, is that her musicians already have the skills they need to achieve that picture, but she is the one with the larger organizational mission.
Wu was animated as she used her arms to mime playing a violin or sang various notes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony to explain the difference. Being able to communicate, quickly and with as few words as possible, she says is an important skill for conductors to master, one that she was able to emulate in her interview with the TAS communications office.
Wu is no stranger to Taipei American School. As a proud mother of two TAS alumni Wu looked forward to returning to guest conduct here—this time, without the added pressure of conducting her own children. Wu was last on campus in 2014 to guest conduct for the arts festival. She also vividly remembers visiting to conduct in 2008 because she remembers how "embarrassed" her son Aaron was to have his mother out there conducting the middle school string orchestra. "Of course, he did enjoy it, in private, but in front of the other kids, he would pretend not to care," she laughed as she remembered. "How very middle school!"
"I'm always impressed by how high the participant percentage is for students in music at Taipei American School," Wu said. "And I'm always impressed with the quality of the music concerts that the school puts on." Although she admits that TAS students are not as technically advanced as the professional musicians she usually works with at the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, she says that even with the (understandable) deficiency of technique, the students here are able to feel and communicate the music, an important first step for serious musicians.
Wu's hope is that music education will continue to be embedded in the curriculum, at TAS and in other schools because she thinks that music can be a lifelong companion for all who learn to appreciate it. When you're extremely happy, music can help you express that feeling. When you are discouraged or feeling low, music can help to relieve whatever is painful in your heart. She says that she hopes that all kids are given a musical "environment" in which they learn it "like a language," something that is used "daily like a hug so that it is taken as a natural part of life."
Both of her children have pursued careers in non-musical occupations, but both continue to play and appreciate music on a daily basis. She says that her son is a good example of learning music as a daily language. "He's proof," she says. "Right now, he's required to stay at home in San Francisco [for quarantine due to COVID-19]. He's a computer engineer and sits at home all day; but after he's done working, he starts playing violin—and so, through music, he will never find home quarantine boring."
She credits the TAS music department and TAS parents with cultivating a love of music that permeates the school's culture and leads to lifelong musical appreciation. "It's hard to get someone to love classical music, but if you start them when they are young, that's another story," said Wu. Music, to Wu, is a "refined art," an art that helps convey a deeper shared human belief behind the melody. At TAS, she thinks that the faculty challenges the students to play true classical music like Schubert and Mozart, without caving to more popular forms of music education. The school isn't "intimidated" by kids being uninterested in the classical repertoire and this courage, she says, is the mark of a good music education.
Wu feels thankful to Taipei American School for the ability to return to teach here. "I love TAS," said Wu. "After my children graduated, I felt like I was forced to leave this amazing community, but I love that through this program I can stay in touch. It is a great honor to come here to work with the kids and try to inspire them the way I was inspired by my own teachers."
The feeling is very mutual. Middle school choir director, Betty Chang, says that TAS is "fortunate" to be able to have access to conductors like Wu: "Her patience, kindness, and expertise took the Grade 8 singers to a whole new level of classical music."
Ms. Wu's stay at TAS represents the seventh installment of the Joanna Nichols Visiting Artist program, which is the result of the continuing, extraordinary generosity and vision of former TAS parent Mr. Kenny Cheng.
- Dr. Elaine Kwon, Lecturer in Music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Richard Gill, Education Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Director of the Victorian Opera and West Australian Conservatorium