From the age of 7, Jeri Lynne Johnson ’93 knew she wanted to be a conductor. She started playing piano at 4, and a few years later family friends took her to her first orchestra concert, where she fell in love with the music. “In my 7-year-old brain, I thought, ‘OK, I don’t see a piano on the stage, so if I want to make this music, I guess I have to do what that man is doing, waving a stick around.’ And that was it,” she says.
Johnson, now a professional orchestra conductor and the founding artistic director of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in Philadelphia, is quick to point out that being a conductor isn’t just “waving a stick around.” The baton itself is not a musical instrument. “It doesn’t make any sound,” Johnson says. “Our instrument is the orchestra.” (Though the baton is still an important tool—Johnson says the handle and the “stick” must be perfectly balanced, so the tip of the baton “floats,” allowing conductors to “shape the sound the way we like.”)
When Johnson is explaining the role of a conductor, she often feels that she has to justify her existence. “When you’re conducting some of the very best orchestras, who have done Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 a million times over … they have this collective memory from hundreds of years of doing this music. Our job is not to manage the music. Our job is to shape the silence out of which the music emerges.” Johnson says the best comparison she has found is to an airplane pilot: Often the orchestra doesn’t need her, and it’s like the captain turning on autopilot, but she is their guide for takeoff, landing, and any turbulence they might encounter. “Conductors create a framework—a collaborative space—in which the orchestra feels comfortable and secure to work together to bring the music into being,” says Johnson.
Johnson conducted an orchestra for the first time when she was a student at Wellesley, where she double-majored in music and religion. “It was a huge success and a disaster at the same time,” she says, laughing. The piece Johnson was conducting prominently featured the harp, and in the middle of the performance, Johnson heard a loud twang. She looked over to see that one of the strings on the harp had snapped. But Johnson and the orchestra kept going, and, “in that moment, I learned that I’m pretty unflappable onstage no matter what happens,” she says. Which is an important skill for a conductor—just as important as all the technical requirements and specifications, like learning how to score music for the piano or understanding all the different instruments.
After Wellesley, Johnson earned a master’s degree in music theory and history at the University of Chicago, but she says it was thanks to Wellesley that she gained the confidence to walk into spaces where often she is the only woman, only Black woman, or only Black person. The League of American Orchestras reports that only 14.6% of all U.S. orchestra conductors are women, and only 9.2% hold the music director title, an orchestra’s top conducting job. Just 21% of conductors are people of color. “Wellesley gave me the mentality to hold my own,” says Johnson. “Having that confidence of being prepared, of knowing who I am, and being comfortable with myself is something I feel sets women who go to women’s colleges apart. We don’t have to sacrifice our gender identity and our comfort with who we are as people to be professional and effective leaders.”
The professional conductor leads a nomadic life, traveling from city to city, from orchestra to orchestra, to guest conduct on many stages. After finishing her master’s degree, Johnson was open to conducting work wherever she could find it: “I had this samurai mentality of ‘Have baton, will travel,’” she says. A lot of her first conducting experience came from a working trade-off with composer friends from grad school. She would get the experience, and they would get a free conductor.
Eventually, Johnson and her family settled in Philadelphia, where she worked with and learned from Marc Mostovoy, the founder, music director, and conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. Johnson also won a conducting fellowship started by Marin Alsop, a legendary conductor who is the music director laureate of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chicago’s Ravinia Festival. Johnson learned a lot from Alsop: “It was so interesting to see that even this woman, with this successful career and all these accomplishments, was still running up against a lot of attitudes about women leaders,” she says.
Auditioning for conductor jobs is grueling, Johnson says. “But unlike instrumental auditions, which happen behind a screen, when you’re a conductor, the orchestra and everybody can see exactly who you are,” she says. Even after auditions that seemed to go very well, often Johnson would not get the job. She asked one hiring director why. “He didn’t have to be honest, and it was a painful gift that he gave me, but he said, ‘The board just felt like you don’t look like what our audience expects the maestro to look like,’” she says.
After that incident, Alsop told Johnson she had similar experiences when orchestras weren’t interested in having a woman on the podium. She suggested that Johnson start her own group “to prove to everyone not just that you’re talented, but that an organization can be financially stable and successful with you as an African American woman at its leadership,” Johnson remembers. And that’s exactly what she did.