“I always say conducting is my three favorite things,” Shira Samuels-Shragg ’20 said. “Music, dance, and being in charge.”
I am no stranger to Underhill Library, and I found Shira at arguably the best view on campus, where we promptly left so as not to disturb those dutifully studying. A few minutes later, in a secluded corner of the Lang Music Building, I began to ask about the roots of Shira’s passion for musical expressions.
“I couldn’t even tell you. I don’t remember a time before I loved classical music. There’s like videos of me as a baby, and my dad would, you know, play albums at home and there’s footage of me at two months old just going crazy and wiggling around with joy.” That joy for classical music proved to be inescapable.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Shira recalled, “My family would go to see the Los Angeles Philharmonic sometimes and they had these special family concerts. I loved those but I also thought, why do I never see a woman conducting the orchestra?”
In eighth grade, as part of her school’s “final project,” Shira researchered conductors, eventually pursuing the advice of her own orchestra teacher. “And he said, yeah, if you work hard enough I’ll let you conduct the orchestra at our concert in the spring,” Shira recounted. “And I said, are you serious?”
From there Shira could only fall deeper into the art of conducting, continuing her passion throughout high school and finally ending up right here at Swarthmore with no doubt in her mind as to what she would pursue.
“I’ve been entrenched in the music program since day one.”
Now a senior, Shira is technically a music major, and ever since taking the only class focused on conducting her freshman spring, she has been working closely with Andrew Hauze ’04, director of the College Orchestra and Wind Ensemble, to hone her skills.
“If you can find a professor to be that person that really goes the whole nine yards with you, it’s amazing.”
Throughout her college career Shira has conducted many concerts, from ballet performances to the school’s orchestra. Although music seems to leak into every waking moment of her life, Shira is also faithfully involved with dance on campus. Even with all her PE credits fulfilled, Shira can’t seem to stay away from the numerous dance classes Swarthmore has to offer. There is overlap. Shira stressed the physical aspect of conducting, the distinctive voice that emerges with a conductor’s movements.
“So there’s some basic principles,” Shira explained, “and then there’s also such a gray area, and so many different stylistic variants, and what I also appreciate so much about Andrew as a teacher is that he’s very much open to helping students kind of find their own conducting.”
It occurs to me that there’s this unique space Shira creates when she conducts, a zone full to the brim with her movements and emotions. It is a performance within itself, a dance. A performance controlling a performance. Shira explained her initial perspective on music, her focus on the emotions, and then how that evolved. “Because I came in with a pretty weak theory background … it was really hard. I was always focused on like the emotion of music. I remember [music theory] has a lot of math involved, like mathematical thinking.”
“Conducting depends so much on how you are physically in the world and how you are, kind of, psychologically in the world,” Shira explained.
“It’s like your gestures just come out so differently for each person depending on your physicality and psyche.”
In that secluded corner of the music building, I could see the immense passion Shira has not only for the act of conducting but the learning experience as well. Much like a more concrete form of art, the foundations had to be mastered, but as soon as that point is reached, everything else comes from within. Her movements when she spoke were laced with that musical presence, flowing in tandem with the excitement of her words.
Not one to be confined, Shira explained some of the outside projects her training at Swarthmore has led to. “Over the summer, I got to conduct some of the music for ‘Short Treks’, self-contained ‘Star Trek’ shorts for CBS. It was incredibly fun to conduct amazing musicians at Warner Brothers studios. Then over Fall Break, I conducted the finale of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ with the Desert Symphony, a professional orchestra in California, in two education concerts they were playing for school groups. It’s thrilling to get to apply everything I’ve learned at Swat to working with professional musicians in new contexts.”
As for the future, Shira knows exactly what she wants. When she began to explain applications for graduate school, I can immediately discern the anxious excitement behind every word. She plans to get a Master of Music in orchestral conducting, make conducting a career, and can’t help but praise Hauze. “I’m very lucky to have Andrew helping me prepare for these tests because I have no idea what I’d do without guidance. It’s a very close-knit department which I’m going to miss a lot.”
In the end we trace back to the beginning. Shira’s love for classical music was born right alongside her body, a passion nurtured from a time she can’t even remember. “But I think the encouragement of my music studies was really important too,” Shira recalled. “Because for my dad, a part of him really wanted to be a musician. And so I think he thought, ‘okay here’s Shira who loves music.’ So [my parents’] support has been super invaluable.”
We sat silent for a moment, thinking about all the pushes and choices that had to lead to this. “It’s kind of interesting to think about if I hadn’t had my dad’s records from the time I was little, at what point would I have found classical music and how would I have reacted to it?”
Shira leaves no doubt in my mind that she would have found her love for conducting, or at least it would have found her.