Q&A with Conductor Tristan Rais-Sherman '21 AD

Tristan Rais-Sherman '21 AD shares reflections from his past two performances conducting the NEC Philharmonia during this semester.

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How has your semester been going? What has it been like conducting an ensemble in-person during these times? 

Tristan Rais-Sherman raises his baton while conducting the Philharmonia. He is wearing a mask and the empty seats of Jordan Hall are behind him.

This semester has been fantastic. I have been looking forward to having the opportunity to do a concert here since last fall, so for this moment to finally arrive feels amazing.

Being able to come in and rehearse beautiful music with the talented students here has been a breath of fresh air, especially with all the uncertainty in this past year. Conducting music live and in-person takes on an entirely new sense of freshness and immediacy after being away from it for such a long time. 

Tells us about the rehearsal process at NEC with all the COVID restrictions. What are some of the accommodations needed to ensure safety for all? 

NEC deserves so much credit for being extremely rigorous and attentive with all their COVID protocols. There is a great culture of respect and safety that trickles down from the administration, through the faculty, to the students. I feel completely safe and happy while rehearsing in person.

Our set up is a little different than pre-COVID times—each player has their own stand and is 6-feet or more from the other. This makes things slightly more complicated on my end, sometimes I need to look at a specific player and my eyes dart to the wrong area at first. But for the most part, we're all just happy to be making music together again. 

What do you hope musicians will take away from this experience after the pandemic? Do you have any words of hope or encouragement? 

The lesson I have had to teach and reteach myself over this past year is that one can only control their attitude, their outlook, and the way in which they approach each day. So many successes and disappointments will be out of their control. It is easy to give in to pessimism and apathy during times like we have had this year. 

On one hand, it is important to be realistic when you look at the current and near future state of our industry. We cannot fix problems if we do not confront them head on.

On the other hand, it is not only storm clouds and darkness. As young musicians, we have an extraordinary opportunity to reshape our art form. If we can control our attitude towards the present, we can create something beautiful for the future.

Something I have learned over these last few months is that the experienced leaders in our field do not have all the answers. In fact, I think they are yearning and hoping for the next generation to create a future for classical music that is inclusive, democratic, diverse, interesting, and relevant. It is up to us to create something new. There should be no "returning to normal." We must do much, much better than that. 

So my words of wisdom for my colleagues is to focus daily on what you can control, do whatever you can to thrive financially, and save some imagination and focus for what you can do to contribute and lead. No one else is going to do that for us. 

Hear the Philharmonia concert, led by Tristan, on March 30