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Powerful Women: Let's Talk - 105: Dr. Nancy Summers

Dr. Nancy Summers
Dr. Nancy Summers

Musician Dr. Nancy Summers joins host Shelley Irwin on this edition of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk

Nancy Summers began her tenure as Music Director of West Michigan New Horizons Music Ensembles in 2001. In addition to her work with New Horizons, Nancy holds the position of Principal Oboe in the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre Orchestra. Dr. Nancy Summers joins us on this edition of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:


>> Produced by women, about women. Powerful Women: Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world; transforming who we are and how we live.


Shelley Irwin: Doctor Nancy Summers began her tenure as music director of West Michigan New Horizons Music Ensembles back in 2001. In addition to her work with New Horizon, she holds the position of principal oboe in the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theater Orchestra. And of course, there is much more on the resume, but I really wonder if she misses her days of water ballet. So there we are, Ms. synchronized swimmer. Doctor Summers, good morning. Welcome to this edition of Powerful Women: Let's Talk.

Nancy Summers: Thank you so much for the invitation to come down here and share some time with you.

Shelley Irwin: Powerful woman, There we are. You synchronize swam for a while!

Nancy Summers: Yes, ma'am. I did in college. It was a very compelling opportunity. I could take it as a class and it was beautiful. It requires all of the control that we as musicians use, the breathing and the perfect balance. it was, it was just lovely. I did things that I just was amazed as a team we can do.

Shelley Irwin: When did you pick up your first oboe?

Nancy Summers: I was in 7th grade I think, yes. And I don't really remember it because I had a flute in my hand and I was struggling with that and music. The band director said let's see if you'd like to play the oboe. And he asked my parents about it and they said absolutely not. And he asked me about it and I said oh, bring it on.

Shelley Irwin: Therein lies the relationship. Tell me when you knew you were good enough to pursue this as an adult and even to today.

Nancy Summers: Well, I'll let you know when that happens.

Shelley Irwin: Something's working.

Nancy Summers: I knew that I loved it immensely. My parents would take me to concerts and I would be so stunned by how beautiful the tuning note was, because in orchestra the tuning note comes from the oboe, and I would just sit there and melt in my chair just from the beauty of that sound. I connected very deeply, very early on. And I wanted that more than anything.

Shelley Irwin: Love it. So, what was the educational pursuit?

Nancy Summers: Well, the first thing was to study with a professional oboist. And I had the good fortune of having several of them and a lot of good guidance along the way. But, I was very fortunate too, to be able to go to Interlochen and as an international student because I lived out of state. So, it was an 8 week commitment. And I did the first time as a middle schooler, an intermediate camper, 14, 8 weeks away from home. You would have thought that, you know, I would have been homesick. Not at all. Not at all. I fell even more deeply in love with the instrument. And at that time, there were some very influential people there. I learned a lot. I practiced and I loved it even more intensely. And the people that I was there as a camper with have gone on and done fabulous things and found beautiful positions in orchestras around the world.

Shelley Irwin: And now you have a doctorate.

Nancy Summers: I do. I do. I was driven to learn the educational aspect of things, but also to, they call it a terminal degree and there’s probably a good reason for that. If you don't die when you're working on it, then you get the degree and it opens up other worlds for you. It's not just performing, but it is that you're certainly qualified to do that. If you want a life of performing in an orchestra, you do have to do the auditions, but if you're an educator and you want to do both playing and teaching, you are qualified to teach at the upper levels of the college.

Shelley Irwin: So bring me to your career journey.

Nancy Summers: Well, it's been a long and multilevel thing. I finished the degree and I was teaching only part-time at one of the area colleges and it wasn't really enough to sustain a living, a life. And so I moved back to St. Louis, which is where I grew up and a lot of my early studies took place. And through one thing and another, I was able to forge some sort of a freelance career. I did a lot of playing with the St. Louis Symphony and with the Opera Theater of St. Louis and started freelancing and then took the audition for the orchestra where I play still, all these years later, Unity Opera Orchestra.

Shelley Irwin: Yes, those auditions passing with the 5 stars. But yet, I've seen you conducting, directing and look what you've made for yourself now. How did you get to this podium of yours?

Nancy Summers: Interesting that I was offered an opportunity in high school and I had to really think back on this because it seems like I have always conducted. I’ve always done something of that nature. In high school there was a brass choir going to solo an ensemble and they needed somebody to keep the beat together. And so I did and I really love that. I remember the piece that we did and just standing there in the middle of all of that beautiful sound. This was high school. This is probably not all that beautiful. But to me, it was very beautiful to stand in the middle of that and hear it all. So that was on the radar. And certainly when I sit in the orchestra and experience a number of conductors, I pick up good things. I pick up brilliant things and the not so good. So I forge some sort of a playing career. Also as a soloist, I have done some solo recitals and then I've invited friends to come along and join me.

Shelley Irwin: Nice!

Nancy Summers: So a lot of different opportunities.

Shelley Irwin: And how are you spending your days today?

Nancy Summers: Today I'm spending it with you and studying some scores. Trying to get my home studio back a little bit organized. We bring plants in from the outside. They've been out all summer. Now they're in transitioning in the garage and being debugged and whatever and I want to rearrange them so they're in the bay window next to the grand piano.

Shelley Irwin: Tell me about your ensemble and well, what you've created with this niche.

Nancy Summers: It is an international organization. We are part of that. We’re the Grand Rapids chapter. There may be another 2 in Michigan, but we got an opportunity to build this and what's unique about it is it’s for adults or anyone who considers him or herself to be an adult. A lot of our players are retired. Some are semi retired, but we do have a student from Grand Valley playing with us this semester.

Shelley Irwin: When and where do you play in general? It's a year-long commitment, right?

Nancy Summers: It's 9 months. We start in September and we finish up in May. The last thing we do is go out to Muskegon to the submarine out there and play for a Memorial Day weekend ceremony. It's called the Lost Boat Ceremony, honoring all the submarines that were lost during World War 2.

Shelley Irwin: And what do you see in your own performers? Many I would think perhaps hadn't picked up their trumpet for 10 years, 20 years maybe.

Nancy Summers: Yes.

Shelley Irwin: What’s that happiness you see in their face?

Nancy Summers: I see the connection with something from their past or the opportunity to try something brand new and nobody is going to laugh at them. We all experience this laughter, congenial laughter in rehearsals. When someone does something, I have splat. But we also are known to break out in applause when one of the sections does something so, so beautifully. It's wonderful to see grandparents coming together and playing and in our audience, we'll see their grandchildren and their children. It's like, it's just a brand new thing, a way of learning as adults.

Shelley Irwin: Was there a challenge in making your own way to the podium?

Nancy Summers: Yes. Part of it is that I was a woman and that's just a fact of life. I had an interview, two phone interviews, with someone for a group and then I didn't hear back and eventually I called that person who had interviewed me and the answer was, well, we've decided and we don't want a woman conductor. And I literally held the phone out from my ear and said you’re just now figuring out that I'm a woman? So even in our lifetime there is that. So it was not really so much a struggle for me because I really wasn't interested in doing this as a full-time thing. I was more in tune with my oboe.

Shelley Irwin: You pursued it and look at you now.

Nancy Summers: Yes, yes. I’ve been afforded many opportunities and I'm not a traditional conductor in that way of walk up to the podium, here’s your professional orchestra. It's not that for me. It's a we're all in this boat together. We sink or we swim with everyone. So let's work as a team.

Shelley Irwin: Well speaking of swimming, what did get you into synchronized swimming way back when?

Nancy Summers: I always loved the pool. My parents started me in swimming classes just as a little tadpole. The y, the local y.

Shelley Irwin: I don't picture you as a tadpole.

Nancy Summers: Oh my goodness, yeah.

Shelley Irwin: A nice visual.

Nancy Summers: That was the very first one. But the swimming was always a part of what I did. I didn't do any other sports. And then, you know, junior lifesaving, senior life saving, water safety instructor, all of those things, and then a little bit of scuba diving. So water was a friend.

Shelley Irwin: Yes.

Nancy Summers: When I got to college, there was that opportunity for something unique in the water. Now bringing up to a little bit more recent times and aqua yoga is a passion. Just a passion. It’s so beautifully relaxing.

Shelley Irwin: Never lose that foundation. Alright, very first time flying, you were 14. You traveled alone in an electrical storm. Finish the sentence.

Nancy Summers: Help. I remember they passed out gum for us to chew because of the air pressure. That's how long ago it was. Now, that's, you know, putting us back. It's a very small plane. I was leaving Interlochen for the first time, flying to Chicago and we sat on the ground in Traverse City for way too long. I miss my connection. There I was in O'Hare, a 14 year-old. Now what do I do? Okay, Nancy. You’ve been given a brain. Figure it out, Okay. Then I need to go see somebody who knows something. And I did.

Shelley Irwin: And so there's our learning lesson. And I understand you bet on horses at age 4. Is that legal?

Nancy Summers: Uhhh, I don't remember that they asked. But my grandfather helped me very, very much in learning how to read the daily double and which horses would be good to bet on.

Shelley Irwin: And what about your trips to France?

Nancy Summers: Again, there's that sense of adventure. I have that sense of adventure every time I sit down and play my oboe in an orchestra or any kind of situation. But that thing about France, Larry and I have a friend who is, she was all things French. I think now she's all things Italian. And she said let's go to France, Let's bike in France. I said I'm on. I'm on, yeah. How do I train for this? Then I went to the pool and I started swimming, seriously swimming to build up tolerance for this. But yeah, the 3 of us got on a plane with backpacks and a book that said cycling the waterways of France. No plans. Didn't know how far we’d get each day, but we did 5 days on the road, technically. 160 miles. And we stopped where we found a place.

Shelley Irwin: Wonderful.

Nancy Summers: Yeah!

Shelley Irwin: Yep. And I bet you’d do it again. Lastly, when it comes to your fun fact, obviously in this business you meet people who have you rub elbows with.

Nancy Summers: A lot of people from the film screens. Singing and dancing people, such as Rex Harrison who made My Fair Lady his. He just owned that. So we did 5 shows of, or 5 weeks of Rex Harrison in my Fair Lady in St. Louis. And then also In The Beauty of Yul Brynner. What a gentleman, what a magnificent actor. Not much of a singer, as we know, but he truly owned that. The king of the king and I.

Shelley Irwin: Wonderful.

Nancy Summers: And there have been a lot of others: Carol Channing, Phyllis Diller.This is the fun, yeah. We have a lot of fun with them.

Shelley Irwin: Live life to the fullest. How does a little young Nancy Summers find her passion? How do we instill this love for an instrument, an animal, pursuing a law degree? How do we make sure this continues to happen for young gals?

Nancy Summers: I think exposure early on. My parents understood the value of that. Whether it was sports, any kind of physical activity or any kind of mental activity. Exposure to concerts, exposure to church. All kinds of things are out there. They don't have to cost a lot of money, but it's the overall exposure and you'll have that eye opening experience, perhaps in school where there's a passion and you connect deeply with that and it hits your soul in a way that says I have to have this. I absolutely have to have this.


Shelley Irwin: You are a powerful woman. A powerful leader in our community. Dr. Nancy Summers, thank you for this time.

Nancy Summers: Thank you, Shelley.


>> Produced by women, about women, these powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are, and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women: Let’s Talk? Get additional interviews at wgvu.org or wherever you get your podcast. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women: Let's Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters, or Grand Valley State University.


Shelley Irwin is the host and producer for The Shelley Irwin Show, a news magazine talk-show format on the local NPR affiliate Monday through Friday. The show, broadcast at 9 a.m., features a wide variety of local and national news makers, plus special features.
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