Powerful Women Let's Talk - 024: Dr. Nancy Summers

Dec 7, 2020

Dr. Nancy Summers
Credit Mary Otto, Photographer

She’s celebrating 20 years at the podium of the West Michigan New Horizons Music Ensembles as Music Director. Her career journey includes directing, teaching, and playing the oboe. She also can be found performing aqua yoga or making bread in her spare time. We introduce you to Dr. Nancy Summers on this edition of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.


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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 powerful women, let's talk is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real.
And welcome to this edition of powerful women, let's talk I’m Shelley Irwin as she celebrates 20 years at the podium of the West Michigan, New Horizons music ensembles as music director her career journey includes directing, professing and, don’t forget playing. Can you guess the instrument? In her spare time she may be found performing aqua yoga and or making bread, does she use the machine hello to you Dr. Nancy Summers, welcome.
Thank you so much.
When did you pick up the oboe and why an oboe?
Well I didn't actually pick up the oboe first this was a 3rd instrument. I grew up in a family with two parents who were music majors and so there were plenty of plenty of opportunities to hear music and recordings. I think probably the biggest piece of our furniture, biggest piece in our living room was the Victrola or whatever it was it was in this huge cabinet and we would listen to music a lot but nothing really struck me. Until I was in first grade and we had show and tell every Monday morning one little girl in our class asked for the piano to come in and they rolled it in and she played Beethoven's Für Elise. And I simply was astounded I remember how that felt to this day I loved the piano and I said to my mother that night I have to have a piano, no could you please and all of that but I have to have a piano.
I’m going to ask did you get that piano.
Yes, I did
And was that your first instrument?
Yes that was my first instrument and I absolutely loved it. But I have small hands and so it was not a really good fit. I continued to play and I'm very glad for that background but in school the first thing we would do when we reached to 4th grader was to play a string instrument, and I wasn't in love with them. But when I became I'm a big 5th grader, I could choose another instrument, so my mother had been a flutist so I chose the flute. I was one of maybe 12 who chose the flute so when we got to junior high, There was way too many flutes way too many clarinets and no oboe and so the band director asked me if I would like to play the oboe, not knowing that he had already asked my parents if they would consider it and they said no, so he asked me and I said oh I absolutely I will I can't wait and it's been an ongoing love affair, truly since then.
I’m going to bring you to a basically present day there's been a journey from a player to a director to a conductor, are those interchangeable?
Pretty much so. Conductor would be someone who doesn't have the scope of the whole program necessarily over you know a period of time so music directing means selecting rep and then rehearsing it and putting programs together. I have always loved conducting as well, my teachers have been very good at showing me what I would need to look for when I was sitting in the chair of being a player. And over the years of experience I’ve watched the good and the really good and the not so clear and downright  tyrannical people on the podium. So I learned a lot about what I could understand and what I wanted to be if I ever were to do that. I was given an opportunity in high school to do some conducting for the high school musical so I just really have always had that background never considered it to be a formal area I was too busy practicing the oboe and playing and all of that.
But you have the highest degree now in this field, so something tug at you to the very end I trust.
Yes, it was mostly I was young and single-minded I wanted that doctorate degree as they call it and I wanted it from one of the most excellent schools I could think of and it was the University of Michigan. So I did that I was lucky enough to get in into study was some wonderful wonderful people in both music history, music theory and then my instrument too. So it was it was a journey, I was really determined and I wanted to learn so it was, it was wonderful.
Wow then let's go back to present day who are you conducting?
I'm the only music director and conductor for West Michigan, new horizons music ensembles. I have been with them for 20 years, it makes me sad that we’re not actually in the same space rehearsing every week.
Because of the pandemic.
Yes, but it's kind of interesting to me how I got that job, I was on the staff at Saint Cecelia and on the board I think and, the New Horizons band was meeting down there. Their director was going to be leaving and so someone asked me if I would be interested in conducting this band, well tell me a little bit about it and I was told that they were adults over the age of 50 and I listened very politely and I thought to myself there's no way I'm going to work with a bunch of old people, I was a 49 at the time
You hadn't crossed that 50 threshold yet.
Not at all. And I said but I'll think about it maybe I will think of someone who could. So 2 weeks later got another phone call from the same person well have you considered it, Yeah, but I really haven't come up with anybody and tell you what I’ll comedown and listen to a rehearsal. So I did, 2 weeks later another phone call. Okay let me come and look at your library all right I'll do this for one year. And so I committed to one year.
And we're what 20 years later.
Yes.
I want to stay on the topic of this playing your oboe perhaps every day and the topic of just general discipline, yes, for sure in this niche but discipline as far as a road to success, what do you think?
Well it is definitely something you have to have, you have to have the desire and the discipline is not simple there will be days there are days when it's the most difficult thing to do to get the reeds out to get them soaking  to make myself do this but if I don't do this disciplining and if I don't do it now I will lose what I have. They say that if you miss practicing for a day, you will know. If you miss practicing for two days your audience knows. And I believe that is true. I think life circumstances can lend that lend themselves to not practicing for a period of time. I know a number of people who have simply laid the instruments down during the pandemic because it seems to be almost a paralyzing kind of thing for those of us in the arts. What do we do? What are we going to do? How can we go on? And for people whose livelihood depends on playing, performing, it's actually more than that it's more than just sustaining life and paying the bills it's like our lives have suddenly become quiet our voices have gone silent. And that's difficult.
Teamwork the ensemble perhaps intermeshed with your leadership style how do you bring all these instruments together as one, how do you lead.
I have to get off my podium.
Literally
Literally get off the podium. I can't be a good leader if I am not right on the same level understanding what the people need. I have sat in the chairs too many times and looking up at the podium to be able to tolerate that dictator type thing. I'm also way too old to be tolerating that.
Experienced.
Yes experienced, thank you very much.
Are you experienced enough to have found your own voice at this point, to own your own voice?
Yes, yes I have. I feel most comfortable in front of my people when we are alone. And then I think I’m also most comfortable when we're showing others what our passion is what we do. It isn't something that I learned in the first year it was something that gradually little help from my friends. One of the gentlemen who was a charter member in the band said to me you need to talk more you need to talk more you're not telling the audience anything about pieces. Okay, and there's nothing quite like standing in a darkened auditorium with an audience out there. And people behind you on the stage waiting to play and show off what they can do for their friends and family and grandchildren and community supporters. And face that group and think what am I going to say to them that will have meaning, that will bring them into what we do, we have friends, we have great supporters out there how do I make this happen. And so finding my own voice was in part finding a way to relate to the audience, there's a large space between the stage and where the audience sits. When we do outreach programs and I can walk over and actually sit down in the chair and talk to the person next to me, and say how you doing today, what would you like to hear us play and they're so shocked that I would do that but I literally had to come off of my podium before I can get on it to be effective.
And staying on the concept of building community relationships, you have to get an audience to buy a ticket and come see, but to believe in your talents as well.
Yes. What we see in our audience, a mix of friends and family, the family members who have been listening to the practicing going on for weeks and weeks and months they want to come see the finished product they want to experience what we come together and experience each week. That teamwork it functions as a team and there have been some beautiful moments in rehearsals where there's no one else listening to us and I suddenly realized that the band is sitting there listening to 2 or 3 people trying to blend and play perfectly and wild applause will break out at the end of that and it was maybe 4 notes that they did in tune but that they worked so earnestly we have a community of likeminded people and that's a very beautiful thing.
Before I talk about Aqua yoga and making bread without out a machine, you are working with an audience that well continues to share their talents something you've probably say one has not picked up their trumpet since they were 16 years old and they're back in at age 55 what’s that like to see in your own instrumentalists
It's a beautiful thing. It's the thing that gets me up and makes me want to go to rehearsal, I feel in some ways that this is a calling that I didn't even know I had, until the door was opened for me to try it. The passion that we have as we come together, it's an amazing thing but to watch someone pick up an instrument. We really have three levels of people. We have beginners who have not played an instrument before perhaps they didn't have time, their resources in family setting did not allow for an instrument. For whatever reason they said OK, it's this is my time now, so I have beginners. And then we have people who have played all their lives and want to play in something that's a little different. And then we have the people who it's the horns been in the closet for 35 years because they were busy with a life, a job, career, families. We come to it from all of these walks of life and it's the perfect molding of all the talents and the desires. So we see that gleam in the eye and I can look around and see the smiles and just the sheer happiness
All Looking up at doctor Nancy Summers, time to have some fun with you now aqua yoga today but college competition as a swimmer you can never lose that title. So, you like the water.
I love the water. Water is so soothing it's so peaceful it so serene and I didn't actually set out to be a swimmer per se in a competitive way. I was in undergraduate school; I went to a small school and I was part of the professional fraternity for women in music and we of course had to be showing what we can do in the aquatic line so. I was pretty certain that I wouldn't drown so they put me into the competitive field, I came in second. Well earned, I loved it and then you know that was the end of my competitive swimming.
There you go kneading bread, what's this all about?
Oh my goodness you said bread machine, I'm sorry bread machine, no no no not in the Summers household. This is down to the earthiness of life when the yeast begins to form and the dough, laying it out I just did this a couple days ago, so it's fresh and just the feeling in and feeling the elasticity come into the dough creating that molding it taking it from one source one field to another and then knowing it's ready to rise.
Nancy summer's therapy.quick  responses to these on a whim biked in the south of France.
Yes, ma'am. Larry and I have a very close friend who's also in music, she said she wanted to bike in the south of France and asked are you guys up for this, and we said yes.  So we hopped on a plane and went to France and we each had backpacks and we had a book cycling the waterways of France so we flew in to Paris and got TVG to Loose, we rented the bikes, and then went the next day. And we did 160 miles in four days, we took one day in the middle off because it was rainy weather. Backpacks, that was it.
Adventure. What about adopting a 14 year-old rescue spaniel speaking of giving a second chances you did this
Yes we had had dogs and had lost our oldest and it was going to be winter and winters can be solemn the lonely. I just felt some kind of calling to start looking around to see if there was some there was a dog to adopt and I came across a story that I really loved and met a lifelong friend now the through this adoption. She was adopting rescue cocker spaniels so I called her and talked with her and she met us at a Petsmart over on the other side of the state and we brought home this beautiful sweet blind and deaf special needs boy. She had several other dogs in her home, so he got the total attention from us and he really did need a lot of attention. But that is I must say that is the only dog that I would scale an 8 foot fence for. He crawled in between the fence and there was an open slat and he got in and there's no way I can get in and so I scaled this fence and jumped down into a bank of snow to get him. Pretty much carried him the whole way home that was an interesting situation we had him for 9 months before he passed gently and very quickly so that was a beautiful way for him to end.
And the whole world knows now about that story. Lastly would you drop some names of those who you have rubbed elbows with on stage including Carol Channing.
Yes, ma'am Carol Channing, Phyllis Diller, Don Amici oh yes, I'm standing in line at the concession stand and Don Amici was seen right in front of me waiting to order he turned around to look at me for a second and he said you’re in the orchestra and I said yes I am, he said you have such a lovely smile. My gosh, my heart just kind of, what a nice thing to say, they're very human people. They're just so lovely Yul Brenner we were told we would address him as Mr. Brenner when he came to the rehearsal for five weeks of King and I and he came in a black suit black turtleneck and sat on stool and rehearsed with the orchestra just a pure gentleman thoroughly enjoyed him. Some people are full of themselves some very egotistical which you can imagine. One that I thoroughly enjoyed was Dorothy Hamill .we did  her show “Dorothy Hamill on ice” and that is a feat us. You are part of the orchestra yes, they came into this huge theater 10,500 seats outdoors and created an ice rink on the stage so we did seven nights of Dorothy Hamill she was lovely and gracious and so beautiful and so athletic and we had lovely music to play for her show but Mikhail Baryshnikov oh my goodness,
That’s the one that.
Yeah, I would go out and watch him warm up at the bar backstage every night and I am not kidding you that was a dream come true, artistic beautiful man beautiful experience
Wonderful memories do you have a book recommendation for us?
I do when you asked me about a book, one that came back to me repeatedly and I read it probably every other year it's called “Two old women” it’s by Verma Wallace or Velma Wallace I should say. It's an Alaskan legend of betrayal, courage and, survival in that they refer to the tribe as the people and the two women who were older were told at the beginning of a harsh winter that they were not doing their part they were sitting around complaining about how their joints were aching and they were really taking away from the community of that tribe. So the tribe the elders did was they left them. They said you will no longer be in our community and we are moving on. And so there they were we are like babies, the older woman looked up in surprise as such the mission we're like helpless babies so they said well we are not going to let ourselves just die, we're going to get up and we're going to bake something we're going to move we're going to die trying. And they didn't die in fact they flourished, and this story takes us through the journey of what they did and what they did to shore up and the hardships that they endured proving once again that you can make it back and they did. However the people who had left them were not so fortunate, they came to the old women they came across them and the all women had plenty of food to eat they had shelter they had, they have done very very well. And one by one the elders of the tribe came to realize that their only hope of saving the tribe was to take these women in and give them their undying love and support and affection, it's a very it's a remarkable story betrayal, Yes, absolutely the courage, Yes, and then the forgiveness it's about survival in suspense and wisdom.
Thank you for your wisdom and your time Dr. Nancy Summers.
Thank you so much Shelly.
Thank you for joining us that does it for this edition of powerful women, let's talk. I’m Shelley Irwin.
Produced by women about women these powerful podcast focus on powerful women in 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 made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real it is produced by WGVU  at the Meijer public broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University, the views and opinions expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters, or Grand Valley State University.