On Oct. 27, GBH 2 will broadcast the PBS documentary "Behind the Baton: A Conductor's Journey." It tells the extraordinary life story of the legendary Thomas Wilkins and his journey through the musical world as a Black conductor, rising from the most humble beginnings to lead major orchestras. Wilkins is the principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Music director, laureate of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony's artistic advisor and longtime family and youth concerts conductor. On Oct. 28, he'll be back in town conducting the Boston Symphony for the Family concert, "May I Have Your Attention Please." GBH's All Things Considered host Arun Rath spoke with Wilkins about the documentary. What follows is a lightly edited transcript..
Arun Rath: I'm such a huge fan and so excited to talk with you. This film is just wonderful, and it's wonderful to learn about your biography, which I didn't know pretty much anything about you. I mentioned your humble beginnings. You grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, during an intense time [with] a single mom on welfare and — well, I guess just just start there.
Thomas Wilkins: Yeah. I talk about the fact that I come at this career very differently, perhaps, than one might suspect, only because of those humble circumstances. I have no other way to explain the fact that a kid like that from the housing project with a single mother [on] welfare finds himself on stage and in front of some of the greatest musicians in the world. I think it says, first of all, to me it says that it's all a gift. But the other thing is that it really speaks to the power of music, to its transformative power for humankind, really, that I could be in the midst of sound at 8 years old and find my life's call. That's a powerful message about just how powerful music actually is.
Rath: And the raw talent. The gift is just amazing. As we learn about it, you ended up learning piano and multiple instruments, [but earlier] you're conducting your school's orchestra without ever having had a real lesson on any of these instruments.
Wilkins: Yeah. But what I did have were teachers and grownups in my life who were very supportive. I mean, perhaps they saw some talent there, but they also were people who demanded not only musical integrity, but also personal integrity. They informed my work ethic and they informed my whole notion of what it means to be a servant musician first, who cares about people in my nest as human beings first and then as artists second.
Rath: Teaching is really a theme that runs through your biography and this film. There's this wonderful scene with your teacher, Richard Pittman, and mentioned having not had those those lessons and it was through him, you learned you had to work like mad to catch up.
Wilkins: Yeah, when my wife first met him, because I had him come to Omaha because I wanted my orchestra to see who were the people that influenced me as a conductor. So I had him as guest conductor and my wife met him for the first time and she said, "You know, you turned my husband into a workaholic." He says, "Yep, that's the only way it gets done now." But I mean, he's the guy who basically said, "You're going to have to work really hard or I will not hesitate to kick you out of school." And you can imagine an 8-year-old who has dreamed of being a conductor, here I am at NEC on the doorstep of another opportunity that could make that become a reality, only to have someone say, "Yeah, but ..." And by the second year I was his graduate assistant. So he lit he right fire underneath me. Even in my adult years when I would come for the first time to conduct the BSO, he's in the audience and he's walking around and he's all proud of his student standing on stage in front of the BSO. So he comes up to my dressing room during the break, and after a while he said, "Do you mind if I give you a couple of comments about your conducting?" And I said, "Yeah, go right ahead." But always the teacher, always the builder, this guy.
Rath: There's some really beautiful scenes of you teaching, conducting, which has always struck me as something, well, how do you even teach conducting? Because it seems like it must be different from teaching violin or piano.
Wilkins: One of the things that you're teaching is leadership. To answer your question more specifically, conducting is actually a craft and a lot of the moves, the physical moves that we make, even so far as correct posture, demonstrate something to the orchestra. All of those things have to be seen or worked through this lens or within the realm of leadership. Our job is to equip everyone in the orchestra to actually be their best selves. My mantra is, "I always want the best from the most and the most from the least." And so there are all these other psychological things, there are eye contact issues. There are, as I said, there's a posture issue. One posture may be welcoming and the other may be a person hiding within themselves. All of those things, believe it or not, help you be clearer physically. They also help you successfully do the job of equipping people in the orchestra to be better human beings. Like, for example, you don't always beat a lot of time if the players can pull it off themselves without you always in their space. That demonstrates trust and trust that they can facilitate what it is musically they are trying to do, but also the fact that you have a certain respect for their own sense of esthetic. It's a lot of give and take. Sometimes it's their turn, sometimes it's my turn.
Rath: It's striking hearing you talk about artistic endeavors like this — and we hear this in the film as well, that you talk about them very much in a moral, ethical framework.
Wilkins: Yeah, everybody comes into the rehearsal space with their own challenges, desires, aspirations, and they come to work really to be better. They come to work to be better human beings. It just so happens that we have musical instruments in our hands in order to help us do that, help us navigate that. If I don't see their humanity first, I'm only going to put a brick wall in between myself and them, but also between us and the folks in the audience. I just said to an orchestra last week in rehearsal, this was something technical, I said, "Your bow needs more time before you change bow direction and your soul needs more time to say that with the bow." I said, "You got to remember. I'll wait for you, just understand that I'm here for you. You're not here for me. And together we're here for the people in the audience because they are actually the most important people in the room." And that requires a lot of taking yourself out of the equation or taking your self-importance out of the equation. For example, I learn everybody's name in an orchestra that I'm guest conducting before the first rehearsal so that I can call them by their name rather than by their instrument. What that says is, "I first and foremost respect you as a human being, and together we're going to work to make something beautiful."
Rath: There's a remarkable scene in this film of you on a video call with four other Black conductors, and you talk about needing to figure out a way not just to survive a career, but to navigate a career.
Wilkins: I often say that sometimes we have to paint our own doorways onto the brick walls that are in front of us. Someone wanted me to complain once about what it felt like to not get jobs because I was Black, and I said, "First of all, I don't know that. I'm sure that it has happened, but I can't get inside of someone else's head or heart. I only have control over my own ignorance and doing battle with my own ignorance, learning the things that I still need to learn, studying the scores that I still need to study. That's the only way I can get better." And if I can do that successfully, I don't have to worry about being successful. If an opportunity presents itself, I don't want to carry that extra baggage that maybe I'm only being hired because I'm Black, or maybe I have to act differently because of whatever the circumstances.
Rath: Thomas Wilkins, It has been such a delight speaking with you. Love your work and everything you've done. We've got to have you back on again soon.
Wilkins: Thank you. It would be my pleasure.