Ask a classical musician why they started playing their instrument and more often than not they’ll offer up a pretty standard reply.
“Oh, my parents forced me to play piano when I was 4, and I fell in love.”
“I went to an orchestra concert when I was 8, and afterward, begged to play the violin.”
“I come from a musical family, so I’ve been a musician from the womb.”
Ask Tigran Arakelyan, and you’ll get a different response.
A homeopathic doctor in Armenia prescribed a wind instrument to help a 9-year-old Arakelyan with health and breathing issues.
His parents chose the flute.
That’s how the new conductor of the Port Townsend Community Orchestra entered the classical music world in 1996.
"It was a bit of an unusual start,” said Arakelyan. “That led me to where I am now.”
The Armenian-American musician and conductor was selected this summer to replace the late Dewey Ehling and continue leading the local community orchestra that was founded in 1987. That is the same year in which, Arakelyan points out with a chuckle, he was born.
Arakelyan’s debut concert as the new artistic director is this Sunday, Oct. 29.
ARMENIA TO AMERICA
In Arakelyan’s home country of Armenia, learning an instrument required more than basic lessons. While attending public school, Arakelyan went to what he described as a “very traditional post-Soviet Armenian music school,” where he studied not only his instrument, but also history and music theory.
He credits his first teacher with inspiring him to continue playing, noting the incredible influence a teacher can have on a young child.
“She managed to excite me and inspire me to play,” he said.
“She’s probably one of the main reasons why I continued music.”
When he was 11, his family moved from Armenia to Glendale, California, where he continued attending music school.
In Armenia, Arakelyan said, he had been one of a majority of boys who played flute in school– with only one girl. In California, he was the only boy.
“It was a big shock for me,” he said, laughing.
Learning a new language, his third – he grew up speaking Russian, too – was less of a shocking transition, as Glendale has a large Armenian population.
“Learning the language was a very smooth transition,” he said. “I don’t remember ever having to struggle.”
Arakelyan describes his undergraduate career as a bit of a mess. He skipped around between a few music schools, unsure of where he was headed.
Music was his passion, but he didn’t know what direction he wanted to take. He continued with flute, and explored playing his instrument in jazz and rock groups.
Then, when he was 22, he took a class in conducting. It was supposed to be an easy class that students used to get elective credits, he said.
And he liked it. He didn’t think he was that great at first, but he left the class thinking conducting was “cool.”
There was the camaraderie of working with groups of other musicians that excited him, and there was the challenge of bringing classical music to a 21st-century audience.
In his senior year, Arakelyan assembled and led a small orchestra, and has been following a conductor’s path ever since.
Arakelyan went on to get his doctorate in musical arts from the University of Washington, and has held positions at orchestras around the Northwest, including the Bainbridge Island Youth Orchestra and the Federal Way Youth Symphony Orchestra, with which he currently works in addition to his new gig with the Port Townsend Community Orchestra. He is also the founder and host of the music podcast “Off the Podium.”
EDUCATION AND INSPIRATION
Over the years – and there haven’t been that many; Arakelyan considers himself very new to his profession – the now 30-year-old has contemplated the role of a conductor, and specifically, that of a community orchestra conductor.
“In college, they’ll teach you how to be the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, but they don’t teach you how to conduct a community orchestra,” he said.
And community and youth orchestras are where many graduates end up.
Community orchestras are places that draw players of all backgrounds and abilities to come together, make music in the community and have fun.
Arakelyan’s goal is to “get them to a level where we can perform together, have fun, and present music to our community that our community will enjoy and sometimes be challenged by.”
As a conductor, his task is to keep the musicians on the same page – literally and figuratively.
And, he said, “You always have to remember that job does not stop when you step of the podium.”
A conductor networks and collaborates and, most importantly, educates the 21st-century audience.
“As artists, we have to make sure that we explain to the audience the language of classical music,” he said.
“Classical music is not so much a part of people’s lives – we have to find a new approach, making them excited about the things that we're trying to do.”
Education is paramount in the future of classical music, he said.
In coaching younger musicians in his youth orchestras, where not every student is going to go on to become a processional musician, it’s inspiration that is key.
“You want to inspire them and excite them so they end up being the future generation of contributing to art,” he said.
When his students are in their 30s working a tech job, he hopes they will pick up their instrument and join a community orchestra again, or donate to the arts.
“I want the future generation of young musicians to be supportive of the arts, because that’s the only way the arts survive.”
Arakelyan embraces his role in continuing to give the same inspiration he received from his own flute teacher, so many years ago.
And for those left wondering, was the flute the cure-all for his childhood breathing issues?
He likes to say it was. “It’s more dramatic of a story,” he said with a laugh.
“But the reality is, there were different things I did. Somehow [playing the flute] managed to be one of the last things I did to feel better.”
Music was the final touch, he said. And it became his life.