Kelly Corcoran has always been passionate about singing. As a little girl, the Springfield, Mass., native took voice lessons and dreamed of being an opera singer someday. After high school, she studied vocal performance at The Boston Conservatory, where she joined the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, singing alongside the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And that’s when something unexpected happened.
“I was fascinated right away with the art of conducting,” Corcoran says. “It’s a psychological thing in some ways, because you are inspiring these musicians to do their best, to want to play for you, and to want to give. Sometimes you use a gesture, sometimes it’s something that you do with your body, but sometimes it’s something that you do with your spirit. There’s no one thing that works in every situation, and that was very intriguing to me.”
Suddenly, she’d discovered a passion even more intense than the one she’d been cultivating her entire childhood. Today, Corcoran, 34, is the associate conductor for the Nashville Symphony, where she is in her fifth season. She’s guest conducted major orchestras throughout the country and abroad, and critics have described her style as “smooth,” “lively” and “fresh.”
By any measure, it’s clear that Corcoran is succeeding at her chosen profession. But her path to the podium wasn’t necessarily an easy one. In fact, when she decided to pursue conducting — traditionally a male-dominated profession — people questioned her. After all, in addition to being a youthful-looking woman with a sweet demeanor, she was a singer. She hadn’t grown up playing in orchestras. She didn’t even have an instrumental background.
“When you stand up in front of a professional orchestra of 85 people who are all masters of their instrument, and you’re leading them and guiding them, you have to have some kind of understanding of what they do,” she says. “If you aren’t from that background and you haven’t played in orchestras your whole life, it’s more challenging.”
Determined to give it a try, she found a conducting teacher at The Boston Conservatory and began putting together small ensemble performances — offering free food to get students to participate — so she could practice her new trade. Although she was overwhelmed in the beginning, she says her teacher gave her the confidence to continue and taught her some “strong life lessons.”
“He said, ‘No matter what background you come from, there are challenges and benefits,’” she explains. “‘So, instead of wasting energy thinking about what you don’t know or the things that are in your way, do something every day to gain knowledge and insight. If you keep putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward, you’ll get somewhere.’”
After college, she held jobs in Boston and Miami before heading to Indiana University to receive her Master of Music in Instrumental Conducting. In 2003, she joined her fiancé (and current husband) in Nashville, where she worked for the Nashville Opera and founded the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra. A year later, the couple moved to Ohio so she could take the assistant conductor gig with the Canton Symphony Orchestra. When word got out that there was a position available in Nashville, Corcoran was disappointed that she hadn’t been invited to audition. But as fate would have it, a prospective conductor cancelled, and Corcoran got the call to audition about a week before Christmas in 2006.
Since accepting the position, she’s conducted a variety of programs and served as the primary conductor for the orchestra’s education and community engagement concerts, including the extremely popular Pied Piper Series, Saturday morning performances that are geared toward children. She also conducted the Nashville Symphony’s CD collaboration with Riders In The Sky, Lassoed Live at the Schermerhorn.
And these days, Corcoran has another starring role: mother to 21-month-old daughter Stella. Juggling career and family presents a new challenge each day, especially when husband Josh, who plays with country artist Chris Young, is on tour. But Corcoran approaches the balancing act the same way she tackles everything else.
“I try to say, ‘One thing at a time,’ and let go of what I can’t control,” she explains, adding that she’s an avid runner, which helps manage her stress. “I focus on what I’m doing, and stay in the moment, so I can give my best to everything.”
You can see Kelly conduct this summer at the Nashville Symphony’s Community Concerts Series, a free, family-friendly series that brings the orchestra to local parks. Corcoran is scheduled to take the podium on June 7 at East Park, June 8 at the Bicentennial State Mall, June 10 at Crockett Park in Brentwood, June 12 at Cumberland University in Lebanon, and June 19 at Centennial Park. For more information on these and other performances, visit nashvillesymphony.org.
Photo by Michael W. Bunch
“I dreamt my whole life about being a mother,” says Heidi Jellison. “I never dreamt about a big wedding, honestly never even dreamt about the husband part.” Jellison, a 35-year-old concert harpist and harp teacher, laughs at this last bit, but then her face settles into a quiet solemnity.
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