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Chickasaw Student on Quest to Conduct Orchestra

Chickasaw student Austin Davis plays saxophone, but his heart lies in conducting a full symphony orchestra.
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A mid-19th century Bohemian conductor and composer is inspiring a Chickasaw student to pursue a career center stage conducting a full symphony orchestra.

Austin Davis is a second-year graduate student at the University of Redlands and will earn a master’s degree in music conducting in spring 2018.

Several composers are cited for their influence, but it is Gustav Mahler who tweaks Davis’ interest—and aspirations—in spite of stark differences between them.

Mahler’s (1860-1911) greatest desire was to compose, but he is most celebrated for conducting, although that is changing as his compositions are performed by symphonies worldwide.

Davis’ greatest desire is to conduct, either a small ensemble or a full orchestra. His composing interests are a distant second to conducting.


About Face

“When I first experienced a symphony by Gustav Mahler; that style of music has so much packed into it (that) so many other styles of music just don’t. You listen to one symphony and you feel like you’ve heard everything there is to hear,” Davis said.

“I started focusing on conducting so I would be able to have my own influence on that style of music and still get to perform pieces I normally would not have the opportunity to perform,” he added.

The Chickasaw student plays saxophone. The instrument is prevalent in jazz, blues and rock, but does not enjoy inclusion in a symphony orchestra.

His interest in performing is limited.

Performing and composing were once the objects of his desire.

“Originally, I went to school to study film scoring. I wanted to compose for movies.”

Fate had a detour, however.

One required undergraduate course was “Introduction to Conducting.” The class “reignited my passion” for conducting, he said.

Davis was a drum major at Riverside’s Patriot High School where he conducted the marching band. He forgot the sheer joy he experienced conducting. The course reminded him.

“At the university, I started conducting for students in the composition studio who just needed pieces performed. I’d conduct for them. As a saxophone player, I really had no experience in an orchestra setting, so conducting was a way into that world,” he said. “Symphonic music was something I really started to enjoy.”

Gigs On The Side

He has not deposited his saxophone under the bed. He has been quite active in performing with community bands. “Before I became very busy with my graduate program, I played frequently with the Moreno Valley Wind Symphony and Pomona Concert Band.

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“It is still a part of what I do,” he said, “it’s just not the focus.”

He conducted wind ensembles at the university, a private, nonprofit school that began offering conducting courses in 2010. “Being a saxophone player, I felt comfortable conducting wind instruments.

“This last semester, I auditioned to switch my emphasis over to orchestral conducting. I passed the audition. Going into this year, I will be working more with the (university) orchestra,” he said. “There is no sense in doing something unless you are going to go all-out,” he observed, laughing.

Long hours and extraordinary dedication are prerequisites. Davis anticipates them.

For each hour spent conducting, 100 hours are spent studying, reading and analyzing scores to get an “idea of what the composer intended and investigate the history of the piece,” Davis said. “Knowing where the composer fits in a particular period of time; what was occurring in that era; what he might be attempting to communicate, all are very important. You then have to effectively communicate all of this to members of the orchestra,” he noted. “There is even a class on score study.”

“My teacher told me a conductor is an actor and the score is the script. In order to learn it, you must do it. It is not something you can learn from a book or a video. You have to experience it for yourself to become better at it,” he said.

Have Job, Will Travel

This time next year, the Chickasaw student will have a master’s degree in his grasp and a deep-seated desire to conduct a full 100-member orchestra.

Reality is tough.

Conducting jobs in major metropolitan American cities are scarce. Orchestras looking for one usually select a seasoned pro with additional marketing and fundraising talents.

“In a perfect universe, if I received everything in the world I wanted, I would be conducting a professional group somewhere. I’ve been taking some steps toward (attaining that goal.) The real problem for most conductors is getting (their) names out there. I have started doing competition conducting. A lot of conductors break into the business through competition,” he said.

He also is reaching out to a composer familiar to American Indians—Emmy-winner Jerod Tate, also a Chickasaw citizen.

“I was interested in conducting a Chickasaw piece and I contacted him. He sent me a score he feels really needs a conductor,” Davis said.

“I have been studying the score and I really hope this year I can cobble some kind of ensemble together to perform it. Jerod’s composition is very complicated and it needs a conductor to keep everything together.”

Davis said the Chickasaw Nation is the reason he attends school working toward a master’s degree.

“I am very proud of my heritage and I speak up about it,” he said. “The Chickasaw Nation made it possible for me to afford (graduate school) through scholarships.”

Davis, the son of Jeff Davis of Ada, Oklahoma, and Melissa Davis of Riverside, California, said orchestras in Europe and Asia are of exemplary caliber. He is not opposed to relocating abroad should an opportunity present itself.

“Being a part of any orchestra would be fantastic,” he said. “A year from now I hope to have positioned myself to take advantage of that opportunity.”

Watch the Chickasaw student conducting the University of Redlands Symphonic Band in a video clip below. The group plays a modern adaptation of “Shenandoah,” a folk tune that originated with French fur traders traveling the Missouri River in the early 19th century.