Entrepreneurship and Career Development

Entrepreneur of the Month

Nicholas Hersh (photo: Yupeng Gu)

Entrepreneur of the Month: September

Nicholas Hersh: On Working with a Major Arts Organization

Congratulations to alumnus Nicholas Hersh, Project Jumpstart's Entrepreneur of the

This month, Project Jumpstart sat down with recent Jacobs School grad, Nicholas Hersh, who recently completed his first year as the Assistant Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. In February, Nick made his subscription debut with the BSO when he stepped in for indisposed guest conductor, Yan Pascal Tortelier. In addition to conducting, Nick continues to gain national recognition for his skills as an arranger and orchestrator. His arrangements include commissions from the Cleveland Pops, the National Repertory Orchestra, and the Jackson Symphony. 

Project Jumpstart: Many young conductors only dream about working somewhere like the Baltimore Symphony. Tell us what it’s like being the assistant conductor of an organization of that magnitude?

Nicholas Hersh: It's challenging, demanding, but all-in-all rewarding work. As assistant conductor, your primary duties are to cover (similar to "understudy") for the music director and the many guest conductors performing in any given season, as well as conduct several your own shows (highlights for me this year include the complete Home Alone live with the movie in December and an all-American program in March). That's often plenty to keep me busy, but then we get to the "other duties as assigned" line in the job description, and there's where an assistant conductor truly tests his/her mettle in an organization as multi-faceted as the BSO. I help program concerts, coordinate with the education and development teams on special events, advise on various artistic matters, do promotional interviews, write content for our program books, arrange music, assist the librarian and personnel manager, and assist in blocking rehearsals for staged productions. Earlier this year I even led a conducting masterclass for music educators! It can become overwhelming at times, but I love it!

Nick Hersh

Nick conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

PJ: The world of classical music is continually changing. How does an organization like the Baltimore Symphony stay relevant in today’s society?

NH: The BSO is one of the leading American orchestras in this regard. Relevancy begins and ends with intensive involvement in the community, and the BSO's OrchKids program is a shining example. It's a Sistema-inspired after-school music program for children in those neglected areas of East and West Baltimore that have seen especially difficult times recently, and after being involved in several of their projects myself, let me tell you ... to see these kids in action is to see renewed hope for both the future of music and the city.

I know every orchestra likes to say this, but in this case I really think it's true: the BSO is at the forefront of imaginative programming. One of my favorites is the "Off-the-Cuff" series, which builds a multimedia narrative around a major work, such as Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet performed and acted with a newly-produced version of the original Shakespeare next month.

We're launching a new series called PULSE that puts orchestral music by modern composers and Indie bands on the same stage, and features a collaborative finale for the band members and BSO musicians. I've helped design the series and will be conducting all four shows, and could not be more excited for our first concert in a few weeks!

Nick Hersh

Check out this video of Nick conducting his own arrangement of Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' with violist Sarah Harball and a JSoM studio orchestra (produced by the JSoM Department of Audio Engineering and Sound Production and IU Radio & TV). An earlier version, performed as part of the JSoM student ad-hoc orchestra series, went viral on YouTube. 

PJ: When you think about where you are now, what were some of the things you were doing while at IU that you are finding most helpful to you now?

NH: First of all, I consider myself extremely fortunate for my own employment, but when it comes to my fellow IU Orchestral Conducting graduates, that's not the exception – that's the rule. My former classmates are in positions at major orchestras and opera houses around the globe, and there could not be any greater testament than that to the power of Maestri Effron and Fagen's teaching. But I will say this: IU gives you the opportunity to try a little bit of everything, and taking the school up on that offer is the most useful thing I could have ever done. I did a lot of conducting – from opera to film score, from composition readings to the Fall Ballet – and the experience in all these genres is still paying dividends for me today. I also played in the orchestras, which I still think is the best way for aspiring conductors to learn rehearsal technique. And I served as both a librarian for the PED and a personnel manager for the Conductors Orchestra – two jobs which, when experienced first-hand, gives a conductor a crucial new perspective on the behind-the-scene workings of an orchestra. These, and going to innumerable concerts, masterclasses and Jumpstart events in a variety of areas afforded me a wealth of knowledge that I'm still finding new reasons to draw upon. 

Nick Hersh

Nick enjoys a quiet moment with the JSoM studio orchestra

PJ: As a young artist in the beginning phases of your career, can you give students advice on how to “hold their own” in environments with veteran professionals. (For example when you took over last minute for Yan Pascal Tortelier)

NH: I'd be lying if I said it wasn't even still a little daunting! I've been with the BSO over a year now and I can still get the jitters walking in the door – it's one of the top orchestras in the U.S., comprised of people who've been in the business for decades and who know WAY more than I do about music. Yet that also means there's a wealth of collective wisdom to learn from and to help guide your own musical and professional development, so make it a point of coming to work with an open mind and positive, polite attitude. Then, very simply, always, unfailingly, come completely prepared for the week's repertoire. With these combined, you will be seen as dedicated, confident yet humble – and in my experience, even the most seasoned professional will respect your work at the very least. For me, when it came to my filling in for Tortelier, I had already managed to establish a friendly and respectful relationship with the majority of the musicians and administrators, so I can tell you it was much less stressful than it could have been!

PJ: You are a wonderful arranger who has had commissions from organizations like the Cleveland Pops. How does being a conductor affect the way you go about arranging or vice-versa?

Nick Hersh

Nick uses striking images as a way to create a strong personal brand and set himself apart as an artist. (photo: Yupeng Gu)

NH: I never studied composition or arranging formally – everything I know about arranging comes from conducting. As a conductor you spend countless hours poring over scores, analyzing and memorizing the orchestration to learn the piece. By studying the great composers at that level, you're essentially taking a seminar in orchestration by the greatest practitioners in history. And for me, it's not just the composers we typically associate with mastery of orchestration, like Ravel, Mahler and Rimsky-Korsakov; I owe as much to them as I do to Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms when it comes to understanding orchestral colors. Every new piece I study adds another element to my arranging toolkit, and often when I have a new arrangement to do I'll turn to a specific score for inspiration. In fact, I just did a new arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner for the BSO, and I dug out my Boléro score to help me figure out the components of the sound I was looking for at the climax!

PJ: Any big differences you notice working with Marin [Alsop] who is arguably the most famous woman conductor?

NH: Marin is an exceptional musician and human being. She dedicates herself wholly to all her endeavors small and large, and she's never satisfied: she's always looking for the next opportunity to take the BSO to a new level when it comes to education, programming and responsibility to the community. She's a great boss, and she inspires me to further develop my own sense of entrepreneurship – and to have the stamina to keep up with her!


PJ: If you were to comment on the essential qualities of music entrepreneurship today, what would those be?

NH: For musicians with an entrepreneurial spirit, the professional world can become a morass of bureaucracy and elitism. It's easy to "think outside the box," but to make those ideas a reality means facing near-constant resistance, usually from those who would prefer that we stick to hundred-year-old concert traditions. To truly be an entrepreneur is to refuse to give in to that negativity. Keep the discussion active, articulate a clear and fleshed-out plan, and be willing to negotiate with the naysayers and adapt that plan to fit a possible opportunity to implement it. Once the opportunity comes, stand 110% behind your concept. If it misses the target, figure out why and look for the next chance to try it. And if it succeeds, don't be satisfied – figure out what the next step is for greater exposure and impact. This is the mindset that drives people like Marin to create programs like the Taki Concordia Fellowship for women conductors, and it's the reason behind the existence of many of the BSO's efforts like OrchKids and PULSE.

Project Jumpstart partners with the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the IU Kelley School of Business.