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Brian Norcross

 

“AS A CONDUCTOR, I have to live in the past, present, and future simultaneously,” says Brian Norcross. The world of conducting is about leading and cooperating, balancing order and chaos. Pattern and scale and movement. How loud? How soft? A conductor’s job is to help musicians bring a score to life—convey the deep and subtle connections. He must know the gestures to make, shape the sound, and fall in love with the music. And he must do all this without a single word.

His movement and facial expressions become the language.Norcross has developed a love of the creative endeavor through teaching, mentoring, and performing. He’s an expressive man with an infectious laugh. His voice is smooth and even. He has taught at Franklin & Marshall College since 1986 and is the Senior Director of Instrumental Music and Conducting Studies. He’s the Director of Music at First United Methodist Church. He is also the Artistic Director and conductor of Allegro Chamber Orchestra of Lancaster. 

A black Darth Vader helmet and a white Stormtrooper helmet sit on top of his piano inside his F&M office. They are remnants of the college’s Spectrum Concert, an annual musical performance held close to Halloween. Norcross invites students to dress up in costume. “The students somewhat demanded that my headgear be on display in my office,” he says with a laugh. Born and raised in New Jersey, he knew he would one day make a living out of music. In the eighth grade he declared he would become a high school band director—and he did. He taught at Mount Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown, Massachusetts. 

Every conductor has a technique. “For me, it’s joy and it’s a joy that transcends what one can put into words,” he says. His approach uses positive reinforcement. “I never reprimand. I observe, give comment. And for the performers, the fear of mistakes goes away and the joy of the music comes in.” His positive approach was born out of a negative experience that crushed his musical soul. 

He recounts being the first chair of the French horns at a high school all-state festival in New Jersey. A special guest conductor was leading the band. “He could not utter a single positive thing from our three days of constant rehearsing,” Norcross remembers. At one point, one of the high school band directors asked if he could take the horns in the hallway, thinking he could help. The guest conductor said, “You can take the horns in the hallway and leave them there.” Norcross remembers slumping back in his chair, looking to his friends next to him, questioning what he was supposed to do to improve with such a comment. He said, “We are the best high school musicians in the state of New Jersey. This should be the most joyful experience any of us could imagine. And someday I’m going to become a conductor and nobody will suffer the way we are. Music should be joyful.” 

Some twenty years later, Norcross was at a conducting workshop and that same guest conductor was part of the faculty who observes and gives constructive comment. To his surprise, Norcross noticed his undergraduate, master’s, and doctorial conducting mentors were also in attendance. The guest conductor gave one good constructive comment and then he looked to the group, then to Norcross, and said, “This guy changed all of you. Your music became joyful and excited and energized just by how he presented himself.” Norcross thanked him for the constructive advice and the compliment. There’s a wordless storybook about a conductor who climbs into a tree and conducts the leaves; they turn into birds and fly away. Once alone, the conductor climbs down and plants his baton in the ground. The baton grows into one of those trees with magical leaves. Norcross purchased The Conductor one year while he and his family were vacationing in Massachusetts. They met John Williams, who was eating in the same restaurant. They asked him for his autograph but the only thing they had for him to sign was the book. He wrote out the first two measures of Star Wars and signed it to all the musicians in the family. 

Norcross says live performance is a metaphor for life. Just yesterday he conducted two major performances at First United Methodist Church. “In a couple of hours I’m going to be putting away all the chairs and there will be no evidence that it happened. There’s a recording, but that’s a cold, hard, judgmental creature. That’s not what happened. What happened was there and now it’s over. I always have a sense of loss after it’s completed. I’ve been living with that music, in many cases, for a year or more,” he says. He witnesses the music come to life. And he puts his baton away, knowing it will live to breathe magic into another score, student, musician, audience in the future. “Nothing is perfect. There’s room to grow and develop. And that’s where the excitement is—that’s the joy!”


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