Did you know that Aaron Copland, John Eliot Gardiner, Philip Glass, Virgil Thomson, and Daniel Barenboim all share something in common? There are many more talented individuals that I could name that are part of this special group of leading composers, soloists, and conductors as well. These individuals all had the pleasure of being students of the talented Nadia Boulanger during some point of her almost seven decades of teaching, which started at the age of 16! George Gershwin could have made the list, having sought lessons for composition from Nadia, but she told him "I can teach you nothing," and actually gave Gershwin one of, what he said, was the finest compliments of his life.
After winning her music school's first prize in harmony, she began teaching out of her family's flat, maybe or maybe not knowing that in the future she would be molding some of the finest musical minds at Juilliard, the Royal Academy of Music, and other fine schools.
It was after a few years of teaching at the French Music School for Americans in Fontainebleau, where she met and taught Aaron Copland, that the amount of work composing, teaching, and performing ended up catching up with Nadia, negatively affecting her health. She knew she could only choose one path for her future. While many of us may be tempted to take the more glamorous path of performing and writing music, Nadia ignored advice from many, including Gabriel Faure, to keep performing and composing and instead followed the path of teaching. Nadia told Faure "If there is one thing of which I am certain, it is that I wrote useless music." A bit of a harsh personal criticism coming from someone whose harmony and composition lessons had a profound impact on many great composers and performers.
Maybe Nadia made this decision so easily because deep down she knew that she would never be completely leaving composing and performing behind. About ten years after making the decision to teach full-time, Nadia would find herself back on the conductor’s platform where she became the first woman to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Things moved quickly from there. The same year she became the first female to conduct a full concert from the Royal Philharmonic Society in London and then made her way to America and became the first woman to conduct a few more orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Washington National Symphony Orchestra.
As a musician myself, I read about Nadia Boulanger in awe. Imagine having a role in molding some part of these tremendous musical minds. Imagine getting to be one of her students! We can all take at least one lesson from Nadia. It's one that's helped me get through those uphill days when my motivator switch is broken. She once said, "Anyone who acts without paying attention to what he is doing is wasting his life. I'd go so far as to say that life is denied by lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece." There's always beauty in life and there's always something positive to take away from any situation. Try not to think about how much you may not want to do something that you really have to do, because you may miss small things on that journey. A little bit of beautiful music goes a long way too!