1992 graduate, Denise McGovern
Life After GDYO, with Denise McGovern
Q&A with Denise
What is your GDYO story?
I joined GDYO for only one year – 1991-1992. My best friend was auditioning and suggested I join her. I hadn’t heard of the organization before, but I played and got in!
I went to a great high school with a fine band program, and I had a wonderful flute teacher, but I had never played at the level of GDYO. The musicians around me were fantastic, and it made me work harder to be a better player. I had heard of the pieces that we played, but I would have never had a chance to perform them if I hadn’t joined GDYO. And sitting in the middle of the orchestra at the Meyerson with that sound all around me, being part of that music on such a grand scale was truly life-changing. There’s no question that being part of GDYO changed the path of my life and directed me to study music seriously.
If you haven’t already told us, what years were you in the program, and what ensembles?
Ha! There was only one ensemble when I was there!
Do you still play? Tell us about that.
I don’t play anymore. I earned a Bachelors of Music at SMU in flute performance, and I was accepted at Indiana University for their Masters program in flute. I moved to Bloomington and had a pretty rough start. Moving from a studio of 4 to a studio of 40 was not easy. My flute professor at IU broke my playing down and built it back up even stronger than before. By my second semester I was Assistant Principal in the second orchestra (there were 5!!!), and I was performing with some of the best players I’d ever heard.
The summer after that first year I practiced harder than ever before. I went to Quebec for a masterclass taught in French (I don’t speak French). I found teachers across Indiana and played wherever I could get a chance. I came back to campus in the Fall, ready to claim my spot in an orchestra. I didn’t make one. After all that work, I didn’t even get seated. To say I was devastated doesn’t really come close to the feelings I had. I was 23 years old, and I had given all I had to my instrument. At this point it was my identity. I could have easily taken my lumps, concentrated on practicing more and worked on chamber music. I was much more rash that that; I walked into the office of the Arts Administration program and said, puffy and teary-eyed, “do you have any spots open?”
After the adviser calmly told me that one must apply to be in the program, I went home and put my flute away. I then withdrew from my classes and dropped out of music school (there’s got to be a song here somewhere…). That year was the hardest I’d had in my life. I had to create a brand new identity away from my instrument, and completely away from home. I knew I loved music, but I had made the choice not to be a performer. So now what?
I got a local job at a law firm. I read every book I could get my hands on. I volunteered at a local theater. I still supported my friends in their performing, but boy was that hard. I applied to the Arts Administration program during that year, and I got in! Silver lining? The year off gave me Indiana residency and a huge break on my tuition!
What have you been up to since leaving GDYO?
I earned my Masters in Arts Administration at Indiana in 2000. Part of my degree was an internship, and I did it in New York at a very small classical music publicity firm. We had some awesome clients, and I got to go to concerts almost every night at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Met Opera. They sent me to Switzerland for a week to represent the Verbier Festival. I was getting paid to talk music with people every single day!
After a time at a classical music website, I got a job in marketing at Universal Music Group working in their classical division for the Decca and Deutsche Grammophon labels. I have always had a passion for tech, and I ended up working with our London office on the first interactions with iTunes. Within a few years, I was in charge of the digital sales department (OK, it was just me, but still), and putting together campaigns with digital music outlets. I met so many wonderful artists and got to travel with them to showcases that included some of the biggest pop artists too.
By this time I had moved back to Dallas. I was living in my city, but telecommuting to New York. I had no contacts in my community, and that was something I wanted. After a very stressful day at Universal, I got online to look for jobs. There was a position open at the Dallas Symphony for Communications. Their Director of Operations was someone I knew from SMU, and she helped me get my resume to the president. I applied, got the job, and I’ve been with the DSO since 2013.
As the Vice President of Communications, I am responsible for internal and external messaging, content creation, press and publicity and electronic media initiatives. You know what else I do? I talk to the coolest musicians every day, welcome world-class artists each week and tell stories about music all the time. It’s pretty awesome.
Looking back on your college experience, what is one piece of advice that you would give to a student pursuing a music degree, like besides just practicing?
Meet every single person you can. Winds, talk to the string players! Trust me, you’re not as shy as you think, and your social anxiety isn’t nearly that bad. This world runs on connections, performing and not performing. People like to tell their stories, and they like to help others. Having those contacts will help you get the audition, the job interview, help in a new city, etc. Building that network is essential, and honestly, lots of fun.
Looking back on your time outside of school, what are some things that have most surprised you about your adult life?
It’s so cliche, but you honestly don’t know where life will bring you. Actions bring consequences, good and bad, and it’s not what those consequences are, but how you deal with them. You learn so much about yourself when you’re in a new and tough situation.
We always hear “follow your passion”, especially when you’re in an artistic career. At 16, I would have taken that as “be a professional flute player”. Now I hear it as “keep music in your life.” If you want to be a professional musician, by all means, go for it! If you don’t want to, or find that you can’t, it’s so fine. This world needs arts patrons, music teachers, arts administrators, artist managers, music producers, operations people, recording engineers, stage managers, instrument makers, board members. There are a million ways to keep art in your life and be fulfilled by it.
Being a performer taught me more than I ever realized at the time, too. When the conductor stands in front of you and asks you to play differently than you practiced it, you have to deliver. That’s true of any job. Do you know how hard it is to stand in front of an audience, just you in front of a piano or orchestra, and play a piece? It’s so hard! Standing up in front of your colleagues and delivering a presentation or giving a speech is just not nearly as hard as that! The focus that you have as a musician, the sheer discipline it takes to prepare for a recital prepares you like crazy for what the world gives you. Music gives you all the tools you need to be successful at anything. And keeping music around you makes things beautiful as well.