Mallory Thompson's first musical memory is singing with her older sister when she was maybe 3 years old.
"We'd sing 'You Are My Sunshine.' She taught me the melody and she sang harmony. I loved it."
Then there was church.
"I became a very vigorous singer — I'd stand in the pew and really belt it out — so my parents would move to the back of the church."
Today, music is at the center of the Minneapolis-born Thompson's life. As her Northwestern University bio puts it, she's the coordinator, conducting and ensembles, and director of bands. She conducts the Symphonic Wind Ensemble, teaches graduate and undergraduate conducting, and administers all aspects of the band program. She also "writes a million letters of recommendation every year" for her former students.
Thompson, 55, took the position 17 years ago, her second time around at Northwestern. In 1975 she arrived as a student, earning her bachelor's and master's degrees. She later got her doctor of musical arts degree from the Eastman School of Music in New York.
On one typically busy recent day, she rehearsed with the 50-member Symphonic Wind Ensemble in preparation for Northwestern's commencement ceremonies. ("Two rehearsals and the gig — that's it"), and later took time for an interview. Here is an edited version of the conversation.
Q: Watching you conduct during the rehearsal, you had a little smile most of the time. Is it that much fun?
A: I love it. I love them. I've worked with them for years, and (the commencement) is a celebratory event. We get to play together one more time.
Q: So after 17 years you must still like your job.
A: In my area, it's arguably one of the top five jobs in the country. The Bienen School of Music is excellent, and I work with such excellent colleagues. The people who teach, the instructors for all the students. … I've been here 17 years, and there's this massive community of great people and accomplished musicians.
Q: Aside from Northwestern, you're also the artistic director of the Northshore Concert Band. What's that?
A: It's about a hundred adults, maybe half of whom are music teachers. But there are therapists, retirees, businesspeople, physicians. Interesting people, and they're all dedicated to performing at the highest possible level. We rehearse Wednesday nights, and I know every single one of them has made a sacrifice to be at those rehearsals.
Q: Most people have no idea what conducting is like. Can you give an idea?
A: There's the work part of it. Most of that is done before the rehearsals. You're the only one with the score. You have to learn it, study it, then come up with a point of view or interpretation of the score. … The fun part? I came from a neighborhood with very few kids, and when the school bus arrived each morning, the doors would open and I'd be ecstatic. I'd organize (the kids) and play games. … That's how I feel now with the (students). I organize them. I pick the games. That's sweet.
Q: You guest conduct a lot and have done performances with quite a few military bands. Is that by design?
A: U.S. military bands, especially the elite bands — in Washington, West Point, the Coast Guard band — are exceptional organizations, and when you're invited to do that as a civilian, it's quite an honor. And even better, I have former students in the bands, and to play with them again is fun and very emotional.
Q: On the topic of students, schools everywhere are cutting their music programs. Has that affected the level of the students you get?
A: No. But the cuts are a terrible shame. The best of what music does is it provides an opportunity for creativity, for art, for intelligence. That growth should be available to everybody.
Q: What music do you listen to at home?
A: I don't listen to music around the house much. (Conductors) listen in silence; they picture music in their mind. A lot of times I just like it quiet. I do listen to WFMT. I have a great Ray Charles CD. I listen to jazz, light rock.
Q: What about relaxation?
A: I have some exercise classes I like to attend. I sound like an old bat, but the older you get, the more important it is. I don't want to be up there in front of a bunch of 20-year-olds and not be able to finish the rehearsal. I go to a dance class, some weight training classes. … I go to the movies. I love reading. I love to eat. What a great city Chicago is to go out and eat.
Q: Any pets?
A: I have a dog, Samson. Sammy. A Bichon. He doesn't care if I've had a good rehearsal or not. He just wants my attention.