Niklas Tamm, 2016-17 Thanks To Scandinavia Scholar at the University of Michigan


Niklas, a Thanks To Scandinavia scholar from Sweden, is studying towards a Master of Music in Orchestral Conducting at the University of Michigan. Niklas is the recipient of the Thanks To Scandinavia Victor Borge Music Scholarship, The Freydberg/Baumgold Scholarship, The Arie and Ida Crown Memorial Scholarship, and The Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation Scholarship.

 Tell me about your musical journey.

My grandparents were musicians but I never thought that I would be a musician until I was 18 or 19. I played piano, organ and violin growing up but I didn’t practice much and I was actually planning a career in math or physics. The first time I realized that people could really appreciate my music was when I performed a solo piece at my high school graduation. To my complete surprise, I got a standing ovation. After this I studied violin professionally for 6 years before turning to conducting. When I was accepted to the conducting program at the Royal College in Stockholm I was really surprised again, because I had hardly taken any conducting lessons before and only conducted a few amateur things. I did the audition mostly to find out if I would ever be able to pass in the future. But from the moment I began my conducting studies, I knew that this was what I was supposed to do. Almost from the beginning I have been asking myself “what do I want to express with this particular phrase?” and “what does the composer give us more than what’s visible to everyone on the page?”

Someone said “Lead like a great conductor”. Are you a leader?

Leading skills are certainly one of the conductor’s most important ones. I think that I am a leader, but not necessarily the kind of old-school dictatorial leader that some people still associate with the conductor’s role. My approach to leadership is to lead by example and to focus on our common goal – making the music as beautiful as possible. I take charge when I am needed, but I allow initiatives from other musicians and to be open to what they have to offer. I think that the music is always inspiring enough – if I can channel that to the orchestra we can achieve great results together.

Where is your magical moment in conducting?

The moment that’s hard to describe is when the music comes to life and we all are just united like one big living organism. Then you as a conductor can relax and feel complete trust in the orchestra.

Is conducting all about “me” or “them”?

It has to be both, but ideally it should actually be ”all about the music”. We all want to get the place where I don’t have to worry about the musicians and not think about our own performance but just about the music itself. To get there however, it has to be a lot about both “me” and ”them”. In a performance, focus constantly has to shift between all of these.

Which music is your favorite to conduct?

Oh, that’s a really hard question. I have so many favorites! I really love conducting the classics like Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven because the music is just so natural and beautiful, but probably my favorites are Brahms and Mahler. In recent years I have also started a big passion for conducting opera, not only is the human voice and the drama attracting me a lot, but this is where the conductor is needed more than anywhere, and every performance is going to be different so in a way conducting an opera is like downhill skiing or surfing — you always have to be aware of the moment and have a perfect balance to avoid falling. But when you can relax in this it’s the most awesome feeling.

Conducting is creating perfect harmony without saying a word. Do you use formal rules on how to conduct or do you create your own? 

Both. There are some conventions that the conductor must follow unless he wants to spend much of the rehearsal time explaining what he is doing instead of working on the music. Especially in opera when singers and orchestra players often change from day to day, and where you sometimes have to conduct a performance without even seeing the group, you just cannot ignore the formal conventions. Apart from this I would say I do what I feel like I need to. Even if you do the same piece the conducting might shift completely from one day to another or from one place to another. If I do a Mozart symphony with a professional ensemble in their usual concert hall I might not show the tempo at all but only show lines, phrasing, shapes and colors. If I do the same symphony with an amateur group or in a church with difficult acoustics I might need to give clear beats most of the time to keep the music together.

How did you come to apply for the Thanks to Scandinavia scholarship?

What started the whole thing was a masterclass in Berlin in 2013. A friend of mine had to cancel at the last minute offered me to go in his place. With just a few days to prepare, I went there and met Professor Kenneth Kiesler. He liked what I was doing so he invited me to his summer academy in Maine and after 3 weeks there I decided to apply to the conducting program at University of Michigan where he teaches. The program is highly competitive and I never thought I was going to make it, but when Professor Kiesler called to tell me I was accepted, I knew I had to do it. I looked everywhere for scholarships because I didn’t have enough money to pay for tuition and living expenses. The Sweden-America Foundation helped me apply for the Thanks To Scandinavia scholarship and I am truly thankful for this, since I honestly don’t know how I would get through my two years here without the funding from Thanks To Scandinavia.

What are your future goals?

I want to conduct professionally. In the beginning I was only thinking about symphony orchestras, but now I am more and more attracted to opera conducting. As I am finishing my master’s degree in May, a really difficult but also exciting time is coming. For almost every conductor there is a period after finishing studies where he/she doesn’t have many job opportunities and has to work hard to make people discover you. I am moving back to Sweden and I will certainly be applying to conducting competitions and audition for jobs all over Europe, and possibly in America too, as much as I can next year. I will also have to work proactively to create my own opportunities. In the summer I am already booked for two opera performances at an opera festival in Sweden and together with my fiancée we are trying to stage another opera on our own. I am also thinking about starting my own orchestra to create job opportunities for my friends and me. Here in the US, a lot of people do things like that, but in Sweden it’s much more unusual.

Interview conducted by Liv Grimsby