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Photo courtesy of Indiana Wind Ensemble

Featured Article

Measuring Impact

For Retiring Indiana Wind Symphony Conductor Charles Conrad, Music Is a Lifelong Investment

Article by Amy Adams

Photography by Logan Clark (Maverick Marketing)

Originally published in Carmel City Lifestyle

Music notes waft through Charles Conrad’s childhood memories. 

In the 1920s and 1930s, many schools across the United States instituted the Music Memory Contest. Each fall in Indiana, schools received a list of musical selections for the year, ranging from Bach to Wagner. At Conrad’s elementary school, students listened to music over the PA system every morning, and their teacher would talk about the piece and the composer. At the end of each semester, the students would take a quiz. The highest-scoring students got to go hear the Indiana Wind Symphony Orchestra play the year’s musical selections in a live performance. 

Conrad went every year.

He began taking piano lessons around second grade. Then a couple of years later, his father came home with a cornet he won at a poker game, and Conrad’s music world changed.

Conrad graduated from Arlington High School in Indianapolis and then from the Indiana University School of Music with a bachelor’s degree in trumpet performance.

Family connections led him to the Carmel Symphony Orchestra, which was formed in 1976 and was searching for an assistant conductor.

“I had to take a conducting class in college, but I had never really thought about pursuing it,” Conrad says. “But I got in front of the Carmel Symphony, and I loved it!”  

With a newfound love of conducting, Conrad entered a program at Butler University that was so new that some of his courses were one-on-one with professors. He earned the first master’s degree Butler granted in conducting and went on to earn a doctorate degree in orchestral conducting from Ball State University. 

However, Conrad would learn what he calls a “dirty little secret” in the music world—orchestras don’t often choose brass players as conductors. But Conrad didn’t let that stop him. 

“I reinvented myself and became a band conductor,” he says.

Conrad founded the Indiana Wind Symphony in 1997.

“A wind symphony is basically a concert band,” Conrad explains. “It’s a very large one. We don’t have any strings. It is all woodwinds, brass and percussion with maybe a bass, a piano or a harp.”

Fully staffed, the symphony has around 80 volunteer members, including professional musicians, music educators and serious musicians who work in a variety of professions by day. 

A resident company for the Carmel Center for the Performing Arts since 2011, the IWS performs around 15 concerts a year, including six concerts at The Palladium. They play music from 250 years ago up to the music of today, from musicals to operas to … a piece about a giant beetle.

They also perform wind chamber music at The Studio Theater with anywhere from three to 25 musicians, one on a part. 

Despite the fact that Conrad is retiring from the IWS this spring, he will still be traveling this summer to Italy with a group of around 50 to conduct concerts throughout the country, including in Carmel’s sister city Cortona. The concerts will mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Italian composer Giacomo Puccini and will include some of his music, with soprano soloist Jessamyn Anderson performing the arias. 

For Conrad, conducting overseas is nothing new, as he has conducted in more than 10 European countries. He also lent his skills to the National Trumpet Competition, served as historical music consultant for the 2011 movie Water for Elephants and is working on a book about the history of American circus music. 

And if Conrad’s musical influence runs wide, it also runs deep. He and his wife Ann have invested their lives into the musical landscape of the community for years. Ann served as Carmel High School choral director for 38 years, and Conrad served as choir director at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis for more than 20 years. In addition, he has maintained a large private trumpet studio where he is coming up on teaching his 80,000th lesson.

“I am most proud of starting a wind symphony that has risen to be nationally known as one of the best adult non-professional bands,” Conrad says. “That is definitely the most important thing I’ve done. That and my trumpet players.”

Although Conrad is retiring from the IWS, he is not stepping away from music. In fact, he’s putting off shoulder surgery to make sure he can still do some guest conducting. 

“My big plans are to travel,” he says, “to see great art and hear great music.” 

The IWS Springtime Celebration at 6:30 p.m. April 29 will feature the premiere of a piece called “Visions,” composed and conducted by Nashville conductor David Sartor in honor of Charles Conrad. The performance will also showcase guest conductor Jay Gephart, the director of bands at Purdue University who is set to become the next IWS director.

The key to success is perseverance, especially in music. Your whole life people tell you music is not a career. 

The job of the conductor is to be a tour guide in the musical world—to interpret what the composer has to say through the music to the orchestra and then to the audience.

  • Photo courtesy of Indiana Wind Ensemble
  • Conrad collects antique brass instruments and historic band photos.

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