The Questions: Barbara Elder -Fall 2017
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Barbara Elder has spent the last 36 years in the musical arts on Nantucket, teaching, performing and mentoring students of all ages. Now she is the new president of the Nantucket Arts Council. We caught up with her last month and asked her to reflect on her life in the arts as her organization was planning the Nantucket Arts Festival.
How did you get to Nantucket? Tell us your story.
There was an ad in The Boston Globe for “director of music school on Nantucket Island, choral director and pianist preferred.” My husband and I were ready to move out of Boston with our baby to a place where he could write and I could be involved with music. This seemed like it might be a possibility for a few years. I flew down to Newark Airport where I interviewed with Eva Marie Tausig (Nantucket Musical Arts Society and Nantucket Music Center founding member) and then came to the island for a visit where I interviewed with Susie Jarrell (Nantucket Music Center founding member). Jim and I felt welcomed and thoroughly “warned” about living on the island yearround. I interviewed in the fall and we moved here on Jan. 1, 1982 with our year-old son Will. We had never been here in the summer. Being a Jersey Shore girl though, I wasn’t surprised or overwhelmed when the summer season came.
What has been your career path on Nantucket and where has it led you?
I started here as director of the Nantucket Music Center (also known as the Nantucket Chamber Music Center) and choir director of the Unitarian Church. I was encouraged to reach out to Richard Cary (who previously worked with a relative in Baltimore) as I had experience directing musicals. Richard gave me opportunities to direct for Theatre Workshop and later for Actors Theater. I worked on productions with Warren Krebs and Mac Dixon. I moved full-time into the schools in 1986 as music coordinator and continued there until 2012. All the time, I have continued with the Nantucket Music Center choruses as conductor over the years and still to this day. After retiring from the public schools in 2012, I became actively involved, as director, in the move of the music center into our home at 56 Centre St., and now I am president of the Nantucket Arts Council.
What are some of the things you have initiated in music on Nantucket since you arrived here?
At the Nantucket Music Center, I initiated performing opportunities in the chorus year-round for community members of all ages. At the schools, I started the select choruses known as the Accidentals and Naturals and took them traveling off-island to Boston, New York City and European tours abroad. I began the tradition of performing for the Christmas tree-lighting downtown the day after Thanksgiving and the Nantucket High School Choral Masterwork performance in May. Erin MacIver continues these traditions. I introduced music technology in the schools and encouraged students to learn Final Cut Pro and Sibelius, digital recording and composing tools.
What are the biggest challenges to a career in the arts and specifically the musical arts on Nantucket? The challenges are many, and it helps to have a sense of humor and flexibility. As a musician, you are called on for many different purposes. Sometimes you have to bend your talents and skills in an unfamiliar direction. As in most occupations on the island, there are a finite number of people with specific musical skills ... weddings, funerals, memorials, graduations, concerts, musicals, parties, holidays ... most all need a musician. It helps to be versatile.
What are some of the most rewarding moments you’ve experienced in your career?
Preparing and performing each of the Nantucket High School masterworks. Helping students audition for music festivals and then watching them fully embrace the experience of the festivals: Cape & Islands, Southeast District, All State or All Eastern. Rehearsing and performing any one of the musicals and working with the many wonderful people I collaborated with. Just about every concert has rewards, which is why it is so difficult to pick one.
What do you love about living on Nantucket, and where are your favorite spots on the island?
I’m a “townie.” I live in town and love being able to walk everywhere. I love the spaces and acoustics inside our old historic churches, and my early-morning walks along the perimeter of the harbor. I am particularly drawn to the walk and water around Smith’s Point and Steps Beach.
If you could invite six people to dinner, from present time to past, who would you invite and why? My father, with whom I would like to discuss music among many other things. My mother, from whom I’d like advice. My sister, who left too soon and was always feisty and energetic. Barack and Michelle Obama, because who wouldn’t want to meet them? Hillary Clinton, just because.
Tell us a fun fact about yourself that would surprise most people.
I like New Jersey a lot and sometimes I really miss the Jersey Shore and the amusement parks.
When you’re not on Nantucket where do you like to vacation to unwind? Any special trips on your bucket list?
I love traveling to Europe, New York City and the West Coast. Our children live in Brooklyn, San Francisco and Seattle. We visit them as much as we can and love the energy of their chosen cities. I can relax in a city as much as at a beach. Traveling to India is definitely on our list as our daughter-in-law is Indian.