Naomi Woo Composed Her Own Career Path and Became a Conductor by 29

The musician and conductor explains how she made it happen

(Photo: Tom Porteous)
(Photo: Tom Porteous)

Name: Naomi Woo

Job title: Assistant conductor at Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra; music director at Sistema Winnipeg

Age: 29

From: St. John’s and Vancouver

Currently lives in: Winnipeg

Education: BA in mathematics and philosophy, Yale University; DÉPA in piano performance, Université de Montréal; MMus in piano performance, Yale School of Music; PhD in musicology, Cambridge University (as a Gates Cambridge Scholar)

First job out of school: Assistant conductor at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

Naomi Woo started playing piano at four, and by 13 she knew what she wanted to do with her life. At that time, Woo was already playing solo piano with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. That’s where she met conductor Tania Miller.

“I remember seeing her and thinking for the first time, ‘Oh, maybe that’s a job I could have,’” says Woo. “And I don’t know that I would’ve thought that if it had been a man conductor. I don’t think I would have.”

Inspired, Woo did a school project on what a career as a conductor would look like. Now, at 29, she’s living it, working as an assistant conductor with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

That path sounds simple, but Woo considers herself lucky, noting that becoming a conductor is not a straight or simple career path. Often, people will study conducting and then start their own orchestra or work as a “répétiteur” (pianist) in an opera house while continuing to study the craft. Knowing that the industry is tough, Woo did what she could to plan ahead. Once she realized that she wanted to be at the front of the stage, she reached out to professional conductors and sought out mentors. “I think seeing other people’s paths and learning more about how other people did this was really grounding and helped me as I started to envision what the future could look like,” she says.

Additionally, connecting with multiple women in the field boosted Woo’s confidence for when she takes the podium herself. “There’s a rise in incredible young women conductors around the world,” she says. “Seeing their career paths and watching them…I’ve been able to see a lot of role models all at once.”

Even though times are changing, Woo says that she still frequently works with musicians who have never been conducted by a woman before. Whether she’s working with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra or with local youth-outreach program Sistema Winnipeg to bring music to underserved communities, Woo hopes to inspire the next generation of potential classical musicians—the same way that she was once inspired herself.

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