Tracy Wilson approaches career coda, but love of music will go on

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PITTSFIELD — For Berkshire Music School executive director Tracy Wilson, it's all about the music.

"Music is so deeply connected to the soul," she said during a recent interview in her office at the 80-year-old institution on Wendell Avenue. "If only people could find a way to make music, it would make them feel better." That's a large part of the school's reason for being, she says. It's why, on her first day on the job in October 2003, she moved the executive director's office from the first-floor street-facing parlor to the center of the ground floor.

"[The parlor] didn't feel to me to be as welcoming as it should be," she said in an email. "[It] was a far better room for teaching music with a big front window so [passers by] could see and hear music in the making."

The move also would allow her "to see all the comings and goings of the school," she said, "and families, staff and faculty members would know that my door would always be open to them."

In June, at a date that has yet to be determined, that door will close and another will open. Wilson, 64, will be stepping down, retiring, after nearly 17 years in a job she's wanted ever since high school in Geneva, Neb., where she was born and raised and her father served at a Lutheran church.

"I've always wanted to lead an arts organization," Wilson said. "A friend even wrote it in my yearbook — 'She'll be running a music institution.'"

Her route to the Berkshires led her to nearby Lincoln, Neb., where she was an undergraduate music major at the University of Nebraska, and then to Washington, D.C. to complete her studies for a University of Nebraska-issued Masters of Music and Arts Administration at Catholic University and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts, which, on completion of her Masters, hired Wilson as education program coordinator.

Looking back, Wilson has no doubt that she and the Berkshires were destined for one another. While working at the Kennedy Center, she spent summers — three of them — in Vermont as music director for the Weston Playhouse cabaret and assistant music director for the theater's main stage productions. She was caught by this part of Massachusetts, she said, as she drove through on her way to and from Weston.

She moved from Washington, D.C. to the Berkshires in the fall of 1985 and applied for a job with the Boston Symphony Orchestra with the hope of working at Tanglewood. Instead, she said, the position they offered would have kept her in Boston. "I didn't want to live in Boston," she said.

She wound up Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival instead, where she went to work in January 1986 as a development assistant. She moved up a notch in the department when her boss quit. "I was perfectly green," she said with a laugh.

She had been at the Pillow two years when, she said, "Berkshire Museum came knocking at my door," offering her a job as development director. In addition to development director, over the course of her nine-plus years at the museum, she served twice as interim director/co-director. Then, in 1996, the long-sought opportunity with the Boston Symphony materialized. Wilson was named director of Tanglewood Annual Funds and Community Relations, a position she held for seven years when then-Berkshire Music School president Joan McFalls tapped her for the school's top job. Words on a yearbook page turned to reality.

"I wanted the school to be a success," Wilson said. "I wanted to steer the ship and welcomed the opportunity to be in charge."

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Wilson's goals were to make the school financially stable; ramp up faculty recitals; bolster the school's annual appeal; and expand programming. Before she could accomplish any of that, she had to deal with the fact that many people "did not know about the school, even though we have been around since 1940, nor its location. So, I started to tell people that the Berkshire Museum (which fronts South Street and backs up to BMS' Taft Recital Hall) is behind the music school," she said in her email.

"Also, so many people thought the school taught only classical music, which it pretty much did but dance, one level of cabaret, and music theater were offered when I started. So from the beginning, I knew I needed to be the school's number one cheerleader, diversify the offerings, and get the school more involved in the community."

She's done that. Operating on an annual budget of $550,000, the school — which is on temporary hiatus during this coronavirus pandemic — offers its 250 students private and group lessons in piano, jazz piano, electric keyboard. sight-singing, percussion, voice, violin, brass, winds, theory, composition; classes and workshops in guitar, music for youngsters between the ages of 1 and 3 ; onstage performance for teens and pre-teens, and cabaret. There also are classes for various instrumental ensembles, all taught after public school hours by a faculty of 35, two-thirds of whom are Wilson hires. Community outreach has, in many ways, been Wilson's most satisfying accomplishment. She estimates the school has reached anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000 people through an association with Berkshire County Arc, which serves children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and a variety of what Wilson calls "fabulous events — think Painted Violin Project; Painted Piano Project; Evening at Elm Court; two events at Blantyre; two concerts by John Pizzarelli; concerts by Joey Silverstein, and by MiDori; 75th anniversary Gala at Colonial Theatre; 65th anniversary gala at Model Farm ... " she said in the email.

Her greatest satisfaction, she said, "is watching students of all ages find their way to music and the pride they show when they complete a performance, whether it's just for me or a roomful of appreciative audience members."

She also is proud of having brought "outstanding teachers to the school; experienced educators and performers, kind, creative and compassionate people," one of whom, David Wampler, a 68-year-old trombonist, just happens to be Wilson's husband.

They met while she was working at Jacob's Pillow. She had gone back to Lincoln for a family event and was at a jazz club with a friend. Wilson told her friend she recognized the horn player in the band "from somewhere." It turned out "he was a grad at Nebraska when I was an undergrad," Wilson said during her office interview. "I pretty much knew who everyone was in the music department."

Wilson was, still is, a pianist. "The word at the time was that pianists didn't always fraternize with horn players," Wilson said lightly.

They carried on a long-distance relationship between Lincoln and the Berkshires until finally, in the summer of 1987, "he packed up all his things and moved out here," Wilson said. He found work as a freelance musician, playing with the Albany Symphony and in the pit for several musical productions. He now teaches at College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y. They married six years later. They live in Becket together with their rescue dog, an "Alabama swamp dog," Wilson says, named Tanner.

For Wilson, running Berkshire Music School has been "much more than a job. It's who I am as a person," she said. "It's who I want to be."

Her successor has not yet been chosen. Wilson is hopeful she will leave behind a legacy of "good leadership, hard work, fairness; of creativity. People have said to me that I've been running the school as my own little parish; that the school is like a mini-Juilliard only better. I've always tried to be fair and honest and balanced."

She's been thinking about retiring for a while, she said. She will continue conducting the Stockbridge Festival Chorus with which, with the exception of her time with the BSO, she's been associated since 1992; and this summer will be her third as music director of the Stockbridge Sinfonia. In addition to continuing her piano playing, she will take up another instrument — the cello. "I haven't unpacked my cello case in years," she said.

She's anticipating traveling with her husband and taking long walks with him and their dog. She's also looking forward to attending closed Friday BSO rehearsals at Tanglewood. And, she said, "the first day of retirement, I am going to buy a kayak — we live really close to Greenwater Pond — and a subscription to the New York Times.

"The next chapter of my life will be like a whole new novel," she said. "The school has always had top priority. Now, Tracy, it's your time to take priority."


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