Nisan Ak dreams of becoming one of the few female chief conductors of Turkey. While she was decisively walking this complex path, she encountered many moral and material challenges, however she never gave up on her dream. The 24 year old ‘maestra’ is studying chief conducting in Queens College where she covers her expenses through her aid campaign on the Internet. We talked with Nisan Ak about her journey from Istanbul to New York.
Holding her coffee cup softly with one hand, Nisan Ak is turning the pages of her music sheet with the other hand that is free. In this small and loud cafe at the Lower East Side of Manhattan, you have to pay the utmost attention to hear what the person in front of you is saying. But apparently, Nisan Ak has a special ability to hear only the sounds that she chooses to. Despite the laughter coming from the table next to us or the loud music, she is engulfed in the information on the pages of Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which seems as if it hasn’t left her side lately. Since I’m not as talented as her in distinguishing sounds, I suggest leaving this loud environment and going to a calmer place to finish our interview. She smiles and says “Okay.” As we look for a place to sit down and converse during this mid-winter, sunny and warm New York day, we begin to talk about the journey that brought her to this city. Nisan wants to become one of the very few female chief conductors in Turkey. Beyond wanting it, she is making a tremendous effort for it. For someone who reached such professionalism, more precisely, someone who drew such a path, Nisan begun her music career with the guitar on a relatively late age, when she was nine. Even though there are no musicians in her family, they were aware of Nisan’s intimate relationship with music. Nisan says “Since I was a baby, I used to go on top of tables and sing.”
After our interview, during the video that I’ve watched, I could immediately see the strong and comfortable relation she has with music. In Barış Manço’s show 7’den 77’ye, during Adam Olacak Çocuk, Nisan sings in front of the audience and the cameras at the studio as if she is singing at home. Apparently having eyes on her does not exalt her while singing or working. Her comfort level and self-confidence, which dates back to her childhood is felt easily when she is conducting in front of semi-professional orchestras. Of course, one needs a serious education and labor to preserve this self-confidence. Nisan began her education in Istanbul Avni Akyol High School of Fine Arts and continued at the Music Department of Bilgi University. “Heading towards composition and arrangements in high school helped me to get into Bilgi University coming first in class.” says Nisan. After Bilgi, where she studied with full scholarship and graduated as an Honorary Student, she came to New York to continue her education of conducting at the City University of New York Queens College. “In 2013 I applied and was accepted to a conducting workshop at my current school. It was a period of two weeks where we conducted many different pieces. One day I conducted a piece of George Tsontakis. It was a piece I liked a lot and worked on in detail. I conducted it and as soon as I was finished, the maestro came by. He asked me if I wanted to study here. Of course, I wanted it.” Nisan tells us that she strongly believed in the idea of coming to New York and becoming a conductor. But not with a blindfold on. Her teachers in Istanbul also believed in this idea. They encouraged her a lot.
Courage and talent are not always enough to study and manage in a city like New York. “I didn’t have enough money to afford school.” says Nisan. “My family also doesn’t have such power. If I wanted to take out a loan, nobody would give it to me, I also could not have paid it back.” Nisan tells us that she sent 100s, 1000s of mails in order to find a scholarship. At last, with her friends’ encouragement , she decided to make a campaign. The viral video for the campaign on Indiegogo came out as a result of this. This way, Nisan collected the 15 thousand dollars that was necessary for her to complete a part of her education. “I was very afraid at the beginning. Because you have to be really careful if you’re going to be viral. But the campaign worked and I afforded some part of my education here. The fact is, I need support again while completing my second year. I will graduate in May. I am preparing a graduation concert. I will conduct Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, Schumann’s Piano Concerto, along with a Turkish composer. Pencere by Turgut Pöğün will also be a part of the program. It’s a very heavy program, but I am very happy about it.” This heavy program naturally demands hard work. Nisan has commit- ed herself at all expenses. “Conducting is a job that needs a lot of work sitting behind a table. For a three-hour rehearsal, you have about 15-20 hours of work to do. You have to think of every note, every nuance. This can’t just be arbitrary or personal, one has to think academically. You can only decide to do it a certain way once you become a chef. But that’s
also not enough. To accompany this talent, you need to be good at your instrument as well. With that, I also study the piano.” Nisan spends a lot of her time in school because she doesn’t have a piano at home. She also thinks that the environment at school opened her vision immensely. “The ecole I learned is Leonard Bernstein’s. My professor Maruice Peress was his assistant at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. So my professor and his society know Bernstein very well. They follow his technical teachings and perspec- tive of music. I also know the teachings very well now and l really like it.”
Among the living conductors, she tells us how much she loves Simon Rattle, the magnificent conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. There are a lot of things to be careful about as Nisan applies these teachings. “Balance is very important” she says. “Depending on how you approach people in the orchestra, their approach to you can also change. Even though being a conductor is selfish in its own way, one needs to be ego-less. When someone asks something, instead of saying ‘because I wanted to do it that way,’ you have to explain properly why it had to be done as such. Because music is open to interpretation. You have to look at the history of the melodies, beyond reading you also have to think about them.” Nisan tells us that in the future she wants to go deeper in the field of conducting. “Conducting is not a field you can master easily. I can’t conduct a profes- sional orchestra with the way I am now. I want to read more. I applied for the Artist Diploma of Curtis Institute Of Music in Philedelphia. Curtis is very good and gives full scholar- ships. Now I will campaign once more, but I don’t think I can do this for the third, fourth time. That’s why getting a scholarship is very important when choosing a school.” We continue our conversation on whether school is necessary in this field. Nisan explains, “You either have to be an assistant to a good chief or be taught by one.” The subject comes to Istanbul, the city she was born in. While going to school in New York, how does she look at the other side of the ocean, to Turkey? “Although Turkey’s situation is not good nowadays, I want to do something there. My best friends live there. I know musicians from all over Turkey. So I also want to conduct an orchestra in Turkey, give a concert. I even took steps in this direction. But I understood that I can’t handle it due to expenses such as payments of musicians and renting a venue at this point.”
After our long walk through the colorful and surprising streets of Downtown, at the cafe where we sat on Rivington Street, Nisan Ak continues to talk about the series of things she’s done despite her age. Being accepted to the Scholars Program, which is what the New York Philharmonic Orchestra considers an equal to being an assistant to chiefs, or conducting the Mandelbaum opera ‘The Man in the Man Made Moon,’ are only a few of these. There are many things ahead of her. I ask Nisan about her dream orchestra. “That orchestra must be in a big and alive city like New York, Istanbul, or Berlin which are placed I would love to live in. There should be two classical pieces and one contemporary piece at each program. I guess if I conducted such an orchestra I would live up to one hundred.” she ways, smiling happily. Nisan Ak is one of those people that make you realize that when you want something a lot, despite all the challenges, you can accomplish it through hard work. When you talk to her a little bit you believe that she will fulfill her dream, being -unfortunately- one of the few female conductors in Turkey. When she asks for support to realize her dream soon, don’t hesitate to help her out. Hoping to come across one of the pieces she composes, an inspirational concert she conducts in the future, god speed you Nisan Ak.
Photography: Muhsin Akgün