What it takes to be a conductor


Lida Bourhill came to VCUarts to be a conductor—but she never expected to be standing in front of the Richmond Symphony Chorus before she was out of school.

The experience was the fulfillment of a dream she’s had for years: “I want to be the person who turns notes into music.”

Bourhill, a music education major, has spent her life immersed in the musical world. She began playing piano at 5 years old, and her mother enrolled her in a music academy shortly thereafter. By the time she was 13 and learning under the tutelage of a Virginia All-State Chorus conductor, she decided to pursue a career in music.

“Because the other singers were so talented, he was able to bring a different level of conducting,” she says. “I had never seen anyone craft the music that way. It really brought the notes off the page.”

At VCUarts, Bourhill has proven herself to be an exceptional singer, instructor and conductor. Her pedigree earned her the chance to substitute for Erin Freeman, director of choral activities for VCUarts Music, and conduct the Richmond Symphony Chorus in a rehearsal this summer.

The young conductor might seem a surprising choice, but Freeman was confident after watching Bourhill conduct the Recovery Ally Choir of Richmond last year. The choir, which comprises people in addiction recovery and their allies, was founded by associate professor of photography and film John Freyer. He was inspired to form the group after collaborating with a similar ensemble in London.

Freyer partnered with Rams in Recovery to establish the choir, but many of the singers weren’t musically trained. When he booked the choir to perform at 1708 Gallery’s annual InLight festival he knew he needed a conductor, and Bourhill was a perfect fit.

Bourhill often turned to her music education training to help the diverse group excel. In particular, she implemented rote teaching, in which she introduced a melody via piano or her own voice and asked the choir to sing it back to her.

“In music education, we talk about ‘rote before note,’” says Bourhill. “We want to avoid bombarding people with the theory and literature behind music, because then no one wants to be a musician.”

Bourhill conducting during a practice session at 1708 Gallery.

Bourhill also integrated vocal warmups and exercises into their lessons that helped the choir learn the relationship between notes and phrases. During training sessions and rehearsals, she took time to carefully explain how the songs they learned were constructed. Though her lessons imparted technical knowledge, her approach translated complex musical concepts into clear and accessible instructions.

“She treated everyone with patience and respect and made sure that all of our voices had an opportunity to shine,” says Freyer. “Everyone became better singers.”

Following a successful InLight performance, Bourhill was invited to continue working with the Recovery Ally Choir this past spring. Together with VCU Service-Learning instructor Robin Rio, the choir collaborated with RVA Street Singers to sing at special events and even record a 7-inch vinyl single at In Your Ear Studios in Shockoe Bottom. Throughout the semester, Bourhill was a steady hand, coordinating arrangements and booking practice space for the growing group.

“These are people who have their own careers and passions, but they also really enjoy music and want to have that in their lives,” she says. “It’s cool that I got to be a small part of bringing it to them and helping them find their voice.”

Now, Bourhill is brandishing her baton before the Richmond Symphony Chorus. This summer she served as the operations and artistic assistant for the Sing with Us! program at Wintergreen Music Festival, running from July 7 to August 4. Freeman—who is serving as artistic director of the festival—chose Bourhill to lead the symphony chorus’s final rehearsal in her stead to prepare the singers for their performance at Wintergreen.

Freeman coached her student through the planning and strategy behind driving a rehearsal of such size. The entire opportunity helped Bourhill take her first incredible steps into the professional world of music that she longed to join years ago.

“Both Dr. Freeman and the Richmond Symphony Chorus offered their time and trust to take a chance on me and allow me to learn,” she says. “It was an honor and incredible experience.”