Meet the Conductor: Allen Tinkham, Music Director

Allen TinkhamAllen Tinkham is one of CYSO’s longest serving staff members, having held the position of Music Director for 16 seasons. Under his direction, CYSO has won nine ASCAP awards for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music and premiered many works by contemporary composers. As conductor of CYSO’s Symphony Orchestra, he has toured the world with young musicians and collaborated with popular artists including My Morning Jacket, Ben Folds, Bryce Dessner, My Brightest Diamond, and Blue Man Group. In his “Meet the Conductor” interview, Tinkham shares how he came to conducting through his love of orchestral repertoire and his advice on why young musicians shouldn’t feel intimidated when auditioning.

How old were you when you began playing music?
I was seven or eight when I first played around with music, but I didn’t begin to practice until about ten.
Did you always know you wanted to lead an orchestra? 
I always knew I wanted a life that included music, but I was not sure how until fairly late. I came to conducting through my interest in the repertoire. I liked to play Mozart concerti on the horn, and I liked to play Koussevitsky on the bass, but once I discovered Mahler Symphonies and Stravinsky ballets and Strauss tone poems, that was all I was interested in. I didn’t want to play just one part, I wanted to be in contact with the whole piece.

Young Allen Tinkham

Allen Tinkham pictured with his first instrument, the French horn, in 6th grade (left) and as a high school junior (right).

When you aren’t conducting, what is your primary instrument?
Doublebass, though I battled with the horn for over ten years as well.
What’s the best advice you received when you were learning to play?
Have an image of where you are trying to get to, for example the playing of a musician you admire. Listen carefully to that person, often. Also, always listen to yourself, and judge your playing for yourself; don’t wait for someone else to tell you it needs to be better. Lastly, you will fail miserably if you settle for good enough. You have to always push your limits, otherwise you get to own them.

Keep in mind [when you audition] that we want you to do your best; we are rooting for you!


Allen Tinkham conducting at Symphony Center's Orchestra Hall in 2006.

Allen Tinkham conducting at Symphony Center’s Orchestra Hall in 2006.

What’s one of your favorite CYSO memories?
I have so many great memories from CYSO, but my favorite would have to be the Mahler Fifth we did a number of years ago. I was very sick in the weeks leading up to the concert, and it was looking increasingly like I would not have the strength to make it through. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, and there was some time when I was not sure I would recover. Somehow, the illness broke days before the concert and I was able to conduct, though sitting in a chair. I had not seen the orchestra in three weeks leading up to the concert, but that didn’t matter. I had never wanted to make music so badly in my life, and the orchestra was ready.

Always listen to yourself and judge your playing for yourself; don’t wait for someone else to tell you it needs to be better.


Allen Tinkham takes a bow with members of Blue Man Group at CYSO's performance at Grant Park Music Festival, June 2014.

Allen Tinkham takes a bow with members of Blue Man Group at CYSO’s performance at Grant Park Music Festival, June 2014.

What advice would you give CYSO students, or young people thinking of auditioning for CYSO?
In your practicing, never settle for less than what you know you can do, and don’t expect your audition to be better than what you can do in the practice room. When playing excerpts, know the whole piece and how your part fits, and try to hear the rest of the orchestra in your mind when you play. Most important, keep in mind that we want you to do your best; we are rooting for you!
If you weren’t a conductor, what career would you want to try?
I think it would be fun to be a test pilot. I like technology, and especially doing things most people think are crazy. I also like astrophysics; there are such amazing, mind-boggling discoveries happening every day in that field!


Allen Tinkham conducting at Orchestra Hall in 2015

What’s something fun about you that most people don’t know?
I drink a lot of tea of many kinds, and am fairly obsessive about its preparation. One of my favorite types of tea is Yerba mate, which I discovered years ago while on tour with CYSO to South America. It’s not technically tea because it comes from an evergreen holly shrub instead of a tea plant, but it is a delicious and uniquely refreshing drink.

I recently began watching the popular Amazon show, Mozart in the Jungle. The main character, a young conductor trying to make his way in the world of professional music, happens to be a tea fanatic, specifically a Yerba mate fanatic. One of the running jokes of the show is the important test for each of his poor assistants: the preparation of the mate. I laughed out loud the first time I saw him fire an assistant over the incorrect preparation of the mate. It must be a conductor thing!

See Maestro Tinkham in action at CYSO’s Midwest Clinic performance, Friday, December 16 at 1:30pm.

Comments are closed.