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Meet Abigail Popwell of The Metro Atlanta Philharmonic Orchestra in West Atlatna

Today we’d like to introduce you to Abigail Popwell.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Abigail. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
“The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step”- Chinese Proverb. This is the quote to best describe how MAP started.

Born in Brooklyn, New York to Trinidadian parents, I am a first-generation American. I immediately fell in love with music after watching my father play and perform on the drums growing up. When I had the opportunity to play music at school, I immediately started playing percussion. I also had a fascination for conducting due to the fact that there were not many people of color who were represented in that area. My first experience with seeing a live orchestra with a conductor was when my school went on a field trip to see the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra perform. I was 18 years old at the time. Outside of the movie soundtracks, I never gave a second thought to orchestral arrangements, let alone stringed instruments. The only musical options that I had at my schools were band and chorus. I was so fascinated by how the conductor was able to gracefully control a large group and make them sound so eloquent. My mind was made up that night that I wanted to be an orchestral conductor.

Since then, I have strived to take on more leadership roles as a musician. I was the first black female to win The John Philip Sousa Award (highest band award for high school) as well as becoming the first black female drum major at my high school, I continued my music career at Georgia State University to study Music Education. As time went on, I developed a passion for teaching as well as performing, following the footsteps of both my mother and father. I went on to winning the Second Annual Undergraduate Conducting Competition at Georgia State, which gave me more confidence and reassurance that being a conductor is what I wanted to be in life.

One day, I was on the phone with one of my best friends, Steven Keith, and as we were talking, I kept asking why I was not given the opportunity to conduct an orchestra. He then asked me, “Why don’t you create your OWN orchestra?” That lit a flame in my heart and a desire to start something rare and new. We then started creating strategies to go about how to create this new found organization. We brought together some of our friends, Anhvu Tran, Moe Winograd, and Brandon Gray to help create a name and location for the orchestra. After many hours of debate, we all came up with the name The Metro Atlanta Philharmonic Orchestra, or MAP for short. MAP was created in June of 2017. We took a hiatus in 2018, due to me getting my first official teaching job in New York City. After my contract was up, I decided to move back to Atlanta and bring back MAP for its second season.

Has it been a smooth road?
My mother once said, “If it was easy, then everyone will be doing it.” The journey to create MAP has had its challenges. After graduating from Georgia State, I went to a few conducting workshops in Georgia and Colorado, had a few opportunities to conduct a few community orchestras around the Atlanta area, and do some score studying to help build up my credentials. At the time, I felt confident enough to start applying to different schools to study Orchestral Conducting for my Masters. Unfortunately, every school I applied to denied my application. This went on for about three years. I continued my pursuit to get into a school, so I sent emails and made phone calls to ask for lessons and tips for applying to these different schools. All the orchestral conducting programs had one thing in common: they were ran by men, I felt as though I was deprived of being given an opportunity to gain experience with conducting because I am a black female. This journey also opened my eyes to the lack of representation in the orchestral world. I have never seen a female conductor, let alone a black female orchestral conductor in the spotlight. Legends like Leonard Bernstein, Robert von Karajan, and Sir Simon Rattle are all renowned in their own right, however, the orchestral community sorely lacks diversity; racially sexually, and economically. Being on the opposite end of all three spectrums, these obstacles and truths made me realize, I can change the narrative of orchestral music, not only in the black community but in classical music altogether.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with The Metro Atlanta Philharmonic Orchestra – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of and what sets you apart from others.
The Metro Atlanta Philharmonic Orchestra, or MAP for short, is a non-profit organization that was created in June 2017. I am the Founder and Music Director. We are a group that embraces diversity and accepts all musicians from all walks of life. This year, we decided to include high school students (16 years and older) to help expand our brand and our mission to become a musical impact and positive influence in the Metro-Atlanta Area. MAP is an organization that helps and encourages musicians to play in an orchestra outside of school or work. We encourage soloists, musicians, and composers to join us and feed ideas to the organization so we can grow and leave a unique mark in the community. What we are known for are our eclectic diversity and original compositions. I am most proud of the board members and musicians who have been with MAP since the beginning: Steven Keith, Anhvu Tran, Brandon Gray, and Moe Winograd. We have worked very hard to make MAP a safe place for people to express themselves musically as well as have them sharpen their ability to play in a professional setting.

Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
Coming from a place of great diversity, Atlanta continues to grow and be open-minded about the narrative of what a true community is. Going to Georgia State University was on the top of my list mainly because it was in the heart of Atlanta; I have had nothing but amazing experiences living here! What I also like is that there are so many musical artists that come from this amazing city, which shows that Atlanta has an influence in the music scene, which I hope I can add and be part of in the near future. Since the Olympics in 1996, Atlanta has been a force to recon with. What I like the least is the traffic, because everyone is trying to move down and be a part of this cool city!

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