Interviewed May 3, 2016 by Joan Friedman for Hangar Theatre's Playbill Magazine
Songwriter, lyricist, and classically trained composer and conductor Diane Louie has a dense resume of work with recording artists such as Stevie Wonder, the Backstreet Boys, Snoop Dogg, Tony Bennett, and Christina Aguilera. She’s provided musical direction and written songs for TV shows including The Tonight Show, American Idol, the Grammys, and the NAACP Image Awards. She’s helmed orchestras worldwide, including the London Symphony, the Boston Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, and the Royal Philharmonic.
She’s clearly figured out how to build a stellar career in the arts, and she doesn’t mind sharing what she knows: “There is no substitute for work.”
“Whether you’re driving to the office to go to work in your cubicle, packing for a trip, or getting ready to take your grandmother to the doctor’s office, the core of what you’re doing is the same,” she explains. “It’s all work, and you have to decide, ‘Am I up for it? Can I commit to getting it done? What goes along with making that commitment, and how will I handle it?’ That’s the kind of preparation I do for any job.”
As the musical director for the Hangar’s production of In the Heights, she began her preparation “the moment I said yes” to Interim Artistic Director Michael Barakiva’s invitation, Louie says. “The real work starts right away. It long predates the start of rehearsals.”
She said yes to this project because she and Barakiva had worked together before and enjoyed it. “We found we shared many likes, including food,” she says. “If you share a love of food with me, you’ve got my heart.” Barakiva also promised that if she came to Ithaca for this show, she’d find a “peaceful, productive environment,” Louie recalls. “Those two words got me.”
It didn’t hurt that the show’s message—about family, belonging, and community—resonates with Louie’s priorities. “My real passion is for the well-being of children of all ages—young people and their families, which I define as including families of choice,” she explains. “Along with that goes a passion for education equity.”
United Nations General Assembly Hall, NYC. Photo by Bruce Zinger.
United Nations General Assembly Hall, NYC. Photo by Bruce Zinger. St. Francis de Sales School for the Deaf, #47 ASL and English Secondary School; DML, music director; Pauletta Washington, vocals; Richard Hammond, bass; Naghmeh Faramond, percussion; Abe Fogle, drums. Not pictured: Raymond Harris, trombone; Greg Blair, woodwinds; James Cage, trumpet; David Connolly, director for Mamazband; Corine Frick, producer for Mamazband; John David Washington, producer for Mamazband.
Louie advocates for education equity beyond what happens in formal school settings. “I’m focused in particular on the kind of education that only your family can give you,” she says, noting that her own “very best education has been from out in the world. All the tools I’ve collected in my little basket are tools that I acquired outside of school.”
As a young adult, she worked in a print shop and manually created text and artwork to run on a press. All these years later, she says, “I maybe use my musical skills a dozen times a month, but I use the skills I learned on that job—skills like organizing and delegating—a dozen times a day.”
While schools can give students great information, she says, education should help people respond to core challenges inherent in any situation, such as “How do I get along with people? How do I anticipate problems? How can I get a group of people who have never met each other to work together?”
People of all ages need to know how to interpret a social landscape and analyze what’s happening around them to make sure everyone can be successful, Louie says. “These are the most important skills we can have.”
Louie’s commitment to education focuses especially on young people who are hard to educate. She previously led the Hip Hop Orchestra for The Harmony Project, an award-winning program targeting at-risk youth in Los Angeles. Currently, she works with an artist who is a UN Goodwill Ambassador, leading a team that travels to distressed communities to “teach people how to build for themselves the programs I designed for The Harmony Project.” They also build on research from the Harvard Family Research Project in a series of discussions about family involvement called “Does Your Child Bang a Drum?”
Arts education cannot be left out of the push for equity, Louie argues. “Art is as essential as our physical needs,” she says. “How do you take care of the non-visceral part of yourself, the abstract? It has needs, and the most basic is the need to express itself.” Such expression requires developing good tools and techniques, which is why education is essential.
“You study so you can find out, how did Van Gogh do it? How did Martha Graham do it? Or Thelonious Monk? You see what others have done well and use that to establish a standard that you won’t fall beneath. If you’ve done the work, then you can tell the story accurately.”
Doing the work—it’s the key to success in school, on the job, or on stage, Louie says. It’s what has propelled her career for more than three decades and allowed her to rise to the top of her field. “I’m prepared to the hilt,” she says. “I always want to give people more than they expect.”