It's been a long and winding journey, and Nicole Jordan has accomplished her dream of becoming a full-time member of The Philadelphia Orchestra as its new Principal Librarian.
On this episode of the HearTOGETHER Podcast, Jordan shares her journey from aspiring instrumentalist to glass-ceiling-shattering- librarian, plus what's kept her sane in between.
Hosted by Tori Marchiony. Mixed by Teng Chen
Welcome back to the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. I’m Tori Marchiony and this a space to hear from the artists and activists working hard to improve our world.
Today, you’ll hear from Nicole Jordan, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new principal librarian. Heads up that this episode features some highly motivated truck beeps, which hopefully you’ll be able to get past to focus on the wonderful things our guest has to say.
Now, let’s dive in.
Nicole Jordan’s appointment was a homecoming in every sense-not only did she grow up in Philly, she’d interned with The Philadelphia Orchestra while working on her master's in Music History at Temple University. After 9 years away, working for The Atlanta Symphony, she’s returned triumphant, having landed her dream job.
Nicole Jordan: A lot of the people in The Orchestra remembered me from my time when I was an intern. So once the news got out, you know, everyone was like, “Oh, welcome home. We're so excited to have you back. This is just so exciting.” And you know, you're coming back home to us and you know, it was just, it was everyone, everyone was just really, really, really excited that I'd be coming.
Host: That's awesome. Um, I want to talk more about the job at first. I also want to talk about your roots in Philly. What was your upbringing like? Was it expected you would always come home with A’s…and then also, were there any musicians in your family?
Nicole Jordan: Uh, yeah, so I, my, my mom always had high expectations for me. She raised me with standards, but I think, I don't think that they were unrealistic standards. So I always approached everything that I have to do my best. And if my best was an A, then that's great. And usually it was. so there, that was that. As far as musicians in my family. No, not really. My uncle, who's a Philadelphia cop. He, he, he plays drums. He plays bongos as a hobby, but outside of that, it's just me.
Host: Wow. So what music was in the house when you were growing up?
Nicole Jordan: Oh, wow. So, um, music in the house really, I was raised, my mom loves music. My mom, when I was younger, it was actually a DJ, like a part time DJ. And so I grew up listening to all different types of music, but particularly like Motown, R & B all of those things. So I always just have happy memories whenever I hear songs from those eras, because they just remind me of my mom sitting next to her crazy DJ equipment and all that stuff. And just listening to her music and having a good time. And I always just, that's really my first kind of thought with just music in general, how it makes me feel. I feel good when I listen to it.
Nicole first picked up an instrument in second grade, after a music aptitude test matched her with the coronet. As she played coronet and trumpet through primary school, music was simply a joyful hobby- a career in performance never crossed her mind. Then, in high school, a second aptitude test gave her the opportunity to learn viola, and Nicole’s world changed. Exposed for the first time to orchestras, bands, and classical music as a whole, throughout high school Nicole played in every ensemble she could find. She got into the viola performance program at the University of Minnesota Duluth, but soon realized that growing up without any private lessons or serious mentorship had put her way behind the curve.
Nicole Jordan: You know, I really did start from the beginning. And in those years that I was in school, I worked really, really, really hard to get to a high level. And I developed tendonitis in my left wrist and yeah, I had to realistically, I didn't stop wanting to be a violist. I even when I started majoring, I was like, you know, “I want to be in The Philadelphia Orchestra. I want to play Viola in this orchestra. This is my goal”. But when you have an injury like that, I really took a minute to really think if that was something sustainable, because they play all the time. "Can my wrist handle that? Do I have, you know, there's, can I even get into The Orchestra first and foremost? And then can I handle that workload?” And once I graduated or was getting ready to get graduated, it was like, “you know, I don't really feel like I can get into a graduate school right now. You know, I'm starting, I started really late, you know, really these last four or five years for me learning the Viola. You know, I come from Philadelphia where there are kids half my age that are twice as good as me. I don't feel ready”. And I had this talk with my teacher and he said, “you know, that's fair. You have your degree though. So you can always come back and you're smart. You have so many interests. You like history, you like theory. You like languages. You know, they're probably more for you out there than being in an orchestra, even though you love it. So why don't you go explore one of those things that you like, and then if you don't like it, could still apply to go to graduate school. You already have a degree. It's there”. So I applied to Temple for music history based on that advice.
Host: Do you ever play music for fun now that it's sort of a less rigorous schedule? Like tendonitis has gotten to heal a little bit maybe?
Nicole Jordan: Oh no, I don't play my instrument at all. And there are moments where I, mourn that, cause I know how much I really love it, but I'm still a part of what's happening on the stage and I'm a part of what's happening behind it as well. So where, when I start missing playing my Viola, I remember that I am still part of the music and it makes me feel like that's okay. I don't have to play my instrument to feel a connection to the music.
Host: Yeah. It's kind of a perfect role for someone who, if you're not going to pick up a bow, but you're still a musician in, in The Orchestra…So, I feel like a have a very “Wikipedia” understanding of what your job is, so walk me through like, I don't know, we're six months out from the new season and what conversations are we having?
Nicole Jordan: Usually season planning for the next season starts about one to two years prior to the season, you know, arriving. And we usually go through, you know, maybe five or six iterations of, you know, brainstorming and, um, that takes place throughout the year. And about six months before the start of a season, about 85 to 90% of the season is in place. So ideally what I'm doing six months out is, you know, having asked all the questions that I need to ask, you know, “what are we playing? Um, what is the edition? Are there any cuts that I need to worry about? Is there any, you know, your idea of what you think you're playing? Is that the same idea that I have?” Do I know what it is that you're thinking that you are programming, and making sure that I have all those ducks in a row and making sure that I, that I acquire the right thing. So that three months before the season, we can start working on them.
Host: That makes sense. What is it about your personality that makes you a good librarian?
Nicole Jordan: Maybe two things. I definitely definitely enjoy a challenge. And my, my job is just a bunch of challenges, you know, strung together in a different day, in a different sequence. So I like, I like problem solving and um, I like people, my job allows me to work with a diverse group of people. There are the players on the stage, and then the colleagues within the organization. So every day you're dealing with over a hundred people, and I'm a Libra, so we're very social, we're social people. So, and, um, I think that it really works for, for my job.
Host: So you've now been around the block and you had the Atlanta job for several years and now another major orchestra- do you overall have observations about like the culture of classical music? Is there anything about it that you particularly like and, or particularly dislike?
Nicole Jordan: Oh wow. What I like about the culture, part of the culture of classical music is that we come together to create an idea of something and put it out into the world and have our interpretation and our spin on that and have that touch other people. I think that that's really, really, really cool because it transcends time and it transcends politics. It transcends a lot of the things that, you know, bog us down in the, in the every day. Things that I don't like about the culture, just how homogenous it looks. In this medium, where it's about expression, not a lot of people were included in that. It seems like there's only space for a certain set of voices, when music is supposed to be the language for everybody.
Host: I know The Orchestra has been mindful lately of trying to program sort of more diversely. Um, are there any pieces coming up or that have been performed recently that you're particularly excited about?
Nicole Jordan: Um, as far as anything that's coming up, I'm very curious about the Chevalier Saint George Symphony Number Two, I've never heard it before. So, um, you know, typically when we're programming, people of color is usually like the same group of people. So to be able to experience a different work from someone that I don't know, it's really cool. I was also very impressed with the work of Carlos Simon, his Fate Now Conquers. And I'm so excited that he had the opportunity to have his work presented in the digital stage with it having been canceled because of COVID and, you know, I'm sure that was probably devastating not to have that live premiere. So for him to have this opportunity to have his work presented and for it to live up there on the internet for all time, like I was very impressed with his writing and how he used The Orchestra. And so that was, that was really, really exciting for me, uh, to see.
Carlos Simon was commissioned to create Fate Now Conquers as part of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s 250th birthday celebration for Beethoven- it premiered to enthusiastic reviews back in October. The piece reflects on the idea that despite all the composer managed to create with his hands, some aspects of his life- like his deafness- remained out of his hands- conquered, by fate.
Carlos Simon, Fate Now Conquers
When Nicole Jordan was announced as the new Principal Librarian over the summer, a flurry of media attention surrounded the news…because Nicole Jordan is the first Black woman that The Philadelphia Orchestra has hired as a full-time member in its 120-year history. A similar hubbub surrounded her appointment in Atlanta- when she became the first Black woman in any major orchestra to hold the position of Principal Librarian.
Being “first” has become a part of her career Nicole never trained for.
Nicole Jordan: You know, I never set out to be the first Black woman first Black person. I, that was never my goal. My goal was just to do what I loved at the level I believed that I could do it at. So I always operated under the premise that I can do, I can be one of the best in this profession and I can do this at the highest level possible- for me, it was my hometown orchestra. And so with these milestones that, you know, these glass ceilings that I've broken through, it's been a bit- it's been very cool, but it's also been, you know, odd for me because I don't do what I do to be a trailblazer. I do what I do just because I love it, but I recognize that I am. And so trying to just navigate that space has been… I'm still trying to figure it out.
Host: I suspect that on the one hand that's kind of awesome. And on the other hand, that probably comes with a lot of responsibilities that aren't in the job description. Um, I was talking to a friend who said she doesn't like working in spaces where she, if she's one of only a couple of people of color, she's like, "there's going to be too much educating. There's going to be too much emotional labor for me to be in that position”. Um, so how, I guess mindful were you going into that, and then also just like being in that position, was there anything you realized you were having to navigate?
Nicole Jordan: I think… I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Um, that was the first time I had ever been in a space where I was the only Black person. I was the only person of color. And so, you know, to piggyback off of what you said, you know, your friend said, you know, I understand that a whole lot because when I was first in that position, you know, I was just like, this is too much for me. I don't know how to handle this. I like what, and you know, all the things that you have to navigate when you're the first person that looks like you there. And then the people that are in your orbit, it's the first time dealing with someone that looks like you. So, you know, you can imagine all the challenges that, that come with that. And I had to get really comfortable really, really quickly with the fact that I'm going to be the only Black person here. And I had to tell myself and make it my mantra that “I'm Black. If it's not a problem for me, it shouldn't be a problem for you. And if it's a problem for you, you probably need to go talk to yourself about it and figure it out.” So I've always kind of operated since that time in, in, in the, in that headspace. It’s, if you have a problem with my skin color, that's a you problem. Not a me problem. It's not going to stop me from doing what I want to do with my life and achieving what I want to achieve. But when I'm also in that space, there is still a lot of, um, you know, emotional, you know, the backpack is very heavy because you have to also deal with, you know, microaggressions and macroaggressions. You have to, you know, deal with, you know, a lot of times it's just plain ignorance. People just don't really just know that their unconscious bias is showing and it's really offensive. And you have to kind of go, “no, you, this is why you can't do this”. And continually be that person. And for me, I've gotten more comfortable in that role. Um, as the years have gone on, because I feel that I shouldn't have to operate in this space being uncomfortable.Like if I'm going to be uncomfortable, you're going to be uncomfortable too. So we can both just decide not to make each other uncomfortable. You can stop saying what you're saying, and I can stop telling you that what you're saying is wrong. So that's kind of like the role that I put on myself and I think I'm okay with it. It gets a little heavy sometimes, but I feel that, um, it's necessary.
Host: Are there particular conversations that you would love to not have to have again, if you could, if there's one or two that you could just wipe out?
Nicole Jordan: Absolutely. Absolutely. A big part of like my work part personality is, you know, to verbally not seem, you know, or give off the thought that I'm being aggressive or, you know, because, you know, it's like, “Oh, you're a strong Black woman and you're very opinionated. And you know, you know, people, you know, are intimidated by you” and you know, you know, you have to be conscious of how you make people feel. So it's, you know, “Oh, Hey, how are you!?” instead of, “Hey, how you doing.” Or, you know, making sure you smile just a little bit more or it’s… I shouldn't have to do those things really. I really shouldn't. I should just be free to be who I am, but there are things that I've had to tweak about, you know, particularly my workplace persona to be a bit more palatable to be maybe a little bit more in the space of where I am. I mean, we all have to do some level of conformity to our workspace or, you know, maybe work in church or, you know, whatever we do more on a sports team, you know, there's always a bit of conformity that has to happen.
Host: Yeah. It's like on the one hand, there's the argument that, that's just “part of having a job”. You have to tailor yourself to whatever their corporate culture is, but then there's also all of the hypocrisy where it's like a white man could come in and be extremely direct. Yeah. So is it actually a workplace culture or is it a “having a job” problem or is it a how actions are being interpreted problem.
Nicole Jordan: Exactly. It was definitely more of the latter and, you know, I mean, it's, it's the way of the world. And I hope that one day that, you know, everyone can be their authentic selves every and every single space, but the reality is still in 2020, and that's not necessarily the case for, you know, people like myself.
Host: Thank you for sharing that.
Nicole Jordan: Of course.
Host: So, after a long day or week or year of…babysitting the feelings of white people… how do you fill your cup back up?
Nicole Jordan: Oh, that's fantastic. Um usually like a big thing that I'm into that not a lot of people know about is I'm a big gamer. I'm like a big in the gaming and I have been for several, several years. I’ve picked up knitting in quarantine in particular for my audition prep here because the brain was always super busy and I needed something to do with my hands. And then there's also my cat. I was taught my cat how to do tricks.
Host: Um, what tricks can your cat do?
Nicole Jordan: Okay. So he's learned he's very food motivated. He's like I got, I adopted him in January and he's like, he was 20 pounds. I give him about 18 pounds. So, um, he's very food motivated. So with that, I've taught him to sit. I've taught him to, you know, touch paw so he can give like a pound. Um, he can go up like bang and he lays down.
Host: Oh my God, that’s so cute I love it. Um, last question. If there were a piece of advice that you could give to your younger self, uh, what age self would you talk to? What would tell her?
Nicole Jordan: I would probably talk to my high school self, like right as I was graduating from high school, because I remember this moment very vividly. I was sitting in my mom's room, kind of having like an existential crisis at 18. And I remember just being so scared and unsure of what was in my future, what I was going to do. And the advice that I would tell myself is to, you know, give your all to..it’s okay… It's okay to not know what you want to do at this age. Explore what interests you and give it your all, because you won't know that you're good at it or bad at it, or if it's for you or for, it's not for you until you actually try. And it's through trial and error, you know, really giving your all to something that you'll find your path.
Nicole Jordan has certainly found her path. A testament to her remarkable combination of work ethic, and flexibility. I hope you enjoyed getting to spend a little time with Nicole as much as I did. Thank you so much for joining us and remember to like, subscribe, rate, review, comment, share, and tune back in next month, for another episode of HearTOGETHER. We leave you with an excerpt of the Valerie Coleman composition mentioned earlier…it turns out its name is “Seven O Clock Shout”, and it was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra to honor frontline workers in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Until next time, stay safe and be well.
Valerie Coleman, Seven O’Clock Shout