Music Stars Making a Social Impact: Why & How Luke McEndarfer Is Helping To Change Our World

Posted on

My success is nothing more than the result of taking the next right step, both for my life and company, each and every day. Even the largest milestones of success our organization has received have been through the micro victories we achieve on a daily basis. Remember that thousands of small steps in the right direction are eventually what lead to a big result. There is no one magic thing to do in order to be successful. It’s not just about action or mindset, but rather a culture and a definitive way of life. So if you are a young person with big dreams — good! Keep those dreams big, and each day simply take another step toward those dreams. With burning desire, laser focus, and unrelenting perseverance, there is nothing you can’t achieve. This is what I teach my students, and would say to any young person with high aspirations.

As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Luke McEndarfer.

Luke McEndarfer is a GRAMMY Award-winning American conductor and one of the most compelling visionaries in the classical music world today. His dynamic career spanning over two decades has been shaped by an unwavering commitment to ambitious innovation, artistic creativity, and musical excellence. Currently, he serves as Artistic Director, President and CEO of the National Children’s Chorus, one of the fastest-growing and most successful youth arts organizations in the United States. His artistic collaborations include work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, American Youth Symphony, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Opera Company, New York City Master Chorale, Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, the Joffrey Ballet, Opera Parallèle, Kronos String Quartet, and Stephen Petronio Dance Company. Over the years, he has prepared choruses and soloists for Gustavo Dudamel, Grant Gershon, James Conlon, Stephen Layton, David Alan Miller, Ibrahim Maalouf, John Rutter, Helmuth Rilling, David Willcocks, Eric Whitacre and the late Paul Salamunovich. To date, his premiere conducting performances include music by Morten Lauridsen, Sharon Farber, James Wright, Sarah Quartel, Stephen Cohn, Thomas Hewitt Jones, Daniel Brewbaker, Sage Lewis, Shawn Kirchner, Paul Gibson, Rufus Wainwright, and Nico Muhly.

In 2004, McEndarfer was appointed director of the acclaimed Paulist Choristers, and in 2008 his dream to create the National Children’s Chorus took flight. Since then, the NCC has grown from only sixteen families in Los Angeles to over one thousand across the country, offering its students cutting-edge training and life-changing musical experiences. Under McEndarfer’s leadership, the NCC has built an unparalleled educational platform, mindfully leading young singers from the age of five, and guiding them through to the college level. McEndarfer’s Senior Division vocalists are GRAMMY Award-winning, having received music’s highest honor for Best Choral Performance in 2022. Across the nation, they comprise one of the most accomplished youth choruses in the world, with performances at the Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Royce Hall, and Walt Disney Concert Hall. International debuts have taken place throughout Europe, including Oxford, London, the Vatican City, Rome, Florence, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Lisbon, Seville, Madrid, and Barcelona; and in Asia, Beijing, Xi’an, the Korean DMZ, Seoul, Tokyo and Kyoto. In 2020, McEndarfer initiated the building of a new annual opera camp in Vail, Colorado, that would grow to engage developing voices in the art of opera, curated with an extraordinary curriculum designed exclusively for youth education. The program aims to achieve global impact, partly by including new works and commissions staged and performed each year, with the goal of significantly expanding operatic repertoire dedicated for young people.

Thank you so much for joining us on this interview series. Can you share with us the backstory that led you to this career path?

From the time I was six years old, I felt drawn to music. At the time, that manifested as piano lessons and studies in music theory. But in my imagination, I would constantly fantasize about shows, productions and large scale events where music was not just a discipline, but a medium through which people experienced joy, wonder, love and inspiration. Even so, my parents made it clear that medicine or law were my two choices, so I just assumed music would be part of my life, rather than the center of my life. As the universe would have it, one star aligned after another, and instead of law school, at the age of 23, I found myself at the UCLA School of Music, pursuing a masters degree in conducting with full scholarship under the tutelage of music icon Donald Neuen. I also sought out some of the most inspirational conducting experts in the country, introduced myself, and was very humbled that each of them agreed to teach me privately, often for free, despite my offer to pay for lessons. Cumulatively, I learned so much early on about the art of ensemble singing, rehearsal technique, programming style and the various mechanisms to create stunning sound; I would immediately apply everything I learned toward each of the concerts I was honored to conduct in my early 20’s and grew as a professional conductor from there. With the National Children’s Chorus, I feel I was called to create an educational platform with a wide reach and expansive impact, allowing children from around the country to share in the joy of music, and allow music to guide them in their own lives and desire for self-realization. My organizational vision, combined with my artistic conducting, ultimately led to the role I hold now, which is both Artistic Director and CEO of the company. While it is not customary for one person to serve in both capacities, it has been the right fit for me and allowed our organization to grow quickly and substantially with a unified artistic and administrative strategy.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

First off, I couldn’t agree more — as long as you learn from your mistakes, they are some of your greatest opportunities for growth. It’s why I always encourage our students to be free and open to making errors and never to assign negative emotion to them. In class, if a student is corrected on a mistake, they are not allowed to say “I’m sorry.” I tell them to reserve “I’m sorry” for a moment in their lives when they truly have done something wrong to another person. A musical mistake, however, is just an accident, and we should never use language like “I’m sorry” that reinforces any sort of message that a student is “bad” because they made a mistake. We teach that the correct response to being corrected on a mistake is “Ok,” with zero emotion. We then try the phrase again, and the student works to get it right, without feeling bad about the process. At the NCC, we make sure our members know that the pathway to greatness is filled with many mistakes, especially if you want to go far.

That being said, advice is much easier to give than to follow, right? Surely, being put in charge of a high profile organization at the age of 26 set me on a collision course where making embarrassing mistakes was frequent. I didn’t think they were funny back then, because I took everything so seriously, but I can certainly smile at them now. If I am to be most candid in answering this question with the goal of giving you a truly valuable response, I can tell you about one big mistake I made several times until I finally learned better. As a young person appointed to a prominent position, especially when you are not yet established and just starting out, older people can be quite opinionated regarding your decisions, and often feel entitled to communicate their disagreement with you in a condescending, disrespectful, and sometimes abusive manner. Being the fighter I was, I would respond to these communications with the same level of negative emotion that was sent to me in the initial message, meaning I would fight back. I did this for a few years, under the notion that I was “right” and I felt validated in defending myself and returning the disrespect that was sent my way. Until one day came along that I will never forget. I was having an amazing day, full of creativity, doing great work for the organization, and then there it was — “ding” — an email had come in from someone unhappy about something. In reading the email, the message went beyond voicing dissatisfaction, and descended into personal remarks that were both degrading and inappropriate. Just as I was about to write that fiery return letter, I realized that if I chose to engage in this negative communication, I would have allowed the other person to hijack my amazing day and drag me down into something that was undignified and certainly not productive. While I couldn’t control the other person, it dawned on me that I could always control myself. I made a decision at that moment that I would always respond respectfully to every single message received, no matter what it said. In deciding to take the high road, I would always maintain a tone of dignity and empathy toward the other person, and in so doing, I realized I was also maintaining my own dignity.

As a leader, people will not always agree with your decisions, and it’s quite important that you do in fact listen to their feedback and stay open to the many ways you and your company can continually improve. But when it comes to communicating, especially if you are an organizational leader who represents the company, there is never a need to be anything other than respectful, polite, kind, and dignified under any and all circumstances.

So the lesson I learned here and have implemented from that day until now is to completely give up trying to control the conversation with any person, but rather to set a standard of behavioral excellence for yourself that remains fully intact and unshakable.

What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?

My success is nothing more than the result of taking the next right step, both for my life and company, each and every day. Even the largest milestones of success our organization has received have been through the micro victories we achieve on a daily basis. Remember that thousands of small steps in the right direction are eventually what lead to a big result. There is no one magic thing to do in order to be successful. It’s not just about action or mindset, but rather a culture and a definitive way of life. So if you are a young person with big dreams — good! Keep those dreams big, and each day simply take another step toward those dreams. With burning desire, laser focus, and unrelenting perseverance, there is nothing you can’t achieve. This is what I teach my students, and would say to any young person with high aspirations.

Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?

Yes — there were many. But one who stands out the most is Sr. Stella Maria Enright, DMJ. She was the former principal at St. Paul the Apostle School for 47 years, an institution she built and the place where I was first hired in 2004 as the 4th Artistic Director of the Paulist Choristers of California, rebranded as the National Children’s Chorus in 2008. Sister Stella was an extraordinary human being, and you didn’t have to get to know her to see this or feel it. She had an aura about her — an aura of kindness, generosity, love, humor, respect, and most importantly, authentic power — power that was so centered, quiet and understated that she never raised her voice or exacted her will on anyone in the many years I knew her. She was a mentor to me, and despite her long history supporting the Paulist Choristers (which saw its inception in Chicago in 1904), she was so open to my ideas of how we could transform this organization into something much bigger where the true mission of music education could be achieved on a national scale. At the time, the Paulist Choristers was a school choir based in Westwood, California, and had been that way since 1977. So my idea of launching the National Children’s Chorus certainly was a dramatic departure from the status quo. What surprised and inspired me was that she actually listened to this concept and was very open to my aspirations for what we could do. She even supported my suggestion that we change the name to National Children’s Chorus, despite the fact that the Paulist Choristers brand was well-known and 104 years old. It meant so much to me to have her support, and it meant even more that I could tell she was serious in believing in the vision I laid out.

Over the years at St. Paul’s I watched her achieve miraculous things — things you would never think a nun could do. She had the dream of building a whole new section of the school for future generations to come. This would entail more classrooms, a new library, a sports auditorium, and new facilities for musical training. The cost for such an idea exceeded $25M, and after many months of meetings with the school board, it was decided that it could not be afforded. She and I were in regular contact and she voiced her discouragement to me, but told me that she had not given up. She believed in this vision, she said she could see it in her mind, and she knew something would turn up. She continued to campaign for the idea, and a few weeks later, when it was thought that the initiative was dead, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation called her to say they would be contributing $10.5M toward the project; and just like that her dream became reality. When the building was finally completed, she gave me a personal tour and toward the end before saying goodbye, she reminded me that all signs were once pointing to the failure of this idea, and yet here this $25M building stands now completed. I just stood there in awe, looking at her. Now that she is no longer alive, I will never forget her last words to me that day. As I was walking away, she said, “Just remember, Luke — anything is possible. You needn’t look any farther than right here. Just keep moving forward with your work and I promise your vision for music will come true.”

On Sunday, April 3rd, 2022, the National Children’s Chorus was honored with a GRAMMY® Award for Best Choral Performance for its collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel on the Deutsche Grammophon recording of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony №8. In a daze, as I walked off the stage with the other winning conductors, Sr. Stella’s face was the first to pop into my mind. Knowing everything she had always taught me, I quietly smiled with tears in my eyes and said, “Thank you.”

How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you’re working on right now?

Yes — with every new wave of success, the NCC reinvests itself into its core mission to use music to create a better world. There is no “getting there” for us. We feel this is a never ending movement to be nurtured and carried on by generations to come. We care so much about our families and the students we serve, but also about the wider community and how we can have an impact on serving the needs of more people in unique and non-traditional ways. Of course access and equity are two of our top priorities, in addition to considering how we can be part of a global movement to empower youth through the medium of music. I always hear people say, “Children are our future; children will one day make a difference.” Honestly, I couldn’t disagree more. What I know is that children are the present, not the future — and children can and do make a difference right now. Part of our job is to dispel the notion that children or young people need to wait until adulthood to be positively contributing members of society. That’s just simply not true and extremely disempowering as it underestimates their intelligence, skill, and strength. At the NCC, we envision a world where children are empowered and respected as fully capable human beings. Sure, they do not have the experiences of older adults and need guidance and oversight until they are ready to be fully independent, but they still have so much more to offer than what is expected. I feel that more than anything else, we advocate on their behalf in this capacity, and musical artistry in our vehicle.

Can you share with us a story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?

I think this answer is very simple, because I did not choose this cause; this cause chose me.

Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

I feel selecting one story out of the hundreds would reduce what we do to a single example. The truth is that hundreds, if not thousands at this point, have been impacted significantly by our cause, and depending on how you wish to measure that impact, you could point to students who never considered music as a career, but who now attend Juilliard or Curtis; you could point to a biology major in college who sings in their collegiate chorale with music a central source of joy in their lives; you could point to children who were the victims of devastating personal circumstances that have reported that their music and involvement at the NCC carried them through; you could point to nearly universal testimonials we receive that NCC training has built confidence, improved self-esteem, helped treat mental health issues, given students a platform to discover who they are and fully accept themselves. I think the list goes on and on, depending on what positive outcomes you are looking for, but the possibilities are vast.

Are there three things or are there things that individuals, society, or the government can do to support you in this effort?

Yes — I think attending our performances, spreading the word of what we do, sharing the success of our students, and letting our team know new ways we may grow to support the communities we serve.

Why do you think music in particular has the power to create social change and create a positive impact on humanity?

Many say music is a universal language, and I agree with that statement. There is an undeniable bond that forms between individuals who sing together, who share music together, and who participate in artistry unified by song. I know this sounds like cheerful jargon, uttered naively by artistic types who don’t understand world affairs. But when the National Children’s Chorus sang together at the Ancient City Wall of Xi’an in 2016 with the Galaxy Children’s Choir (China’s leading children’s chorus), ending a nationally televised concert with a piece of music written by one of our own NCC students, entitled “Chinese Bridge,” and sung entirely in Mandarin, I watched carefully from the sidelines, both the performers and audience. I couldn’t help but notice that officials of the Chinese government in attendance, including two heads of state, had no choice but to see and recognize in that moment that as humans, we are more the same than we are different. I thought to myself, “Look at all those children, literally from worlds away, singing together joyfully and harmoniously as one.” It was a beautiful moment and its power was undeniable.

While one concert is certainly not going to eradicate current tensions between the US and China, moments like that are absolutely powerful and do affect the human soul — I would conjecture to say every soul who was there. My belief is that more of those moments do lead to better decisions, based on the wisdom, empathy and truth that we are but one human race. So yes, music can and does create social change, and it can do it in a way nothing else can. That’s why it is so vitally important to support it.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started”?

This should be fun! I’ll answer the very first five that come to mind:

  1. Don’t worry and stress so much — it is all going to work out beautifully.
  2. Stop trying to control, but find the wisdom in learning to allow.
  3. Don’t ignore your gut instincts. You have them for a reason.
  4. Don’t try to force something to work; let it go, and allow the correct solution to present itself.
  5. Have fun with your work every single day. A career in the arts is a great privilege to be enjoyed and appreciated.

You’re a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The movement is definitely already in motion; but do stay tuned as we announce the launch of each new program along the way!

Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? And can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

I have so many quotes that are my favorite, but this one has stuck out over the years: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right” — Henry Ford. To me, it truly speaks to the unlimited power of the human mind, and how only your false belief of “I can’t” stands in your way. In truth, other than that one singular thought, nothing else can stop you from achieving anything.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

Yes — I owe so much to luminaries whose careers I have followed or whose books I have read, some more than 100 times, to truly absorb their knowledge, wisdom, decision-making, business acumen and life teachings. My favorite inspirational individuals are Jack Canfield, Rhonda Byrne, Michael Bernard Beckwith, Lisa Nichols, Oprah Winfrey, Bob Iger, Deborah Borda, Simon Sinek, Anna Wintour, Vishen Lakhiani, and Brené Brown. What’s ironic to me is that these people have influenced me so greatly, and shaped my daily life so beneficially, yet they have no idea how much they have meant to my development as a person. They also have no idea how much gratitude I have toward each of them. They have all mentored me without even knowing it. Without their books, without their videos, without their interviews, I would not be anywhere near the person I am today. We are so lucky in this day and age to have access to such extraordinary people.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!

Music Stars Making a Social Impact: Why & How Luke McEndarfer Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.