Leading the Way: Part 5 of 5 — Nila Rajagopal

Gain insight into Schulich conductors and directors. These women are Leading the Way.
We’re excited to see women taking the lead on the podium and in the director’s chair. With that in mind, we’ve asked some of our graduate students in conducting and directing a few questions about who they are, and what they do.  

Join us over the next few weeks and get to know these formidable talents as they build their careers and shape our musical landscape.  

Nila Rajagopal

Hailing from Ottawa, ON,  Nila Rajagopal (MMus'21)  has quickly established herself as a promising choral conductor. She  is currently enrolled in the Master’s program in Choral Conducting at the Schulich School of Music under the tutelage of Dr. Jean-Sébastien Vallée and previously studied voice and music education at the University of Toronto. 
Nila’s collaborative spirit has granted her conductor positions with organizations such as the St. Lawrence Choir, the Oakville Choir for Children and Youth, the Toronto Children’s Chorus and the Mississauga Summer Chorale. Increasingly recognized for her promising musical excellence, Nila was the recipient of the 2016 Doreen Rao Choral Award, the 2019 Iwan Edwards Award and the 2019 Ken Fleet Choral Conducting Scholarship. Nila also maintains an active career as a freelance choral soprano. Widely known for her accuracy and tone, she has performed with the Ottawa Bach Choir, Pax Christi Chorale, the Toronto Festival Singers, the St. Basil’s Catholic Parish Schola Cantorum and the Choir of Grace Church on-the-Hill. Nila was also selected to perform in highly regarded honour choirs such as the Ontario Youth Choir, the National Youth Choir of Canada and the World Youth Choir.  

Committed to the future of choral music in Canada, Nila is also Office Coordinator at Choral Canada, Canada’s National Arts Service Organization for choral music, where she takes a key part in planning essential choral programs such as the Podium conference & festival, the National Competition for Canadian Amateur Choirs, and the National Youth Choir of Canada. 

Nila's master’s recital will be webcast live on Friday, April 9 at 7:00 pm bit.ly/SchulichWebcasts

Is there a moment that brought you to now — one that changed your course or confirmed it?  

There were so many moments. But the turning point for me was when I sang with the National Youth Choir of Canada with Michael Zaugg in 2016. Up until that point, I thought I would become a solo singer, but after spending weeks rehearsing, touring, and making music at an incredibly high level with the ensemble, I knew choir was my home. That’s when I realized I wanted to be a choral conductor. I had always thought I loved choir because I loved singing, when in fact I loved singing because I loved choir.  

What do you see as the role and responsibility of a conductor/director?   

I think every conductor sees their role in a unique way. To me, it’s about inspiring the singers. If I can get them to love singing and to love the music we are doing, that’s the most important thing. Then, we can make beautiful music together.  

What’s the toughest thing about conducting? What’s the easiest or most fun?  

Although my degree has helped improve my confidence, I still often find myself dealing with imposter syndrome. When I stand on the podium and look at the singers in front of me, I still ask myself why I deserve to be leading all these musicians. Some days I find the answer and others I don’t, but what I do know is I am really grateful to have this opportunity. 

I am a people person, so the social aspect of choir is very enjoyable for me. As a child, I briefly studied piano and it never really spoke to me because everything about it was so lonely: practicing alone, performing solos on stage… But when I conduct a choir, I get to meet so many wonderful people and feel each individual’s energy and personality in the room, and that brings me so much joy. 

What advice would you give to your starting-at-university self?   

Sometimes, less is more. I tend to take on way too much and as a result I am spread too thin and don’t perform as well as I want. If you can do a bit less, but give it your all, you will gain so much more in the end. 

What was the most surprising thing you learned during your degree?   

When I started my degree, I was constantly questioning myself about whether I was doing the right thing on the podium. Working with so many incredible professors and colleagues, I started to realize that most of the time, there is no right or wrong way and that conducting is more about passion, creativity, and artistic vision. This new way of thinking has really helped me grow as a conductor. 

Tell me a little about your upcoming Master’s recital.  

My graduating recital, Delivrans, will take place on April 9, at 7pm and will be available to watch online (bit.ly/SchulichWebcasts). The concert is named after a specific piece in my program that inspired the theme: Delivrans by Sydney Guillaume. The Haitian Creole word “Delivrans” translates to “deliverance,” and so my program revolves around the theme of freedom: searching for freedom, finding freedom, etc. I look forward to performing music I love and sharing the stage with an incredible group of musicians.  

If you had a mantra/philosophy/phrase that sums up where you are now, what would it be?   

“Nothing worth having comes easy.”  We often get discouraged when things get difficult, but it also makes us realize what is worth fighting for. 

Dream piece to conduct/direct?   

There are so many! But I would have to say it’s a tie between the Brahms Requiem and Mendelssohn’s Elijah

Conductor(s)/leaders you admire?  

I know you might be expecting me to name celebrities here, but the people I admire the most are mentors and teachers who personally impacted my life. To name a few: Hilary Apfelstadt, Jean-Sébastien Vallée, Robert Filion, Elise Bradley, Michael Zaugg… They made me who I am today and I am eternally grateful.  

What do you want to see/hear more of in your field?  

As a woman of colour, I’ve always been frustrated by the lack of representation in my field. We need to see more female-identifying, transgender, genderqueer, non-binary, queer, and BIPOC artists in leadership positions in the arts. 

On a less serious note, I find classical music to be extremely elitist and I would love to see more classical musicians enjoying other styles of music. I personally love pop, indie-folk and Disney songs, and I don’t think that makes me any worse at classical music! :-)

Discover more and stay up to date with Nila's projects on her website: www.nilarajagopal.com 

Nila Rajagopal conducting the audience from the stage of Roy Thompson Hall
Nila Rajagopal conducting the audience from the Roy Thompson Hall stage in 2018

Nila's master’s recital will be webcast live on Friday, April 9 at 7:00 pm bit.ly/SchulichWebcasts
Check out the program here

All articles from the Leading the Way series:

Read Leading the Way: Part 1 of 5 — Kelly Lin here
Read Leading the Way: Part 2 of 5 — Angela Hemingway here
Read Leading the Way: Part 3 of 5 — Sawyer Craig here
Read Leading the Way: Part 4 of 5 — Melissa Tardif here


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