New Music Works NW leader believes making music instills lifelong lessons

Tigran Arakelyan, the executive director of Music Works Northwest, conducting one of his orchestras. (Photo courtesy Music Works Northwest)

Tigran Arakelyan, the newest executive director of Music Works Northwest, believes orchestras are about much more than music. 

“Orchestra is beyond music. It’s about getting the skills to interact with people, to respect each other. All those lessons are way more important than the orchestra itself,” said Arakelyan, who was recently named to head the nonprofit community music school.

A Lynnwood resident, Arakelyan learned many of those lessons at a young age. After discovering a breathing problem, doctors recommended that Arakelyan play a wind instrument. His parents decided for him – he would play the flute. Though it wasn’t initially his decision, it turned out to be the right one. Arakelyan still plays the flute, as well as the piano. The encouragement to play at a young age was instrumental in shaping him into the person he is today. 

“For me as a shy kid playing youth orchestras, that was the number-one place where I found people who really liked music and through the music, I said OK, I can be a little more outspoken,” said Arakelyan. “Music really shaped me— if it wasn’t for music I would probably be the same shy kid who didn’t say much,” he added. 

Arakelyan’s family moved to Los Angeles from Armenia when he was 11. He continued to play music after the monumental move and eventually went to the University of Washington to get his doctorate in musical arts. He first heard about Music Works Northwest — which offers music lessons, music therapy and performance experiences for all ages — while he was defending his dissertation in 2016.

A Music Works Northwest teacher reached out to the UW looking for a talented conductor to conduct Into the Woods because she couldn’t make the performance. Arakelyan accepted on a whim (he doesn’t usually conduct musicals, but is a fan of Stephen Sondheim). After the performance, the same teacher asked him to help with an ensemble for Music Works. He accepted again and would start working there in the years to come. 

His first role at Music Works was classical program coordinating, which mostly involved organizing concerts for faculty and students. Arakelyan has served as the organization’s executive director since the start of July, and it’s taken some getting used to. He now talks with sponsors, schedules meetings with faculty, and makes sure the operation is running smoothly. 

“This new role gives me the opportunity to dig deep and find out where the areas are that we can improve. Every person who comes in has different energies, strengths and weaknesses,” Arakelyan said. 

Taking on a large leadership role means Arakelyan is working more behind the curtain than on stage. He stepped down from conducting at the Bainbridge Youth Orchestra as well as the Federal Way Youth Orchestra, where he’d worked for seven years and almost nine years, respectively. He still conducts adults with the Port Townsend Symphony and in the summer at the Northwest Mahler Festival, but said he felt that youth orchestras were more involved – having to juggle the parent relationships and more closely monitor and support each individual student.  

“The number-one thing is just getting them excited about music,” Arakelyan said. “You have to always be aware of who the student is so you can have that relationship with them. That’s what makes that job tough. You can’t say ‘my approach works for everyone.’” It’s clear that Arakelyan’s skill and devotion to fostering a love for music in young people will continue at Music Works, even if he’s not the one doing the teaching. 

Before the pandemic, Music Works had nearly 600 students – providing private lessons, music therapy, classes for early childhood, and even jazz ensembles and a rock band. Right now the building, located in Bellevue, is bustling with a variety of summer camps. Arakelyan is also proud of the Music Works programs that reach out beyond its home base, which includes facilitating festivals and even going out into the community to perform. Arakelyan noted that all of these events are free to the public. Music Works also houses an instrument discovery day, where anyone can come in and try out different instruments to see if anything sparks a desire to learn more. 

“This space, this place where the community comes and collaborates and works together is very important,” Arakelyan said. “Hopefully, more and more events and performances in the future will bring more people in to talk about music.” Just as Arakelyan distinguished that orchestra is more than just music, Music Works is more than teaching students to play it. Rather, it’s a hub of community – one Arakelyan seems overjoyed to lead. 

— By Bridget Smith

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