When Michael Morgan started conducting at age 12, there were not a lot of people in the field who looked like him.
There still aren’t.
“There are not a lot of African-American conductors and not a lot of women conductors, but not so much because of overt racism,” he told students at the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts. “Often people don’t see themselves in that position because there are not a lot of people doing that who look like them.”
Morgan spoke Tuesday as part of a role model project called “Success Looks Like Me.” Developed by the Cultures of Giving Legacy Initiative, it provides children in low-income communities of color with opportunities to interact with successful adults who look like they do.
Undeterred as a youngster, Morgan has been leading orchestras and symphonies for the past 43 years.
Setting a goal and marching toward it was the message he conveyed to about 75 students at Performing Arts plus others throughout the Buffalo Public Schools watching his presentation by videoconferencing.
Morgan will be a guest conductor Friday when Kathleen Battle joins the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra for “The Underground Railroad: An Evening of Spirituals” at 8 p.m. in Kleinhans Music Hall.
But on Tuesday, he shared his personal success story with students.
“Keep going forward toward the goal,” he said. “Many [performers] may not be the best at what they do, but they had the determination to get there. If you have that determination, you can have a career.”
A native of Washington, D.C., the 55-year-old Morgan is no stranger to Buffalo. He did a stint as an apprentice conductor with the BPO when he was 21 years old.
“It’s always sentimental to come back here. Buffalo is really important to me,” he said.
Morgan, the music director at Oakland East Bay Symphony for the past 23 years, decided as a third-grader that he wanted to be a conductor. From there, he took every opportunity to see people doing what he wanted to do.
One of his “biggest gigs” was as a student conductor for the D.C. Youth Orchestra when he was 12.
“No one had done it before, and I don’t believe anyone has done it since,” Morgan said.
He achieved another milestone as a fellowship conductor at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he met Leonard Bernstein, he said.
Early on, Morgan had set a goal to reach Tanglewood by age 20. He made it at 19, another first in his career.
“I was told that no one had ever been there at 19 as a conducting fellow,” he said.
“The thing I want to stress is, I decided I wanted to do something, and I kept telling people that I wanted to do it,” he said.
Morgan explained some of the keys to his success with students in the question-and-answer session following his talk.
“There is no rule,” he told Christopher McMillan, an 11th-grade African-American at Performing Arts who also wants to be a conductor and sought advice from Morgan.
“The most important thing you can do is see as many conductors as you can and then look for every possible opportunity to conduct anything,” he told Christopher.
“Out of the places you’ve conducted, where was your favorite and why?” asked Naomi Yanik, a senior who is an instrumental/vocal major at the school.
Working with orchestras in Birmingham, Ala., Cairo, the Congo and Paris were among his favorites.
“I love Paris. I could stay in Paris all the time,” he said.
At the end of his presentation, Morgan was given the Pay it Forward award from Cultures of Giving Legacy Initiative, artwork created by eighth-grader Angel Galarza.
He also made an impression on the students, especially the ones who surrounded him when the program concluded.
“It was good,” 11th-grader Tiera White said of the presentation. “It was interesting. It kept my attention.”