A Piano Prodigy At 3; Now the Conductor of Hair
by Joan Cook
The New York Times - November 5, 1070

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She has skin the color of molasses taffy, eyes as black as olives and a mop of black curls that give her a piquant look. She's Margaret Harris, a musical prodigy who grew up to become one of the few women to conduct a big Broadway musical; Hair.

"There are eight of us, seven musicians, all men, and me." Miss Harris said over luncheon the other day.  "They don't give me a bit of trouble personally or professionally.  It's like having an unlimited charge account at Saks Fifth Avenue."

A child of Virgo in the Age of Aquarius, she manages to overcome potential astrological difficulties with the cast by saying "I'm Virgo, but the moon is in Aries and the rising sun is in Aquarius."

She appears on stage through the performance and can wear almost anything she gets a kick out of.

"Tonight I'll wear what I have on." she said, with a gesture toward her black sweater and matching pants.

Miss Harris, who describes herself as "strong willed but very quiet in a new situation, which sometimes fools people." recalled that her first two weeks with the cast were as substitute conductor to see how she would work out.

"Once I became the conductor, one of the cast members promptly came up to me and said "Can't I sing?" and when i shook my head persisted.  I said 'No, nein, nyet, uhuh; I haven't auditioned you for the part.'  He said 'I still love you, but you're not like you were when you came in.  You were so quiet.' "

Chicago-born, Miss Harris, who is now 27, made her debut there at the age of 3 and with the Chicago Symphony at 10, the same year she received a scholarship to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where she was the youngest of 125 students, one of two blacks pupils.

"In order to take advantage of the scholarship, my mother had to come with me because I was so young." she said.  "My father had to stay in Chicago where his work (as a railroad employee) was and even though we went home for visits and vacations, it was a very real sacrifice they made to give me this opportunity.

Later Miss Harris went on to receive her bachelor and master of science degrees with honors from the Julliard School of Music, and at 23, she toured 13 European countries as musical director, conductor and pianist of the "Black New World" production.

Two years later, she again toured Europe as musical director of the Negro Ensemble Company of New York.  On November 15th, she will make her New York debut as a concert pianist at Town Hall and on January 22 in London.

Miss Harris, an only child, now lives in an apartment in Lincoln Towers, behind Lincoln Center with her widowed mother.

"She's anything but a stage mother." Miss Harris said.  "She's more like a sister.  All the years I was growing up, she treated me like every other child.  I fell off my tricycle with the rest of the kids.  There was never any of this precious stuff about my hands."

Her mother did see to it, however, that she practiced her music, something she does from three to four hours a day except for matinee days.

"You have to practice; you have to have a goal.  Discipline is very much needed." she said seriously.  "Young people get off on tangents because they lack discipline."

Miss Harris said she feels fortunate that although the concert piano is her first love, she is equally at home with other musical forms.

"This enables me to earn my living doing what I love and still continue working on my career as a concert pianist." she explained.

When she isn't practicing or on stage, Miss Harris is likely to be composing, arranging music, or knitting.

"My hours are such that I have to limit my social life to three or four people." she admitted. "I'd like to get married, I'm crazy about kids, but I would always have to have my music."

And there is no question but that music is her "thing".  Politics bore her, and she dismisses women's lib with "it's nice, but they'd better make sure they're prepared to take over the jobs they're fighting for."

Her biggest annoyance is that people don't believe she is a conductor.

"Are you really a musical director? You're so pretty." she said, mimicking her detractors disdainfully. "Just because you play the piano, do they expect you to look like one?"

Copyright The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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