Mallory Thompson started playing trumpet in fifth grade.

“I was curious about percussion and clarinet, but my mom was a trumpet player and said ‘just try this,'” Thomson recalls.

But for her career, Thompson ended up helping trumpets, clarinets, percussion and all other band instruments combine to make beautiful and memorable music.

Now, after 28 years as director of bands at her alma mater, Thompson is retiring at the end of the current school year. (Thompson received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwestern, and her Ph.D. from the Eastman School of Music).

Thompson was named NU director of bands in 1996, becoming only the third person, and the first woman, to hold that title.

She has conducted the university’s Symphonic Wind Ensemble ever since starting at NU’s Bienen School of Music.

“There are not many women who are directors of bands at the highest level,” Thompson says.

“But there are a lot of very talented women coming up.”

Thompson has been a guest conductor all around the nation, and the Wind Ensemble has recorded five albums under her direction.

Her main focus is the Wind Ensemble, where students must successfully audition in order to become a member.

Thompson conducting the marching band at Ryan Field.

As for the marching band, that organization has its own conductor, and Thompson says her role there is simply to lead the national anthem and the NU alma mater at home football games.

But while this may be Thompson’s final year conducting and teaching at Northwestern, she is not expecting it to be “a big weepy year.”

She wants to maintain the focus on her students, not on herself.

“I’ve loved it here at Northwestern,” she says.

“Every day I’ve loved working with these students. You learn a lot about a person if you make music with them.”

Credit: Todd Rosenberg photo

Watching her students “mature and grow has been a beautiful privilege.”

Still, Thompson’s final concert, on May 26, 2024, will “not be just an ordinary concert. I hope alumni will come back” to share in the experience.

And when asked if she hears from some of those alumni who have gone on to careers in music, Thompson replies, “Oh my goodness, yes!”

And while Thompson may be stepping down from the podium at Northwestern, she is not putting her baton away altogether.

She will still guest conduct for various ensembles, including in Barcelona, Spain, and also continue as artistic director for the Northshore Concert Band.

However, don’t expect Thompson to solo on the musical instrument which started it for her.

“I haven’t played the trumpet since I was 23,” Thompson says with a laugh.

“Conducting is how I perform.”.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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