A Conductor Takes His Place in the (Sort Of) Family Business

Scott Flavin's maternal grandfather was a silent movie conductor, and his paternal grandfather was a railroad conductor

By Scott Flavin | From the March-April 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

How important is your relationship with your grandparents? Has it influenced who you are or your life’s path? What if you hardly knew or never met them? It’s interesting to speculate on what personality traits may have been transferred across generations.

Press play to listen to the audio version of this story or keep scrolling to read more. (Want to get a notification any time we have an audio story? Sign up for our free newsletter or follow wherever you listen to podcasts.)

When I’m asked why I chose to become a conductor, my quick answer is that the path from violinist to chamber musician to concertmaster to conductor was an inevitable one. It was only natural, as both my grandfathers were conductors. They were, however, two very different kinds of conductors: my maternal grandfather was a silent movie conductor, and my paternal grandfather was a railroad conductor! I’m trying to be humorous, but the fact is that both of those jobs involve skills I use every day as an orchestra conductor—solid leadership, decision making, implementation, and communication—so perhaps my grandparents have had an indirect influence on me after all.


Wellington Wright Flavin
Wellington Wright Flavin. Courtesy of Scott Flavin.

I have only vague recollections connected to my paternal grandfather, who passed away when I was six: the sound of his voice, the homey smell of the house he built, a collection of model cars that I was allowed to (carefully) play with, and what seemed at the time like endless hours of adult talk of life long ago, of people and places long gone. I have no memory of my maternal grandfather, as he died years before I was born. As a result, much of what I know about my grandparents has been passed to me through family stories. It is intriguing to feel so connected, poignantly so, with two people I never really knew.

From a young age, my paternal grandfather, Wellington Wright Flavin (1898–1976) worked on railroads, starting in 1915 as a station helper for $30 a month. He enlisted during World War I, where he served in the US Army 14th Engineers, operating a narrow-gauge railway that sent munitions to the front lines. On his return after the war, he worked for the Canadian National Railway and Grand Trunk Railway initially as a brakeman, then a clerk, section man, and eventually conductor, serving in that role for 47 years, one of the longest tenures of any conductor on that line. A 1949 article written about him in the Christian Science Monitor titled “What? A Happy Conductor?” highlights his personal warmth, engagement, and hunger for knowledge.


My mother’s father, Theodore Perry “TP” Haller (1881–1965), was a pianist and conductor, window dresser, antique dealer, and innkeeper, providing elegant rooms and meals. In the 1920s, he worked as a silent movie musician; in the smaller towns, he would accompany silent films on the piano or organ, and in the larger cities, he would conduct the pit orchestra, carrying the music scores and movie reels with him. 

Theodore Perry "TP" and Winifred Haller circa 1925
Theodore Perry “TP” and Winifred Haller circa 1925. Courtesy of Scott Flavin.

It was in Omaha, Nebraska, where, as he was conducting the movie orchestra, he met and fell in love with the principal cellist, Winifred Hanon. They married, and later opened a music studio, as well as other enterprises, with my grandfather continuing to conduct in local high schools and theater companies. With the birth of my mother, and her interest in the cello, my grandparents moved across the country so she could study at the New England Conservatory of Music. Their wholehearted support of my mother’s musical ambitions was quite unusual for the time. TP was a short, wiry man with an almost constant nervous energy, a witty raconteur who loved beautiful clothes, antiques, and surroundings.


What personality traits do I share with these people who lived in such a different world so long ago? Having learned something about them from family, I see a great deal of both of them in my approach to life, to music, and to leadership. For example, my dad’s father was quite a storyteller—this most certainly was passed to my father (who was an opera singer) and from him on to me (hence my desire to write this very article!). Of course, we share a genetic makeup, but it’s more stirring to consider what aspects of their characters and personalities live on in me; not knowing exactly which ones makes it even more tantalizing. How I wish I could have known them! 

Violinist, conductor, and composer Scott Flavin is professor of violin and conducting at the Frost School of Music, resident conductor for the Henry Mancini Institute, violinist in the Bergonzi Trio, and concertmaster of the Symphony of the Americas, as well as faculty artist in conducting, leadership, and violin at the Eastern Music Festival.