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A singer just graduating with advance degrees from music school should have little trouble finding folks to sing with, be they amateurs or professionals.

Ditto an instrumentalist, who has the option of playing with ensembles big and small, whether in paying gigs or informally with friends.

But what if you’re a conductor?

You don’t just need a few people to do what you do. You need a whole orchestra.

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Seattle conductor Julia Tai shows one way it can be done.

Since earning her doctorate of musical arts degree from the University of Washington in 2010, she has become music director of Philharmonia Northwest, co-founder and co-artistic director of Seattle Modern Orchestra (SMO) and a guest conductor with ensembles around the country. She also teaches at Academy of Music Northwest and is music director of Magnolia United Church of Christ.

On Friday (Nov. 22) she conducts SMO in a program exploring “open forms” that includes works by Earle Brown and Stockhausen and a world premiere by Seattle composer Tom Baker. On Sunday she leads Philharmonia Northwest through works by Debussy, Vaughan Williams and Fauré, along with the debut of a jazz-classical piece by Bay Area composer David Arend. And she’ll make her Seattle Symphony conducting debut in March in the orchestra’s “Celebrate Asia” program.

Before a Philharmonia Northwest rehearsal last week, a poised yet passionate Tai described the musical progress that led her into conducting.

Tai grew up in Taiwan and started her musical studies when she was 4½ — first on violin, later in piano and voice. She attended music school in Taipei, then moved to Los Angeles where she enrolled in the vocal-arts-performance program at University of Southern California and sang in USC opera productions. To help make ends meet, she got a church-choir job. (“You know, people work at Starbucks or work-study. I worked at the church, conducting.”)

Her watershed moment came when Jorge Mester, renowned for his work with the Louisville Symphony, came to guest-conduct an opera Tai was in at USC and Tai asked if he could give her conducting lessons. Though surprised to be approached by a singer interested in conducting, he took her under his wing. Part of her training was attending Mester’s rehearsals with the Pasadena Symphony.

“Seeing him conduct,” she says, “made me realize this was what I wanted to do. … As a conductor you can really put everything together.”

Graduate studies in conducting followed with the UW’s Peter Erös, who emphasized the importance of producing “imagination in the sound.” She especially remembers his critique of her handling of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet”:

“Nobody can say you did anything wrong,” he noted. “But I don’t see the imagination. Where’s the castle? Where’s the cloud? Where’s the love story?”

“That,” she says, “really changed how I approached conducting.”

Tai’s latest mentor is Seattle Symphony’s music director Ludovic Morlot, whose rehearsals she attends regularly. “That’s how I learn a new piece … what works, what doesn’t, to get that sound in your ear.”

She is, she concludes, very happy with the opportunities she’s had in Seattle. Through her experience here, she’s come to understand how having a musical career is different from what she imagined when she was growing up, practicing scales, studying scores and reading music-history books.

“In the real world, it’s all about the connection you can make with people, with the community,” she says. “There are so many ways that music can affect people’s lives. … I’m just eager to go out and find all these connections.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com