My top 5 lessons

I was one of the lucky ones. I had music teachers very early on, and grew up in the home of a music educator who was a high calibre performer herself. Those music teachers taught me the importance of learning well for public performance, and here are a few of the favorites.

Lesson #1 – Take small bites.

Don’t try to manage too much at once. Assess and accept, and keep working patiently.

Lesson #2 – Get it Right.

Ability is determined in the practice room, if you are willing to stay long enough to only get it right.

Lesson #3 – Be efficient and adaptable.

Yeah, that might count as two, but they are related and worth putting together. If a struggle is encountered, then figure out how to learn it as well and as quickly as possible. Make a game of it, work it into the muscle memory, and eliminate doubt.

Lesson #4 – Trust

Trust in the preparation – and make sure you did enough of it.

Lesson #5 – Don’t sweat the small stuff. 

The more amplified the success and failure, the harder life is. Sometimes, for whatever reason, performance can be better or worse than usual. Cool it and keep perspective.

Montreal – part 2

In my tenth year living in Montreal, I received an unexpected and unintended gift. I had been singing for just over a year at St. Matthias when I subbed for my boss as a conductor over the Christmas break. I was skeptical, dubiously so, but also very willing. Why on earth he would choose me was totally immaterial – I loved conducting and was happy to say yes. I think it was just for the week including Epiphany Sunday. We sang the Malcolm Missa ad Praesepe (lovely music) and Goldschmidt (less lovely). The Sunday came and went and I expected him back like everyone else.

It came as a surprise when his entry back into Canada was refused due to issues with paperwork. The church asked me to stick around for a few more weeks and those few weeks turned into his self-destructive resignation and a few more months of interim work. Then suddenly, and without a search, I was appointed the Director of Music. It turned out that my three-month stint had convinced them not to audition.

Now, that was a surprise too. I had been a singer for a decade, and I felt a bit unprepared to take on something like St. Matthias. I was not alone in that assessment – plenty of musicians in town (especially organists) felt the same way and made sure everyone knew it – a few organists even went so far as to offer their services assuming that I was a lame duck. That was the perfect experience for me – a scenario where I had to prove myself time and again, which is exactly what you want if you are a musician. I love proving myself.

There were many days where I felt completely out of my depth. I had a good background and good training, but I had no leadership skills. So, I rolled up my sleeves and told myself I would learn how to do this no matter what, and I did. I still do. I learned from others and learned from experience and I’m never shy about trying to improve in any way I can and in my own way. Being an artist is mostly a commitment to respecting what is unique about you. You must never, ever, give that up. After that, try to choose a medium that you have natural inclinations for.

I’ve certainly had my share of successes in the past 10 years. More than a few failures too. But what I’ve noticed most recently is this : Where many see successes I see room for improvement. That is a good sign. I’m super critical of my work, but I think I’m looking at myself through a different lens today. A healthy, but self-critical lens.

I’ve done and learned far too much at St. Matthias to be able to write it all down. It has nurtured my abilities and kept me pushing myself forward into unknown territory. And that is just the professional side. My personal side is just as important here. Where did I meet my wife? Make most of my friends? Where are my children baptized? All of it happened right here. I was very lucky the congregation and choir was full of genuinely good people who were patient with me while I found my way.

This year we did the Duruflé Requiem with organ and strings. It is not an easy score – fraught with difficult transitions and difficult harmonies – and I spent many an hour fretting over it. By the time of the performance, I was so immersed in the music and was getting such wonderful results from the ensemble that I fell into unity with the music and came out of it just at the end. I remember almost nothing about that performance – the music had reached such a rush within me that I lost all thought, the music simply flowed through me and I was a part of the flow. An embodiment. That night I knew I had learned what I had been at St. Matthias to learn. I’m very grateful to William Blizzard and the rest of the corporation of that time for choosing me. It made such a difference to my life. I’m very glad that William was there to hear the Duruflé. I’m so grateful to this church for helping me get there.

Sunday is the last hurrah for me as Director of Music here. I’m very grateful to my many friends and family who supported me over the past decade. It was an extraordinary experience. Tonight is our last Thursday night rehearsal together. There is a matins at 10:30, a little concert and wine sampling at 3, and then…

Then – who knows? Into the unknown. After 10 years this chapter has been well read. Time to write something new. Something wonderful is waiting around the corner.

Taverner, Tallis, and Christopher

For the last week I’ve been conducting Camerata Nova through some really good music – Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas and Tallis’s Gaude Gloriosa Dei Mater. They are a great group of people and excellent singers, the concert should be a real treat. We’ll do it twice – once on Saturday and once on Sunday. It’s music I learned either singing with or studying with Christopher. In both cases it was a study in eloquence.

Over the course of the rehearsals it has been a real mixture of languages – almost a dialogue. I would put some of my own research on the table for the choristers and then something that Christopher had told me once would somehow sneak in. It’s funny like that, I really feel like he is around from time to time when that happens, especially when I find my body channeling an eerily similar motion to one he would have used…