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.

A snapshot of how I serve music: Text and Subtext

Music, and being a choral conductor, is a calling. It is never easy, and it is so sensitive to the balance of many forces. In the end I chose to be a musician because I felt I had something to offer, and have viewed my life as being in service to music and family.

One of my major activites as a musician is learning how text and subtext combine to make a message. A message to hold onto is worth so much – it is, perhaps, the most important way we serve music – by arousing the emotions (affekt) of the listener. While every composer is different, they are often messaging pretty consistently. Being able to interpret those messages often takes a good long while, years even, and that work can’t really be put onto a resume. For instance, there has not been one year of my life since the age of 10 that I haven’t played, sang, or studied Bach. Just as any composer has a lifetime to compose in, it takes we musicians a lifetime to understand those composers. Even then, we don’t always succeed, but we find the cracks that shine a light in a dark corner.

My understanding of any piece has changed so much over the last two decades, and so have the singers I’ve performed it with. It is a completely different thing to perform as a 30 year old than as a 40 year old, singing, conducting, or playing. Each of those performances is really a snapshot of a longer trajectory and I’m sure I’ll see any piece differently by the time I’m 50.

If text and music relate to each other creating subtext, it is music that defines subtext, which can often manifest as a composer’s opinion on the text. Is the composer being sincere, ironic, sarcastic, or even in disagreement with the text on the page? It is the subtext which ultimately defines the emotional (and sometimes intellectual) position of music for the performer and listener alike.

That is how I measure success of a performance – it is whether the listener can identify and be moved by the subtext. I’ve heard many performances lately (mostly online) which were lovely and perfect in so many grammatical ways, but lacked acknowledgement of the subtext of the music being performed. As such, the experience of the piece just doesn’t carry enough weight. A choir can give the most cosmetically accurate performance possible, if it lacks the essential element that allows music to be a relative of the listener’s experience the mark has been missed.

That leads me here : I’ve spent a lifetime learning how to interpret composers whose music has really spoken to me – and I’m learning to leave certain styles of music alone because I don’t feel compatible with the subtext. I’ve reached a point where I want to concentrate more on particular styles of music, and I want to encourage everyone to think hard about that. It is good to embrace much, but eventually there must be some paring down. We have more to offer by doing what we excel at rather than what we do not. For me, that means continual pursuit of subcontext, continual examination and continual observance of composer’s methods, and pursuing what truly interests me. That is likely the best way I can serve music. So, after a performance career now in it’s 37th year, it is clear I’m to start making choices with these things in mind.

If you could concentrate on just a few composers for the rest of your life, say five, who would they be?


Rebirth of the Blog

It has been such a long time since I wrote in this blog, lets consider this the reboot.  I haven’t been away for any particular reason, I think lack of sleep is the big culprit. Our eldest is nearly 3 and our most recent arrival, Hank, is nearing 11 months. This is the first time since his birth I’ve been able to put reliable sleep together for more than one day in every 2 weeks. I feel my brain and my body catching back up, which has given me a bit more energy.

So today is about updates and life changes, so here we go:

A year in Winnipeg has done well for us. We have a beautiful apartment in a lovely part of town right by the river. We have a comfortable car, home, and we have adopted a second cat. Tricksy gets along well with Thor, they are always playing and cuddling, and it has made our lives very peaceful. Our human children are completely adorable and wonderful, even when they complain, and despite their peculiar penchant for pratfalls.

Rehearsals for the WSO Chorus start in a month. For the last few weeks we’ve been working on Polycoro’s next concert – Positive Friction. The concert is, like many we have planned, an examination of a situation through the eyes of history and relating to our current moment. We are debuting music by Isaiah Ceccarelli, a composer from Quebec who has proven a very thoughtful composer, and I think our performance will be moving.

My term at GroundSwell comes to a close at the end of December, I have a few months where I can just conduct, until end of May most likely, and that is a rare opportunity. I doubt I will look too hard for a job during that time period, though there is one awfully good one I applied for recently which I would happily take if it were offered.

In the new year I’m more likely to spend less time on social media platforms, online in general, and at computers especially. Its just too hard on my eyes, so I’ll be writing this blog from time to time but don’t expect a whole lot of activity from me on FB. I’ll be limiting my online time to corresponding (mostly) and my computer time to blogging and grant writing. I’m not closing anything, but I’m definitely stepping away for the foreseeable future. There are too many books and scores and not enough of me to go round. I’ll also likely get rid of my cellphone. I don’t think its really worth it to me to have.

Why am I doing that? To devote more time to art. I want, at this point, to take a few months to accomplish some things of real interest to me. There are some important stories still to tell, and I want to tell them sooner rather than later. I’m 42, no time to waste on anything I don’t *really* want to do. And Nature hates a vacuum. I know I won’t be at loose ends for long.

So there you have it, there is going to be more art and less online, more listening and less facebooking. That sounds exciting. See you all soon!