A lot of people have called me a “thought leader” in choral music. At the age of 34, I’m not sure I can be a “thought leader” yet and I am also not entirely sure what this term means. I do know, however, that I have a lot of thoughts not only about choral music but about music in general.
I’m sure that now that I’m putting these thoughts out there, a lot of people will disagree with me. I’m fine with that.
These are my truths as a musician of 27 years and I hope that they are helpful in some way to you if you’re taking the time to read them. If they provoke you in any way: thought, word, or deed, they will at least have started something moving within you and, in doing so, let you take one step closer to finding your true, authentic self as a musician in this world.
When I work with students, one of the first things I say to them is this:
NOTHING I SAY IS CREED AND I WILL NEVER TELL YOU THAT IT IS.
I truly believe this. There is no one right way to do anything. On my own branch of the music tree, it takes many different types of people from many backgrounds, many training styles, many ages, and so forth to complete the circle that is choral music today. I am, daily, in awe of my colleagues. Like most people, I’m sure, I have my moments of frustration, jealousy, resentment, self-doubt, and so on. Still, I try hard not to let that overshadow my personal sense of pride in what is happening in choral music and my willingness to openly celebrate it.
In recent years, I have had a stark disconnection from this world in large part due to going through a period of discernment and reflection in my life. I feel strongly that I can’t comment properly on what other people are or aren’t doing if I am not well informed, myself, and willing to look at my own life and career without complacency.
A few years ago, Karl Paulnack gave a speech to incoming freshmen and their parents at The Boston Conservatory. At the end of it, he said this:
“…If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you'd take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you're going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.
You're not here to become an entertainer, and you don't have to sell yourself. The truth is you don't have anything to sell; being a musician isn't about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I'm not an entertainer; I'm a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You're here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.
Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that's what we do…”
When my cherished teacher and mentor Conrad Susa died in 2013, I had the opportunity to speak at his memorial in San Francisco and then at his burial:
“…To say that art has limits is unfathomable to someone like me. One of the most cherished lessons I learned from Conrad was how to simply be an artist without limits, but living in a limited world. Whereas he fought daily for his personal right to privacy and to being true to himself no matter the cost, he also managed always to have an eye on the real world outside of himself - particularly in the form of other people…
…This is the true test of a composer of Conrad’s caliber: to be true to oneself while also bravely engaging enough with the outside world in order to bear the burden of telling its story, dilating its languages, and immortalizing its people; to be a mirror so that people can see and hear themselves in a new light - and thus, make groundbreaking, world-changing decisions; teaching us gently: without ever letting us feel like we are being taught. In other words, WE…are The “Limits” of Art and we have considerably fewer limits than we think…”
If we are to view our work as musicians in this way, we have to look deep within ourselves and face whatever our truths are. In this series, I will do that. Please come along with me and be sure to let that motion within you start: talk with me or others about it, question, challenge, validate, condemn. Do what you need to do - but do it for the sake of music. After all, if you’re reading this, it is truly one of your best friends.