Back to Choral Roots

A couple of months ago I was appointed Conductor of the 40+ year old Clearwater Chorus. It’s an ensemble of people who like to sing, and encourages adults of varying ages and abilities to make and share music together.

At least, that’s what it is now.

The Clearwater Chorus

Although not titled a “Director” that is effectively my role and as a result, I’ve grabbed hold of the reins and am guiding the ensemble through a new perspective: who we have and what we do now is what we are, and as long as we work together to share music, we’ll be doing something of value to the world.

[Click here: I’m giving away four tickets to our concert on Dec 22!]

Why is this so new? Because like so many institutions that are founded and/or led by an individual for so long (in this case, Arthur Goetze who directed the group from 1975-2005), its members can become entrenched in “the way things were.” This is also a very typical perspective of older generations, especially those who have worked their whole lives and are now enjoying a few special comforts in retirement: they expect things to stay the way they know them. But that is so rarely beneficial for anyone, and certainly not how the world spins.

So whilst respecting the past and honoring those who have gained far more experience with this ensemble than I ever hope to, it is now time to focus not on what we don’t have but on what we do…

Doesn’t this pertain to life in general?

For example, over the past 12 years I have mourned the loss of an active performing and teaching career founded in music, something I have known to be a primary part of my existence since I was in single digits. My music career after moving to the USA has been patchy, fraught with unconfidence, some expensive decisions, and a distinct lack of industry contacts that don’t label me an outsider.

But this current appointment has, unexpectedly, brought me right back to square one – the roots from which my fascination with music grew.

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown began his musical life as a choir boy in Cuxton Church

The Anglo Saxon village church in Cuxton UK, where I was a choir boy

I was 7 years old when I began playing the piano, but that was after I began singing in my English village church choir. I remember joining the village Junior School choir around the same time, as well, but by the time I had moved to my UK secondary school at age 11, I was fully immersed in singing, piano and clarinet. It wasn’t until just before I moved to the USA the first time that I showed any interest in percussion (and if you know me, it was an incredible 4 years of percussion playing that got me into college at 17 years old! More on that another time, perhaps).

During my college years a budding-conductor buddy of mine, Chris Kiver now a Choral Professor at Penn State University, and I would organize “Scratch” singing sessions in which anyone who wanted to play and sing the repertoire we had planned could do so. Of course we did much recruiting, but giving solo parts to multiple singers throughout each piece enabled them to get much needed experience, and Chris and I to learn many differing needs of accompaniment.

In the years that followed college I conducted various ensembles such as the Ealing Choral Society (thanks to the late great James Gaddarn), the Yalding Choral Society, the Medway Community College Singers, and a whole host of other one-off groups. Four highlights in particular were:

  • Conducting Handel’s complete Messiah with 5 days’ notice when the conductor who was booked fell ill,
  • Conducting a “Marathon Singing Session” in which almost 1,000 teenagers sang hymns, easy listening songs and some chart songs,
  • Conducting the European Premiere of Dawn Mantras (outside, at sunrise) by Australian composer Ross Edwards during the UK’s year-long Millennium Festival in 2000, and
  • Singing for John Rutter at Carnegie Hall in his own composition Magnificat.
British American Conductor Composer sang at Carnegie Hall for John Rutter

Melissa and I hanging out with John Rutter in NYC

In addition, I played timpani or percussion for countless choral societies around the UK in more pieces of music than I can remember – hundreds. And, being a percussionist usually with lots of time not actually playing, I got to listen to conductors rehearse their choirs, listen to the choir members mutter under their breath, and have choir members (usually altos) unsolicitally (?!) share their awe about how anyone could actually play the timpani: “I never knew they had pedals like that!”

Interestingly, only a handful of these choral activities “made the cut” onto my resume, so when most folk read my history of musical performance, they see “instrumental conductor” or even just “music teacher.” It’s quite annoying, really, because although conductors in the UK and Europe are trained to be teachers (hence the general reference to them as “Maestro“) in all genres of “formal” music – orchestral, choral, opera, musicals, some concert/wind band and maybe even ballet – in the USA conductors are labelled at a young age and ‘specialize’ not in leadership or motivation, but as a topical expert in just one of those genres. It’s such a pity.

Of course there are exceptions such as James Levine. Kind of. And the incomparable Leonard Bernstein. But generally, conductors in the USA are rarely recognized as even “capable” of conducting well in more than one musical genre. You can tell when a choral conductor has an orchestra in front of them, and you can tell when an orchestral conductor now has to deal with a choir, too. I’m quite proud of the fact that I was taught and expected to work with both, so now that I’m working with the Clearwater Chorus (this links to our Facebook page – please Like it!), not only do I feel comfortable and confident that I can help produce a good sound, help the singers sing together, and focus on sharing good stories and music with others (including the audience), but it is also bringing me back to my roots in music – as that little angelic Church of England choir boy in my village.

For your entertainment: This is one of my favourite Bernstein performances of showmanship, especially around the 5 minute mark. It’s even more engaging because of the video/ audio mis-synching!

Why the next 20 years of classical music will smash the last 20

OPINION. That’s all this is. Totally unmerited, unfounded, unresearched, unverified 🙂

I’m in the UK right now, where I spent my childhood and early professional career. My teens and current professional career were/are in the USA. My college life was mostly spent up & down the UK, throughout East & West Europe, and later a sojourn in a couple of countries in the Southern parts of Africa. Next stop? Ah well, wouldn’t you like to know!

Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown grew up and lived in both the USA and the UKBut as I’m sitting here for a few moments, pondering the extraordinary life I’ve lived split primarily between two continents, cultures and languages (yes, I’m bilingual: I speak English and American), I find it remarkable how much our environment has changed but our enterprise has not. For example, in the late 1980s I predicted that orchestras would start dying out in 20 years or so if they didn’t radically change, and I was correct.

So what about 20 years from now? Hmmm…

“Keep classical music live!”

First, I still believe that acoustic/ unplugged performance affects us in so many more ways than anything reproduced through loudspeakers (click it to tweet it) if only we can be bothered to listen & allow ourselves to fully engage in it, and it cannot be replaced.

From that perspective, I wonder what was I doing 20 years ago that I’m still doing now? Am I doing it differently? How will I be doing it in the future?

Classical Music

  • “Classical music” was an art form studied by many, performed by a few, and enjoyed by a multitude.
  • No-one wants to call “Classical Music” Classical Music anymore. It has a stuffy reputation and technically only refers to the period in history in which Mozart and Haydn lived. We are confused.
  • “Contemporary Music” will be only a [major] part of intimate and huge all-encompassing events that remind us there’s a form of communication that isn’t verbal or visual, but emotional.

 

The Towaco Story by Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown

Composing

  • Manuscript paper could be bought or drawn, and music was created & shared by using a pencil, ruler and eraser/ rubber (see? I told you I’m bilingual).
  • Computer software is readily available, both audio-based used primarily for output such as films, and visual-based used primarily to print music for live performers to read.
  • Even without Steve Jobs around, composition technology will continue to grow and astound those of us born before 2009.

Music Theory

London Sinfonietta Postcard Score Event

The music score of “One for Vonnegut”

  • Musical rules and regulations developed over 400 years were studied and followed rigorously prior to being broken and expanded upon.
  • Sometimes musical rules and regulations are followed, sometimes not, sometimes they don’t even apply, especially in graphical scores.
  • People will like music that affects them, whether it is disturbing, pleasing or in-between, and the rules and regulations of multiple cultures’ musical traditions will be meshed together to create new musical theories.

Commercialization

  • Specific performers were adopted by a benefactor such as the aristocracy, a publisher or a record label, who paid the performer to perform or the composer to compose in order to entertain themselves & their staff, or make money.The Three Tenors became a commercial goldmine
  • Anyone can self-publish, self-record, and self-promote. Many consumers are getting fed up of hearing the same financially viable repertoire pumped into their ears time and time again.
  • Private enterprise will promote performers and composers through hosting or advertising at large live events and online, kind of like Pepsi and Verizon have been doing with (currently-commercialized) female pop stars. Consumers will favor living composers but still occasionally wallow in the music of Dead White Men.

Funding

  • As above, musicians struggled or were adopted by a benefactor. In the Olden Dayes of Classical Music, there was no public government funding.
  • Musicians still struggle, but many are supporting themselves handsomely through ‘entrepreneur-like’ activities such as teaching, producing (live & recording), publishing, retail, and performing all combined. Some governments still spend as much as 0.5% of their nonviable budgets on all the arts.
  • Musicians will still struggle and many will be a part of larger organizations and co-ops. But, administrators will support not direct, and Boards will over-see not make decisions. Public funding will still be a hot topic but far less influential.

 

One thing I can assure you about classical music in 20 years’ time: it will still be here. It is not dying. There will always be someone scraping a wooden violin, someone tooting down a metal tube, and someone banging on an array of so-called ‘instruments’ (aka Percussion). It may morph, shrink and grow, expand and minimalise itself to 1 note (or nothing, in the case of John Cage’s 4’33”), but it will still exist.

After all, the community and youth orchestra scenes are enjoying unprecedented success and are clearly still on the upswing (if not just reaching their height).

What YOU think “Classical Music” will be like in 20 years…

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Mind the Gap!

Curved platform, straight carriage.

If you’ve ever been on the Tube (London Underground) you’ll be familiar with the phrase “Mind the Gap!” Not only is it announced as train doors open, but it’s also written on the floor in numerous stations.

To make it easy and efficient for trains to traverse the underground tube-like tunnels throughout London, some tracks are curved even in the stations. Therefore, the platforms are also curved. But train carriages are straight. Naturally, the center of each train carriage is the closest it gets to the platform but the ends of each carriage can be far away. For the sake of providing an efficient service, there is a gap.

By this time next week the world of classical music will have a terrific new resource that reduces the size of a similar large gap: A central concert calendar for classical music happening around Tampa Bay. This is a huge area with more than 4 million year-round residents, and what feels like an almost matching number of part-time residents (a.k.a. “snow birds”). With that kind of crowd spread over Florida’s largest metropolitan area it’s no wonder it can boast three regional performing arts centers and seven local performing arts centers.

There’s a lot of music going on around the Bay.

However, to find a concert you have to look at each venue’s website, or each performer’s website, or any one of the media sites that list hundreds of entertainment opportunities of which only a handful may be ‘classical.’ It gets frustrating. So here’s the solution: a new concert calendar website dedicated to the thousands of classical music fans who have access to Tampa Bay. And that includes you! Seriously, even if you don’t live here, have a winter home here, or have never even been here yet, it’s just a quick and easy flight from New York or a couple of hours from Orlando (think: Disney & Universal), but we have far better beaches.

As a truly loyal reader of my blog, I’m going to give you a sneak preview. Click here to take a behind-the-scenes look around the pre-launch site and as you do so, you may notice some gaps. (If you end up on the prelaunch home page, simply click your browser’s BACK button.)

Mind the Gaps:

  1. We need to encourage local performers and presenters to add their concerts. Have a look at March in the calendar view – it’s pretty full but that’s not everything.
  2. Some of the preview and interview articles are all ready for publishing over the next couple of weeks, although you won’t find them on the prelaunch site – just a Welcome article for now.
  3. None of the paid ads are active, yet. Classical music advertisers book spots by the week, so you’ll start seeing some ads after the launch.
  4. We do not have any concert reviews scheduled yet as the site needs to earn some income in order to pay for reviewers’ tickets.
  5. Your name doesn’t appear as a Partner, yet. During your site exploration did you come across the Partner page? That’s a list of people like you who like Classical Music and believe that this site is providing an incredible service. (If it works well, there are other cities that have already expressed interest in having me setup similar sites for them). The costs of hosting and running the site plus providing outstanding editorial content that is not influenced by ads, is pretty intense.

For as little as $1 a week you could help fill the gaps – especially those last two. Please click here to become a Partner of TampaClassical .com and you will be supporting a valuable service for the classical music industry. Seriously – we need to stick together in this day and age of massive distraction, and I hope you feel motivated to inspire the world through becoming a Partner. Or you could buy some ads!

Thank you.

Please visit TampaClassical.com/Partners now

 

Memory lane: Was it good, bad or empty?

Each month I keep an eye on the conversations I’m having with people to find topics for my next #OrchChat – an hour of discussion on Twitter about orchestras. Usually the three topics of each chat are quite diverse but so far have somehow bled into each other. It’s really a fascinating hour.

Click here to read the transcript of January’s #OrchChat

Over the past couple of weeks there is one conversation that has cropped up several times from several sources, including the excellent & brief daily snippet of arts news You’ve Cott Mail, and I was just wondering about your experience in the arts. This topic just might be included in February’s #OrchChat (on the 12th at 6pm ET).

Were you in a youth orchestra, choir or musical?

Were you in a youth orchestra, choir or musical?

For example, when you were in school or even college, did you ever sing or play a musical instrument? Were you in a play or musical? Did you ever attend a school concert or show that a friend or sibling was in? What about in the community?

My point of barraging you with these questions is to find out what, if any, experience you had with music and the performing arts, especially whether or not you enjoyed it.

Are there any specific memories of good feelings or events that come to mind?

Have a think about it.

Then send me an email with your observations and experiences. If you feel like sharing, go global so all the world can learn: add a post to my Facebook page.

 

Ask A Conductor?

Two years ago two of my dear Tweeps @mcmvanbree and @laceyh started an awesome day of musical questioning. Including myself, Lorin Maazel, Sasha Makila, Vladimir Ashkenazy (through the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Twitter account) and a whole host of others, the general public got to ask us Conductors from all over the world… whatever they wanted!

It was challenging and exciting at the same time, yet experts such as Mike Seal and Kenneth Woods provided much insightful entertainment and I look forward to their participation again this year, too.

This year’s event will be on Wednesday, December 12 YOUR LOCAL TIME. That means, the ‘day’ could last up to 48 counted hours!

Anyway, click on this link to see details, including the specific link and hashtag to use when asking your questions:

Ask A Conductor Day 2012

Then spread the word, line up your questions, forward this page, and post, post, post the event everywhere. This really is your annual opportunity to drill us baton-wavers and ask some great or simple questions!

DO IT.

 

 

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World Orchestra Summit

“I’m about to turn the orchestra world on its head and spin it around a few times.”
Stephen P Brown

The current state of orchestras in the USA is embarrassingly unsound, to say the least. The Western World’s orchestral industry has been decimated by highly inflated costs and drastically reduced public interest. Orchestras all over the world are exploring options for future survival, a few unsuccessfully. I believe the basic foundation blocks upon which the “Industry” or “Establishment” has been built have been cracked for some time and are now crumbling under the weight of so many bandages. Whilst in college some 20+ years ago, I warned of orchestras failing after the turn of the century. No-one wanted to hear it then.

Considering all the talk I’ve been witness to in the past five years, the Industry is simply re-redressing its wounds with dirty bandages. A few brave souls are applying ointment, which will not have much impact on a broken bone, but their efforts are recognized and truly appreciated. A handful of orchestras are re-experiencing momentary respite from their woes, again.

I believe we need a fundamentally new structured approach to the whole thing:

  1. Any orchestra, service or product can only exist if it produces income.
  2. Income comes only from those who appreciate what music does to us individually and socially.
  3. We must educate future decision makers on how music affects humans directly.
  4. We should approach such education through performance, as well as other media.
  5. We must do what makes people feel good about themselves – all people.

The goal should be to share music with other humans, not sustain an orchestra, employ musicians, stroke our egos using a community resource, or worse: fearfully hanging on to the previous century’s way of life and expectations.

I believe it is time to start from scratch. I believe there is a sufficient pool of talent (administrative and musical) keen enough to try something brand new. I believe we should explore what that new approach should be, and implement it.

The World Orchestra Summit intends to bring together a carefully selected qualified population of those who have an existing interest in orchestral music to consider a defined model. Ideas will be shared that will greatly impact their lives and if they choose, the lives of their orchestras and audiences. A handful may want to jump on the new Orchestra train as it leaves the station on its inaugural journey.

  • It’s an arts conference like none before it.
  • It’s an opportunity to shake off readjusting, revamping, redoing, revisiting, reorganizing, regrouping, reconstructing, and re-anything.
  • It’s a safe testing ground to see if there is actual commitment to implement new options, or if the Establishment is so ingrained in the orchestra world’s mind that it is actually just trendy talking/ saying the right things.
  • It is an opportunity to begin with a blank sheet of paper and build a fresh, community- society- heart-based tool for reconnecting hard working, leisure seeking people with that inexplicable element of music that makes us laugh & cry and gives us goose bumps.

Are you ready for the World Orchestra Summit?

To get updates on its development via email, sign up at

http://WorldOrchestraSummit.com

 

Very important people

How many very important people do you have in your life? The most difficult for me to get along with but who I value extremely highly, are lawyers. In the USA we need lawyers for just about everything, but especially in the music world. Did you know that most initial music industry contacts are made through lawyers? Not agents, not managers, not even the artists themselves.

Robert J. Stack, Esq.But lawyers can be intimidating. They charge by the part-hour and good ones attract a hefty hourly rate – rightly so, but when talking or meeting or emailing or faxing their laywers, many clients remain acutely aware of every second. There are many nice lawyers out there who are also people, for example one skilled action-oriented chap that deals with a lot of non-business issues sometimes focuses and bids on tasks, not open ended contracts. After discussing the issue at hand he MIGHT just offer a flat rate to ‘get the job done.’ That is really appreciated (FYI, it’s Robert J. Stack in Kinnelon NJ – tell him who sent you!). Robert likes to chat about life, too – his family, our family, visiting Florida, etc. and I always feel guilty in responding curtly and getting back to my point: all the while watching the second hand tick round and round. Rob is gracious enough and seemingly understands, but… as promised, he gets the job done.

On the other hand, there are lawyers who charge by the hour or part-thereof. Just one email or one phone call, it’s an hour. Three or four emails and a brief contract review, also one hour. They don’t bill for anything less in any month. Gulp! Still, they have industry contacts that very few others have direct access to, and that makes them very special!

All in all, lawyers are some of the most VIP VIPs, despite my cautiousness and constant clock-watching. If you use a lawyer for anything, send them a note today – maybe even a handwritten card – just letting them know you appreciate them. Sometimes we don’t do it often enough.

In the comments below, share how your relationship with your lawyer/s is/are – cordial, professional, friendly, awful, etc. And how are you going to show them this weekend how much you appreciate what they do for you?