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!

Here’s a game we can all play

captain-up-widgetIf you have visited my website during the past month, you may have noticed a little floating bar on the right that says “sign in to play” and I know some of you have wondered what that’s all about.

Here’s the game:

  • Every time you comment, share or like one of my posts or pages, you earn points.
  • Every time you perform one of my #PsalmQuest pieces, you earn massive points!
  • In fact, every time you visit this website, you earn points!

Over time, you achieve badges and levels of competence that are great fun to keep track of. Really – it’s fun, and very easy to suddenly rack up some serious numbers! (Scroll down to the Leaderboard, and see Robert’s example below.)

Grand Prize

But there’s a grand prize at stake: whoever has the most points towards the end of my #PsalmQuest will be invited to the last concert of the last Festival of Psalms in May 2020. Yes, this is a long-term game, but you could get an invitation to come visit me in Tampa Bay! And if you’re a musician, that means you’d get the chance to perform as the opening act in front of thousands of audience members and possibly even broadcast live globally.

The last Festival of Psalms concert will be in Tampa Bay in 2020Awesome, right?! I’d love to see you here, and share the stage with you, so let’s get to it! Sign in, and remember that every time you use the social media buttons to share/ tweet/ plus or comment, you get points. Look how many points Robert, a private car service owner in New Hampshire, received after first signing up and commenting and sharing: over 6,000!

Quickly earn points and be invited to attend the last Festival of Psalms concert! (Click it to tweet it)

It’s amazing how quickly the points add up, so please go sign in now to play, and start earning your invitation to Tampa Bay!

#PsalmQuest concerts

There’s a list of world-wide concerts of my #PsalmQuest pieces right here on my website. How do I know? Because every time someone plays one of my pieces, they simply add a comment on the #PsalmQuest Concerts Page telling us when and where, and that’s how performers can score massive points towards their invitation! Maybe you know someone to be the first?

Of course, you can also use that same page to see if there are any concerts near you that you would like to attend! Scroll through so you don’t miss any.

(Here’s the URL in case the link above does not work: https://www.stephenpbrown.com/concerts/)

Sign in to play, click to share, and earn those points!

#PsalmQuest Bass Clarinet Joint Commission!

Well, this turned into an amazing project!

A local performer reached out to me and said “We should work together!” He was very generous in sharing what a good reputation I have amongst some of his colleagues, so with my esteem duly stroked I said, “Sure!”

Bass Clarinets rule!

clarinette familleTurns out Calvin Falwell is a Bass Clarinet geek. Geeks are cool these days, so that is a compliment. It is also a compliment because I used to play bass clarinet myself when I was 12. You can hear a little about that story on the video below. You can imagine how excited I was when Calvin suggested I write a concerto for bass clarinet and strings.

YES!

Well, some international celebrity solo musicians have the label backing and royalty income to pay for commissions out of their own pockets, whereas the vast majority of enthusiasts and professionals like Calvin don’t. He is a remarkably busy orchestral and opera clarinetist with a hefty teaching schedule at the University of South Florida as well, so I’m thrilled to be working with him.

But how can we make this work? Well, speaking of thrills, I’m trusting that whatever I compose will be thrilling for you, too. Perhaps there’s a way we can partner up and not only produce a piece of music that ROCKS (Calvin’s term), but that we can perform and record – possibly even put on film.

Many small parts = one HUGE outcome

(Click it to tweet it)

As I state in the video below, many small contributions can make a much bigger impact than one or two large grants. So instead of finding someone who might generously donate $1,200 for this piece, why don’t we pool a tiny portion of our own resources together and make it happen much sooner!

Think about that – the more people you share the video below with, then that many more people can participate in jointly commissioning this new concerto! We all win!

  • A fabulous new piece of music gets composed
  • It then gets performed, possibly as part of the Festival of Psalms in May
  • We can get it professionally recorded (and I’ll even send you a CD if you put up $100) so you don’t have to put up with a computer generated MIDI audio file

AND,

  • If you share the video below with enough folk, we can get it filmed and put on Youtube, too – with your name as one of the commissioners or contributors!

Past success:

The last time I wrote a piece of music and invited you to participate, we pooled together more than 650% of the intended budget! 6.5 times the amount I was expecting. This goal is somewhat higher but I think we can still achieve it (especially if you know any clarinet players!) Share the project several times over the next month, and we could even exceed our goal 🙂 Wouldn’t THAT be terrific!

Here –

Watch the video and see what it’s about, what you get, and how you can help others participate:

You can help Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown write a Concerto for Bass Clarinet and Strings

New piano solo – Covered

Here is my psalm composition quest’s third piece of music:

Click here to get your copy of the score
For those of you “Psalmsters” following along with this project, you’ll know that this piece of music is based on Psalm 32. This psalm explains how sin is not eliminated, but covered from God’s view. Hence the title of the piece “Covered.”

The number 3 plays an important part throughout the psalm, and therefore my piece has lots of three’s in it as well. The introduction, for example, consists of 3 notes.

Constructing this piece was most interesting. There are clear elements in the psalm that include instruction, experience and even some words of wisdom from God. It’s funny that the structure of this psalm is more of a mirror than my last piece A Brass Mirror, but we won’t worry about that (Ah, the quirks of ‘artistic license!’)

British American Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown solo piano Covered

After the “early morning” introduction, Section A is about forgiveness. It is followed by a lesson from the author’s experience (B) and an explanation of a promise (C). The middle section is God sharing his promise of wisdom (D), and then we get another lesson (B) and explanation (C) before the author shares his happiness and excitement at being forgiven (A).

For some reason the audio elements of this piece are like an upturned pyramid: What should be the highest point of the structure (the middle) is actually the lowest. I just can’t imagine God speaking with a high-pitched voice, so it appears in Covered with a low but clear rumbling.

My wife likes this piece even more than the famous Not Rach 3 which had its premiere in early 2011, just before my move to Florida. That’s saying something. And I’m very pleased to dedicate this composition to some very engaged and loyal fans. (Thanks for participating in my little reward campaign – your goodies are on their way!)

What about the next piece? It’s a Wind Quintet with 11 instruments.

Yeah – we’ll figure that one out next week 🙂

Unexpected advice and a possible way forward

What an incredible week.

My last blog post “Keeping up appearances” attracted the most views I’ve ever had, as well as the most comments. Thank you!

It is clear that many of you believe a small group of advisers or friends with whom you can share disappointments is a good thing, but even better is a mentor or two. I must admit to constantly referring back to the same handful of people on many matters, but unfortunately I have yet to come across a mentoring candidate in my industry who is on the same playing field/ experienced in what I’m trying to do/ ignoring staid industry norms.

Not even the adventurous Emily Wozniak and her Sound ExChange Orchestra can claim that no-one has done it before. Maybe the Aurora Orchestra is the closest thing to my kind of innovation. Certainly their marketing is – that’s a great 2013 season video:

 

 

The small, global Orchestra Establishment has its noose tightly wrapped around just about everyone, convincing them there is no other way. Certainly every Musical Director and Senior Administrator in the USA & UK, who are probably the closest candidates for mentoring someone like me, succumb to their ways if they want to keep making great orchestral music in the current climate. Emily is young, cute and has a plethora of eager college students at her disposal. I don’t know if she has a mentor or two, but even if she doesn’t yet it won’t be hard to find them. On the other hand, I’m not quite as attractive as she is, and at 42 years old most people would expect me to know what I’m doing and be mentoring others – probably people like Emily.

In fact, I am and have been for several years (I wonder if that explains why people started calling me Maestro a couple of years ago?). Many ex-students stay in touch and I often support them through their own career and life decision-making processes. Just earlier this month one of my longer-term online students came from El Salvador to Tampa for our first in-person sessions – a couple of lessons, a couple of chats about goals and career options, and participation in some rehearsals & concerts. It’s very different in person than via email, and the visit has strengthened the trust between us.

George Marriner Maull, the closest and longest music-related adviser Stephen P Brown has worked with.

The vibrant George Marriner Maull
Photo courtesy of aptonline.org

I definitely have advisers (actually, more like Friends) in business, spirituality and my personal life, but not in the break-the-mold, rip-it-up-and-start-again orchestra industry of the 21st century. [At this point I must give a nod to a dear, dear friend who has taught me a great deal about how to approach music, and makes time to hear my concerns as much as his schedule permits: George Marriner Maull of the Discovery Orchestra. Please buy their incredible DVDs. George has had a profound influence in my musical life since I was a teenager, and continues to do so, but his efforts are hampered by the old-school setup of classical music – which is what I broke away from many years ago. He is doing remarkable work bringing live classical music to children and generally interested people and I hope his passionate flame burns brightly for a long, long time.]

All in all, perhaps that is why last week’s post expressed surprise about sharing deeply personal disappointment – without a mentor it’s not something I’ve done or experienced before and I’ve been immensely touched by your response & support. Here’s an interesting twist, though: whilst many of the blog post comments answered my questions, and many others were boosting my confidence (thank you!), some actionable solutions actually came via email.

One reoccurring solution in particular caused me to think about it over this past weekend, and I think I’m going to look into it further.

I’ll post about it on Friday, but suffice it to say: it will have a HUGE impact.

 

Do you have a mentor?

Have you had a mentor in the past?

Have you been a mentor for someone?

Let me know what the benefits are in the comments below…

Keeping up appearances

British American Conductor Composer Maestro Stephen P Brown

Photo courtesy of www.humptybumptykids.com

I recently received some rather disappointing news. Normally, no-one would know except my poor wife who would end up tolerating my pottering around the house and moping through the kitchen cupboards kidding myself I needed something to munch on.

But the rest of the world wouldn’t know.

Blog posts would still appear on schedule, uplifting tweets would still get posted, and the occasional Facebook message would continue to find its way into the ether. Students would continue to strive for goals just out of their current reach, audiences would cheer and applaud, and colleagues would continue to rely on the ever-smiling, ever-present, ever-reliable SPB to be there for them.

All was always well, apparently.

Except this time. Tweeting has been difficult, I’ve fallen behind in my blog posts thinking I have nothing to say that anyone would want to read, and my Facebook presence has all but dissipated. Students noticed an absence of normally high expectations, audiences didn’t seem entertained, and colleagues noticed that laughter no longer filled the room.

The disappointing news hit me hard.

But there was one difference this time. At the beginning of the project I reached out to a bunch of people to see if anyone was interested in supporting my efforts – a mini Board, if you will. Eight brave souls jumped on board without hesitation (well, some hesitation for a couple of them). Upon conclusion of the project and its disappointing outcome, I had to reach out to every one of those supporters who believed I could pull it off.

To say I was nervous is an honest understatement.

Afterwards, something remarkable happened. Slowly, one by one, every single one of “The Great Eight” responded by email with incredible words of encouragement and humorous perspective. Comments like:

We still believe in you.

You are definitely a talented musician and composer. We are behind you 100%.

They’d probably have refused Bach & Beethoven, too.

I’m sure you will succeed in achieving your objective soon.

Keep believing in yourself Stephen – my money is still on you!

Isn’t that wonderful feedback?! However, these are not your run-of-the-mill stock phrases spurted out to make someone feel better. No, I know these people and trust them. These comments are real. They’re genuine. And coming from these specific Great Eight, these are comments I should actually take to heart. Then I realized something: perhaps sharing one’s disappointments with a handful of people close to you and/or the project will actually enhance your relationships, healthily build your confidence, and lift you out of any potentially depressing doldrums.

First, THANK YOU!

Second, I’d love to know if this really works, or if it was a one-off. Have you shared a particularly devastating disappointment with a small private group of people? What was their response? And how did it affect your own perspective and/or behavior?

Leave a comment below and let me know if sharing helps you. Tell me if you have a close circle of ‘listeners’ you can go to with disappointments (as well as successes). Perhaps I can learn from your own experiences.

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.

 

First #OrchChat

Earlier this evening I hosted my first Twitter chat. Thanks to the encouragement, inspiration and sharing of resources from Lisa @PracticalWisdom it seemed to be a success! Well, I certainly enjoyed it, and time simply flew by.

And I’m impressed that a conductor from Finland joined in – it was 1am there when we started!

The three topics we explored, with very interesting opposite perspectives from performers and audiences, were:

  1. Do musicians who played in youth orchestras now advocate for or even attend orchestra concerts?
  2. Do concert halls help or hinder the success of orchestras?
  3. Why are some conductors marketed and treated like Rock Stars?

Click this link to read the transcript:

OrchChat-121120c

Please let me know in the comments below if we should do this again, and if we do, what topics would you like to discuss? Thanks to the following participants, who I hope will join us again next time (yet to be scheduled, because we’ll be doing another #AskAConductor in December…)

@AzuriteEnigma
@GrandmaOnDeck
@heatherc503
@MaestroDSCH
@MaestrosLover
@njd2245
@PracticalWisdom
@sashamakila
@StorkBrian

 

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Too adventurous for our own good?

There was recently an unscientific poll taken amongst office workers in the USA. Whilst a myriad of issues, concerns, quirks and considerations could be used to undermine the results, I’m not really caring. Instead, I’m choosing to see that classical music not only made it onto the list, but is way, way up there in third place.

 

My favorite relaxation technique is…

  • Walking or jogging – 47%
  • Meditating or deep breathing – 19%
  • Gardening – 12%
  • Doing yoga – 6%
  • Listening to classical music – 15%

Total votes: 1147

Apart from the momentary joy, doesn’t this bear thinking about?

We have lots of Garden Centers and garden sections of superstores, and many small yoga clubs and sports stores that sell yoga equipment (& CDs). Some of the superstores even have music/ entertainment sections. So I wonder why the range of classical music CDs is shrinking so much? According to this survey, we should be seeing more concerts and more options available for purchase! One of the problems (in my humble opinion) is that the classical music recordings available all seem to be the same.

Not to the trained ear, perhaps, but to the vast majority of people who might enjoy classical music, they only need one CD of Beethoven or Mozart, yet the industry DROWNS us with the same material over and over. Not sure there are many other genres that do that… perhaps Opera. One young professional was recently asked why they didn’t attend classical music concerts, to which his reply was “they’re all the same. There’s nothing new I like.”

Woah!

The first family car I remember – a Ford Cortina (UK)

This thought is worth sharing. Click the sentence below to Tweet it, or copy and paste
There are two types of new classical music: that the ticket buyers like and that they don’t. Balance is important! via @Stephen_P_Brown

And ‘new’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean unpalatable Stockhausen or Birtwhistle (warning: link to audio dissonance), either. Think about it: Pop music primarily uses the same chord sequences over and over and over, yet there is still a ton of new music being produced on a daily basis, both by the commercial heavyweights (labels) as well as grass roots. To some of my non-Western friends who don’t get to hear much music at all, they thought Gaga could have been a breakaway soloist from Abba (warning: link to endless audio pleasure). Nice! Lyrics may change, but stories & topics don’t much. Tunes may alter slightly, but the beat and chord patterns don’t much.

So why does the classical music industry not encourage more ‘palatable’ new works, even if they sound similar to previous compositions? Even the experimental, advanced, high-tech, forward-thinking, slightly differing Formula 1 race cars still have four wheels, a couple of mirrors and the need for speed, just like my dad’s old family Ford Cortina of the 1970s.

I’m gonna change that… I’m going to join the rest of the composers who feel no shame in writing music that is ‘likable’ and ‘listenable’ and see what happens – see who attends my concerts and buys my CDs (when I get to make one). Hey, if one of my pieces can attract some 23,000 YouTube views………..!

 

Feedback for Tapestry Tampa Bay

Watch the whole video below…

Conductor Composer Stephen P Brown presented his brand new composition “Tapestry Tampa Bay” to a new audience in Safety Harbor, Florida, on March 23 2012. Feedback has been amazing and very positive, with requests to orchestrate some of the movements as well as over 5,000 views of the concert video.

Check out why…

“Brilliant composition. Those of you that missed this concert, you missed out on a great night of beautiful and entertaining music.” -Barbara

“Tapestry Tampa Bay” simply amazing.” -Hamby

“Absolutely inspiring.” -Bill

“I’ll be Back for More!” -Mary

“Excellent. Can’t wait for the CD.” -Carlos

“Stephen is fearless in a new adventure, ready for a new challenge with a quiet confidence.” -Dale

“I love the stories, and then the music plays them out.” -Vanessa

“Totally refreshing and enjoyable. Please do it again.” -Ron

“What a wonderful surprise. I hope a tour comes out of this.” -Jill

Check out the video of Tapestry Tampa Bay on YouTube, and remember to LIKE it! (Give it a thumbs up). Also add your comments, similar to those above, to the video site:

Remember: Stephen is on a mission to RECONNECT hard-working, leisure-seeking people with that inexplicable element of music that affects us with laughter, crying and goose bumps. You can help by sharing this post on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even your own blog! Thank you.
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