James K. Bass, three-time GRAMMY®-nominated singer and conductor, is Professor and Director of Choral Studies at the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA. James is on the faculty of the Aspen Music Festival and serves as the associate program director for the Professional Choral Institute. He is the Associate Conductor and Director of Education for the Miami based ensemble Seraphic Fire and is the Artistic Director of the Long Beach Camerata Singers.
Bass is an active soloist and ensemble artist. In 2017 he made his Cleveland Orchestra solo debut singing with Franz Welser-Möst in Miami and in Severance Hall, Cleveland. Other engagements as soloist include the New World Symphony with Michael Tilson-Thomas, The Florida Orchestra, Grand Rapids Symphony, Back Bay Chorale and Orchestra, Firebird Chamber Orchestra, and The Sebastians. He has appeared with numerous professional vocal ensembles including Seraphic Fire, Conspirare, the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, Trinity Wall Street, Apollo Master Chorale, Vox Humanae, True Concord and Spire. He was the featured baritone soloist on the GRAMMY nominated recording Pablo Neruda: The Poet Sings with fellow singer Lauren Snouffer, conductor Craig Hella-Johnson and the GRAMMY winning ensemble Conpirare. He is one of 13 singers on the GRAMMY®-nominated disc A Seraphic Fire Christmas and appears on CD recordings on the Harmonia Mundi, Naxos, Albany, and Seraphic Fire Media labels.
Bass was selected by the master conductor of the Amsterdam Baroque Soloists, Ton Koopman, to be one of only 20 singers for a presentation of Cantatas by J. S. Bach in Carnegie Hall and was an auditioned member of Robert Shaw’s workshop choir at Carnegie. He has appeared as conductor with the Florida Orchestra during their annual education concerts. During his tenure as Artistic Director for the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, the official chorus of the Florida Orchestra, he was responsible for five recordings and multiple world premieres. In 2012 he served as chorusmaster and co-editor for the Naxos recording entitled Delius: Sea Drift and Appalachia featuring the Florida Orchestra and conducted by Stefan Sanderling. In 2014 he was the preparer for the recording Holiday Pops Live! conducted by the principal pops conductor Jeff Tyzik. During his tenure as a chorusmaster he has prepared choirs for Sir Colin Davis, Sir David Willcocks, Jahja Ling, Michael Tilson-Thomas, Gerard Schwarz, Giancarlo Guerrero, Michael Francis, Marcelo Lehninger, Stefan Sanderling, Evan Rogister, Danail Rachlev, Joshua Weilerstein, Markus Huber, David Lockington, Xian Zhang, Patrick Quigley and Neal Stulberg. His professional career has coincided with the development of Seraphic Fire as one of the premier vocal ensembles in the United States. He has been actively involved as soloist, ensemble artist, editor, producer and preparer for 14 of the ensembles recordings and routinely conducts the ensemble in Miami and on tour. During the summer of 2011 he co-founded the Professional Choral Institute. In its inaugural year of recording, Seraphic Fire and PCI received the GRAMMY® nomination for Best Choral Performance for their recording of Johannes Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem. As the Director of Education for the ensemble he has been involved with annual events that service more than 2000 students in the Miami-Dade county area each year. In 2017 Seraphic Fire and UCLA launched a new educational initiative entitled the Ensemble Artist Program that aims to identify and train the next generation of high-level ensemble singers. Bass received his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Miami, where he was a doctoral fellow, and is a graduate of the Interlochen Arts Academy.
Where are you from?
Originally from Tampa, Florida.
How did you get into music?
The 100% honest truth is elementary general music [in] second and third grade [for] 30 minutes a day. In second grade, they took all the second graders to hear the Florida orchestra. I still to this day believe that's the reason I'm in classical music.
Where did you attend your undergraduate studies?
University of South Florida in Tampa.
What undergraduate degrees do you hold?
Bachelor of Science in Music Education.
Did you do any young artists programs during undergraduate studies?
Before undergraduate I went to an Academy for music that was like a young artists program except permanent. [I went to] Interlochen Center for the Arts. I lived at Interlochen for two years (my junior and senior year) prior to my undergraduate and that's where I learned how to sight-read and theory. I played double bass for the orchestra and that was the first time I ever sang in the choir.
Did you do any Professional Choral Institutes (or similar programs for choral studies) during undergraduate studies?
I did the closest thing we had then. This was in the 90s. Robert Shaw used to have what's called a Shaw Festival Workshops in New York City. I went to my very first one when I was a sophomore and sang Elijah over a one week period, just kind of learning and training. Thomas Hampson was Elijah and Robert Shaw conducted. It was amazing.
How beneficial were these programs?
Well, in many ways it opened my eyes to the larger world of choral music. I was based in Tampa. There was a great choral program there at USF. I sang in the Master Choral, Tampa Bay, so I was getting access to the larger symphonic works. But as a young singer, [I was] thrown into a mix with an entirely different level of singer like Thomas Hampson and Marietta Simpson who [were and are] some of the greatest singers in the world. I was just a chorister, but it changed my life, certainly, to see the level that the choir could achieve.
How did you find out about these programs?
At that time, it was in an ACDA choral journal. There was a one page advertisement and it talked about these workshops. In the bottom, it said what you had to submit to apply. I remember tearing the page out, and going online and making an application and I got selected.
What are some things (besides YAP/PCI) that you did to build your resume as an undergraduate student?
This is so complicated, because when I left Interlochen, I was a double bass major and voice and choir was still kind of just a sidebar thing. Then I got to USF and decided that I wanted to do music education [with a] vocal emphasis, but I still played the double bass. I got accepted to the school on double bass and was on scholarship. So I had a lot of double bass work to do. But for my singing and choral conducting career, one of the first things I did was get a significant church job. The one I got was at a Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and this was very high level professional cantorial music making, and I got into that when I was 18. When I got hired there, there were five other guys that were singing in that group, but they were all the best singers in that area [that] had all the gigs. So that job led me to this job and then it led me to another job. It was really just taking a first crack at an actual singing job.
What are some of the most useful ways for undergraduate students to spend their time to prepare themselves for the “next step?”
As a musician, so much of what the next step is, or what we think it is, really has nothing to do with getting a job or being in the right place at the right time. It has to do with that continuous nurturing and growth of that inner musician. So as an undergrad, you'll have all of your required classes. You're taking the lessons. You're taking general education classes. Your life is moderately structured in that way. It's what you do in the hours that you have free. In my opinion, I think what helped me was I became a voracious listener. An audio file. Ultimately, we as singers, conductors, [or] any of the different jobs in this particular field, are dealing with the currency that we're handling [which] is sound. The fastest way to learn about sound is to listen. So I recommend having an extensive audio library as fast as you can. Back in my day, it was CDs. Now, of course, you just have whatever your Spotify list is, but people don't listen to music enough when they're not making it. To me, I think it's the key for a young musician. Even though you may not understand it, “Here's a piece of music.” “I have no idea what this is,” but your body has absorbed it [along with] your ears and your mind. When you go to the actual written page of music, or you go to the rehearsal, all of that aural knowledge and data that's in your head comes to bear, even though you don't realize it.
How important is GPA in undergraduate studies?
I think it matters, period. It matters in the sense that if you want to go on to graduate school, there are some very black and white toggle switches at universities in which you may be an incredibly talented, wonderful human being, but because that GPA is 0.2 lower than they accept, this toggle goes down [and] you don't get in. So I think it's always best to pitch yourself the best advantage by having a good GPA. [In terms of] your music GPA, there should be no question about that. When I review students’ files, I often will try to compartmentalize that because not everyone is great at math. Not everyone's good in chemistry. But if you're wanting to be a musician and you want to get into graduate school and your undergraduate music history or theory classes were a 2.0, I have a pause there. It depends. Some people find a moment later in life to become more focused. Many people have been very successful that didn't have great grades in undergraduate, but I don't think you should try to have bad grades.
APPLYING TO GRADUATE SCHOOL
Does attending a more acclaimed yet competitive school provide more opportunities in the long run as opposed to a smaller school with more individual opportunities?
I think that where and what status the school is does not matter in any way. Absolutely, certain places that schools exist might provide different opportunities. If you go to school in midtown Manhattan, you're going to have different opportunities to make music than if you're in Decorah, Iowa, or Moorhead Minnesota. But essentially, what matters is not the name of the school. It's the people and persons that you're studying with and your receptivity and how you're taking it. Often a young person in undergrad will be better [off] in a small town, because of less distractions. They can stay more focused. It all depends on the person. I went to the University of South Florida. This is not a quote “acclaimed school.” It’s an enormous school of 56,000 students. But I was studying with a teacher, Robert Summer, [where] I had incredible individual attention. So I think that the name of the school and where and the status is overrated. Often I'll see young people search out the name and follow a school and then they go and they're miserable because they never actually investigated the people that are there.
How do you find a conductor that you would like to study with?
Send an email or something. Ask if you can meet the conductor. Most the time if you catch them at the right time, they’ll say, “Hey, I'll meet you and have coffee at 10:30.” Have a conversation. Find out what their underlying philosophy is behind conducting. The first way you're attracted to a conductor is the music that they make.
I'll give you a short story because I think this really mattered for me [as to] why I ended up at USF. I never wanted to go there. I wanted to go to Florida State because I grew up in Florida, and went to high school in Michigan. So when I came back, in-state tuition at a state school in Florida is much cheaper. My parents were very poor. Florida State was the big name music school. I went and I auditioned on double bass. I got a full scholarship for double bass, and then I went to the choral rehearsal to observe and it was not very inspiring. The music making wasn't very inspiring. I was young and that was just my opinion of that moment but I remember thinking, “That wasn’t excellent.” I was still going to go there but in Tampa, a guy that had gone to my parents’ church was the Associate Director of the School of Music and he was heavily trying to get me to come to USF. [I thought,] “I don't want to go to USF. My parents live in this town. I grew up here. I don’t want to go there.” So he tricked me into coming by the school one evening and that evening was the last rehearsal of the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay before they went to Atlanta to record Mahler 8 with Robert Shaw. So on the Telarc recording, the other choir besides the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus [was] the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay.
So there's an observation deck above the rehearsal hall. He brought me up there. I'm watching this man I've never seen in my life and have never heard of, Robert Summer, rehearse Mahler 8 before they’re going to Atlanta. I was stricken by his music making and how he addressed the choir and the precision of his rehearsal. That moment -- that single observation of that conductor -- [made me] give up everything at Florida State and I went to USF. So in one sense, you just need a chance to watch them. Observe them and see them. Of course, listen to the music they make.
[For graduate school,] it's a little bit the same way because you want to find one again and have a chance to observe them at some place. Come find a rehearsal. Sit in on a rehearsal. Ask if you, [as a] potential student, may come and observe a rehearsal. Often in graduate conducting situations, look at what their students are doing, if they have a track record of students. Sometimes they may be new to graduate teaching, but look where those students are because it'll let you know if the skills they're getting from that particular teacher are actually being applicable out in the marketplace. [It’s] not always the case but most of the time, it's true. Again, somehow [get] a one on one. You [can] observe them. You can look at a conductor go, “I don't want to be that.” But it’s initial contact. It really is just trying to get in touch with them, which is not always easy. You have to dig and claw and email and scratch and claw, but just keep doing it.
Is it more beneficial to attend graduate school or gain experience right out of undergraduate studies?
These are good questions, and I thought about this one a lot.
I think it depends on the person, but the majority of the time, in my opinion, especially in music, if you want to be a conductor, I think it's better to go and do some teaching for a little bit. Even if it's just a couple years. There is a certain incredible skill that is required for a person to organize enough to run a classroom, to monitor it over a period of a semester, to make music, and to do your concerts. That then very much sets you up for graduate school. It's the same kind of structure and you're responsible. You're not just a student. Now you’re a student teacher when you’re in graduate school. So I lean towards a student having some experience [after undergrad]. If you're a singer [or] if you're going to be a voice major, I think it's the opposite. I think you should just continue to study as long as you can and just get it done and then get out and start singing.
Should you pay for graduate school or should they pay you?
In the schema of the world, I absolutely think that students should go tuition free. If you are the level that that school and that program wants, and at the last minute they said, “You're the one,” then you shouldn't pay to go there, other than what it costs to live. That's the way it is at my school, for sure.
How important is it to have a master’s degree?
Well, in one sense, it's just like a carte blanche requirement in many places. So that raises the level of importance because it's just on the punch card. You have to have it to apply for this job. These things are changing a little bit in the U.S. right now as far as positions in academia. If you want to teach at a university, then you have to have an advanced degree. I mean, that's just the way it is in most cases. But if you look at job applications for universities, it talks about a master's degree or equivalent. What is the equivalent part? That's a part that, for a long time, people didn't center on. You can become one of the greatest singers in the world, and you can sing for 25 years on the greatest stages in the world, but you never get a masters degree. Now in the academy, we look at that and go, “That 25 years [is] equivalent. So you can come teach here.” I think one of the things about the master’s degree that is important is that in undergrad, you have a wide array of knowledge that you're trying to intake, and then that master's degree focuses you in. So it's important. I think you should have one.
How important is it to have a doctoral degree?
Again, if you want to teach at a university, it's extremely important, because you're going to be managing students that are also trying to receive that degree. So it's difficult to teach doctoral students if you don't have a doctoral degree. There are places that it happens, but that student looks at you and goes, “Wait a minute. You didn't even get the same degree I have. How can you tell me what to do in this case?” It's a more refined and further focusing down. Once you find out what you really want to do in life, the doctorate degree is the place to just celebrate that and do only that. We have a joke that says, “Do you know what a doctoral degree means? It means you know a lot about a little bit.”
Where did you attend your graduate studies?
University of Miami, Florida.
What graduate degrees do you hold?
I held a Doctorate of Musical Arts — DMA in choral conducting.
Did you do any young artists programs during graduate studies?
Yes — conducting programs. I did two. One was with Ton Koopman — this famous Baroque conductor. He brought in conductor-singers to study Bach and sing. So I did that in my doctoral program. Then I did a two week long conducting seminar at the University of Michigan.
How beneficial were these programs?
They were good. At one institute, I realized I don't want to do it that way. What it taught me was that in education, they use a term called a non-example. The non-example is the bad version of something that's good. You learn a great deal from the non-example. So I thought it was incredibly beneficial.
How did you find out about them?
That one was word of mouth. The Ton Koopman one was, again, an advertisement either in ACDA Choral Journal, or may have been a Chorus America magazine.
What are some things (besides YAP/PCI) that you did to build your resume as a graduate student?
Well, doing the Ton Koopman workshop was one that immediately did that. At the University of Miami, there are different levels of the doctoral scholarship based on your grades and things like that, and I got a doctoral fellowship. There were only 16 fellows at the University of Miami. That immediately kind of raised my status as far as having entry into different places. Even while I was a doctoral student, I got asked to do an All-County Chorus, and I think it had to do with the fact that I had this doctoral fellowship.
What are some of the most useful ways for graduate students to spend their time to prepare themselves for the “next step” (not necessarily to build their resume)?
These institutes like the Professional Choral Institutes and those [kind of] things are very beneficial in the graduate degree. If you find ones that are better and very organized, and they do what they say they're going to do, [they are beneficial]. If you're going to pay $2,000, and you're just going to go sit in choral rehearsals, and it's the only thing you do, maybe it's beneficial, maybe it's not. If you really want to go and you’re a conductor, and [you] want to learn score study, or this [other thing], make sure that institute or program does that. If graduate students are not studying at their school in the summers, you've got to find a way to do two things. You have to find a way to unplug a little bit, because graduate school can be relentless at times with the deadlines and the weight of all of this work. But you also can't take an entire summer off. You've got to find a way to either self educate, — find a project you're going to do — or do some of these summer institutes because it's a little bit like going to the gym, once you get into graduate school. If you go, and you're working hard, and then you take two months off, when you come back, you don't actually pick up exactly where you were. You have to build back up to that point and then go. Same thing with singing, conducting, and the intake of knowledge. So it's important that they keep a consistent intake, even during the summers.
How important is GPA in graduate studies?
Well, that's another one that's incredibly important in one area. Undergraduate GPA is important, because you're trying to get to graduate school. In terms of terminal degrees, you're not going back to school. What does it matter? It matters if you ever want to work in the academic environment. The first thing they look at is your GPA in your graduate school. It's reflective of what you might be like as a professor. If you just skated through graduate school, they're like, “Well, what if there are two people and all things are equal?” If that GPA is higher, they're going to consider that person more. All based on numbers, unfortunately.
How do you get auditions?
Some of the places have online portals. So you have to go in, and you just fill out the thing. For example, if you want to audition for Seraphic Fire, first, you talk to someone, but second, you go to the website. Here it says prospective singer. You have to fill these things out. So you can search for a lot of electronic mediums to do auditions. For the other ones, you ask. For me, for example, I sing with Conspirare. How I got that audition was that I was at ACDA in Dallas and Craig Hella Johnson just happened to be there. I said, “Craig, can I sing for you?” And he's like, “Hi, who are you?” And I just gave a quick conversation of who I am, and I said, “May I sing for you?” And he said, “Okay, two o'clock in the ballroom. You've got music with you? And I said, “Yeah, I’ve got a lot of stuff,” and I sang for him, and that's how I got in the group. Many singers or conductors as you're traveling, when you're in this particular city, think, “Well, I'm in New York for this gig. I should find out who's here that I can sing for.” The best way to do it is email and say, “Hey, I'm going to be in New York for these five days. Is it possible for me to audition for you? I would love to audition.” So in my life it has been twofold. It's been, “Well, let me just click and submit,” or “May I sing for you?”
Do you need an agent?
It depends on two things — your ability to be organized and promote yourself. If you're not good at that, then an agent helps you do that. That's the first one, and the other one is how busy you are. If, as a singer, you're like, “I want to have every day of every week of every month filled,” then an agent is someone that's going to help manage all that for you, and so I recommend that. If you're a person that says, “I'll take a gig a month,” you can handle yourself. The one thing about an agent is that you're having to share your profits with them. So there's a financial cost to it, but it also can save you time to allow you to learn music to do other gigs. So it's it's an either or depending on your situation.
What pieces do you choose to prepare (range, technique, etc.)?
Number one thing — read the instructions. Many of these places will tell you. They'll give you a loose framework — “Please do something fast from the Baroque period.” Or they'll have a specific thing — “Please sing this aria from this and that aria from that.” I cannot tell you how many times I've been at the audition panel table, and the singer comes in and they didn't read the instructions. So number one — read the instructions. Then if there are no instructions about that, my first advice is to research who it is you're auditioning for. So for example, if you were going to audition for Scott Jarrett, you don't want to bring in a Verdi Aria. Bring in a Bach Aria. Find out who he or she is. Find out what their tastes are and sing to it. If you take those two things aside, in general terms, you want something contrasting. I would have two to three pieces. At least two in a foreign language and one from oratorio. Have something that moves in the voice and something that shows legato.
What material do you bring with you into the room (paperwork, resume, binder of music, etc.)?
Wow. That's a deep question too, because half of what I bring to the room is actually mental and emotional. Bring in a bit of confidence but not overconfidence. Nerves are always in every audition. Period. I try to make sure I have extra copies of the music, just in case. I'll often have more than I need in terms of the audition. If they’re actually only going to listen to three, I'll make sure I have eight things ready. I'll have them all ready. The accompanists music is photocopied and stapled. It's ready to go. I usually dress the part. That's part of it. But in general, I just try to bring confidence that I deserve to be there.
What is the first thing you do when you walk into the room?
Eye contact. There's usually a panel of maybe one or two. The most difficult auditions are when it's just one person, and you walk in, and it's just them. But when you when you walk in, ultimately, it is still in a human interaction, although it doesn't feel that way. It feels like human torture. But just say, “Hi, my name is James, and I’m so glad to be here.”
What are some differences between professional choral auditions and other music auditions such as opera or oratorio?
Well, opera and oratorio are straight on auditions. The assessment of your voice in the audition has nothing to do with how you sing with others. That's not even thought about. It’s “Can you play this role, sing this part, sell our tickets, and be brilliant at this role?” In a professional choral audition, they want that as well, because we want every singer to be able to step out and handle solos. But it's more based on if I put you in the sandbox with these other three children, can you play with them? That is an enormous aspect of it. So the auditions are often with other singers, singing in a quartet. For the Los Angeles Master Chorale, you sing in a quartet. So they're evaluating whether you can read the music, but they're also evaluating “Can I work there?” That doesn't happen in an oratorio audition, so it's just different in that nature.
What type of auditions have you overseen (opera, choral, oratorio)?
In my lifetime, I think I have been in charge of somewhere between 3000 and 4000 auditions on varying levels — academic auditions, people trying to get into the school, and people trying to get at a certain ensemble (chamber ensemble, etc.). In every aspect of my professional life, I've worked with a large symphony chorus or community based choir. In Tampa [I was with] the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay. In Los Angeles [I was with the] Long Beach Camerata singers. So every year there are annual auditions for those. Then I've also been in charge of things like hearing auditions for the Professional Choral Institute, which those are non-live — they’re electronic. So it's been a ton of them, there's no doubt about that.
What is expected in each type of audition?
Again, part of the very first thing that I look and listen for is if people follow directions. In the modern age, the quality of — and this is something that I think has very much changed — the actual recording that you submit makes a huge difference. Meaning you can hear sometimes through and go, “That's really great voice, but they recorded it on their iPhone in the basement of the grandmother's house.” Sometimes that's the best access this person has, but when you're listening to 40 auditions through electronic submission, and someone else used an HD camera, or somebody took high level zoom, or something that creates better audio, it just changes it.
Unfortunately, it seems to reflect how committed the person is. See, I find it odd because that has nothing to do with their singing has everything to do with their choice in electronic recording equipment. Anyways, I look for that they follow directions. Part of what you want and part of what I've tried to listen for is if they're singing music that's appropriate for their voice at that particular moment in their life. So if an 18 year old is auditioning, and they bring in Vissi D’arte, then I think one of two things: either their teacher has given them some poor advice, or the student doesn't really follow directions.
Do singers need an agent?
Depends on where you are in your life. If you're Renee Fleming, you need an agent, because while you're working one job, you're being offered all these other jobs. You don't have time to be trying to negotiate that contract.
How does a director work with an agent?
Generally, we, in the professional choral world are looking and working with contractors, rather than agents. Contractors are people that know a cadre of singers in a particular region, and they're responsible for trying to give them jobs in that region. So we'll call a contractor and say, “What about that soprano?” and set up the audition for the gut job through the contractor, and that's how they get gigs.
What do you expect someone to do when they first walk in the room?
Make eye contact.
What material do you expect someone to bring with them into the room (paperwork, resume, binder of music, etc.)?
The things I said [earlier]. Make sure you have a copy of all your music, because sometimes one auditioner on the panel will say, “You listed three pieces. Do you have something else? We don’t like this third one. Do you have a fourth piece?” And if the singer says, “Oh, I didn't bring anything else with me,” that usually changes it. That changes the dynamic of the audition. If they say, “Yeah, I've got like five other pieces here. What would you like?” Boy, that changes it right away like, “Oh. Okay. Yes, I'd like to hear this.” So bring more than you need, as far as your repertoire. Have appropriate types of copies for your accompanist, and then just look the part.
What type of styles do you prefer to hear?
Personally, I like to hear a Baroque Aria first. Something that either has maybe recitative, introduction, or an arioso and then something that has maybe a cavatina — a fast part that moves. It just immediately goes, “Here are all the dials on this voice and we can see what's in there.” And then, “Let me hear your German. Let me hear something else.” But the Baroque, as singers, shows everything we have to do.
Do you look for specific personalities to fit the ensemble?
I don't look for particular personalities, but I am aware of personalities as they audition and how they may affect the ensemble. I think myself and most of my colleagues try to be very unbiased about that, because some people are introverts, and some people walk in [with] big personalities. You don't want to penalize a person before they even sing based on just who they are. But you do consider that at some point. It's impossible not to. If a person comes in [and has a] big personality, and they're gonna be sitting next to another big personality, it's often [that] you have to think about how that's going to affect the whole group.
WORK OUTSIDE THE MUSIC FIELD
Have you ever had to work a part-time or full-time job that does not involve music while on the track to becoming a professional musician (not including work done while in school)?
As a student? Yeah, I did. I had to work. Restaurant first and then I worked at a grocery store. So, during the summers, I would work there [during the week] and then I worked at Busch Gardens on the weekends. This is all while I was an undergraduate because I had to pay for rent for my apartment.
Do you take private voice lessons as a professional musician?
How do you find a teacher?
What I'll do is, let’s say, if I'm in Charlotte, I’ll ask friends, “Hey, is there a good teacher in town?” Then I will contact them while I'm there and ask, “Are you available for a lesson?” When you are an undergraduate student, lessons are usually weekly and for maybe an hour. When you become a professional singer, you don't really need a weekly lesson, but a lesson a month or every couple of months is good. I’ll [have a lesson] to just check in or if something's happening. For instance, if this vowel is not working for me in this aria, I’ll go and get it checked. So I find teachers through recommendations of my colleagues, and I also study with some of my colleagues.
What’s an average cost for a professional voice teacher?
$175 an hour.
Do you have to bring your own accompanist?
It depends on their particular setup. Sometimes they'll have a studio situation where they play and they don't want an accompanist, they just kind of coach and play. Other places you have to bring your own accompanist. So it just depends on what their setup is.
How important is solo classical training to choral singing? How important is choral training to solo classical singing?
You are a singer. There's no such thing as a choral singer. You're a singer that sings in an ensemble. So solo training is everything. It's how your voice is constructed. It's how you know how to manage your voice. I don't believe that anyone is trying to achieve a vocal ability that doesn't allow them to sing solos. So, there's a huge misconception there. If it’s a good choir, everyone in the choir is a soloist, period. And that comes from the individual training.
Is it better to work for a multitude of different choirs or stay based with a full-time choir based out of one location?
Completely depends on the person. Some people may have a family so, you know, they may not want to travel very much. Some people go all over the place. Sometimes there's an absolute need to go to different choirs because you can't make enough money to support yourself in one place. There are very few places in the vocal world in which singing in one town is enough. There are a few of them, however. If you work with the orchestra in Detroit, or you work for the orchestra in New York, that may be all you need. But if you work in the professional choral world — unless you're in Chanticleer, or a couple of these 100% home based groups — you've got to go to other places.
How much of an understanding do you need of other languages/how important is it?
The understanding part is the loaded part of this question. You don't have to necessarily be a proficient speaker in another language. It doesn't hurt [to be a proficient speaker]! But as a singer, you do have to have a command of the five singing languages (English, German, French, Latin, and Italian), because we don’t always have time to go through the language in choral rehearsals, and they want it to sound correct right away. The languages that are kind of on the periphery that we do in vocal music — for instance, Russian and Estonian — you can kind of compartmentalize. But you have got to know how to sing in French, German, English, Latin and Italian.
Is it better to stay in the United States or go to Europe to sing/study?
Again, it depends on the individual. There was a time period, before your time and my time on this planet, that I think it probably was better for singers to go to Europe. Especially if you wanted to be an ensemble singer, because there just were not many professional vocal ensembles in America. But if you went to England or Germany, there were tons! So you would be able to study with people that were in that environment. The majority of opera, on a more recurring basis, was happening there. That has shifted, I believe, a little bit in the last 40 years. Many more of the best singers in the world actually trained here in the United States. Our university programs have adapted, and many of them have very solid vocal training. So I think it depends on what you want to do. I don't think you have to leave the United States to get really good training. Now, if you want to go to Europe and experience that, that’s a different thing.
As a conductor, how easy is it to transfer conducting methods between genres (oratorio, orchestral, choral)?
The main line body of what conducting aims to achieve is the same in all of those genres. Of course, the conductor has to manage rehearsals, but the [conductor’s] actual gesture has to report time. It has to report articulation, and it has to report volume. Those things are universal. Now, there are different types of articulations in Baroque music than will be in Romantic music, and so your gesture will change for those style traits. But, more importantly, they will change for what is in front of you. Meaning, if this is a 100 piece orchestra, with eight people in a percussion section, a tiny little subtle gesture in your left hand is not going to report to eight people playing loud banging instruments. If you have a Baroque ensemble of two violins, organ, and choir to do French Baroque, I can use very subtle gestures, because it's just a smaller geographic footprint. So there are differences depending on what's in front of you.
How have you diversified your ability to conduct and teach different genres of music?
Part of it is just doing it. From the conductor’s side, looking at a point of view and saying, “That didn't work.” You realize, “Wait a minute. Why did that really astute musician not do what I thought they were going to do.” And then you realize, “Well, that gesture maybe didn't work how I set it up.” So most of the time, the way I've learned is just through trial and error. The other way — we are singers. We imitate. That's how we learn as a baby. When you find that really great conductor that you love to work with, or you're sitting on the other side, and they're conducting you, you start to imitate the things that they do. It gets folded into your own personal gesture — it becomes your own. You're not exactly replicating that, but there'll be some little subtle thing that they do [that] you like. “I like that. That works. That really reported to me,” and you just steal it from them.
How important is it to get to know other professionals and major names in the field of conducting?
It's incredibly important. We learn from each other so much, and I think that the answer to this question could go into all aspects of music [in terms of] working with other professionals that do the same thing you do at different levels. One of my conducting teachers taught me this — this was an orchestral teacher at the University of Miami — very fantastic conductor. He says, “No matter how great you are as a conductor, James, somebody will always know more than you. No matter how great you are as a conductor, somebody will always know less than you. That's just the way it is.” So we have a responsibility as conductors [to say,] “I don't really know that piece,” or, “I don't know this style,” or, “I don't know that treatise.” Let's share it and vice versa. I go to a conductor [and say,] “I've never conducted the Ligeti Nouvelles Aventures,” which is one of the craziest pieces in the world. Patrick Quigley has conducted it six times. So what do I do? “Hey, Patrick. Tell me about the tricks of this piece.” It's a beautiful exchange of knowledge that happens all the time.
What is it like to be a Director of Choral Studies of an esteemed University?
It's full of work.
It's a lot of work. It's a lot of responsibility. Obviously, you do get to conduct and make music, but at least half of your job is not making music. It's being on committees. It's serving on search committee, or reviewing auditions for other disciplines. So there's a lot of activity in it that isn't music, but it's a worthy and great thing to do.
Is it better to stay in the United States or go to Europe to study/conduct?
This is a very loaded question, and part of it I can only answer from speculation, because I haven't studied conducting in Europe. I've only studied the United States. But I will tell you this: when you look — let's just use the orchestra jobs for a minute — in the United States, essentially, since we've had high level orchestral music, (the 1880s on) the majority of American orchestras have been populated by European conductors. Almost every one of them. The New York Philharmonic, which is one of the oldest orchestras in America has only ever had (up until 2005) one conductor born in America — Leonard Bernstein. Every conductor is European, and this is continuing. Many of the orchestras — even mid level orchestras — Florida Orchestra: British conductor. Arizona Symphony — a Bitish conductor. So part of that answer is if you think you want to come back here and work in an orchestra job, you need to go to Europe, because our constituency is enamored with the idea. Of course, Europe is the birthplace of Western music, but something about having an accent in front of an orchestra really changes it.
In the choral world, the majority of our choral tradition is inherited from the English choral tradition, so we do put a high value on these English choral conductors. So if you have a chance to go study with Simon Halsey or anybody in England, it might give you a leg up when you come back. So I don't say that as a, “You'll be a better conductor.” I don't know if that's the case. But you might be a more marketable conductor if you go to Europe and study.
How do you manage and prevent vocal fatigue while performing demanding amounts of music?
Every person has to manage this differently. Every singer or conductor — their body responds in a different way. For example, I'm a person who only ever gets six hours of sleep. If I sleep more than six hours, then I'm very groggy. So I manage it that way. Some people, they have to have nine hours, or they can't function. So you have to toggle your calendar and your life. But in the actual moments of required singing [this can be different]. For me, my voice, in general, is pretty durable. I work with some altos and sopranos where if they sing for an hour and a half, they are really fatigued. So [during] all of the inner moments of the rehearsal, when we're working through something, and the conductor is really working on a particular articulation, if we're doing it time number two or time number three, I don't sing full voice time two or time three. I get the shape. I get the articulation. I put the thing exactly where the conductor wants it, but I do not give them all of the sound. Because over time, you're saving coins in the bank of your voice. Where at the concert, you have got to do the whole thing.
Some of the young singers go in, and in an eagerness, they give the conductor everything all the time. Then by the end of the week, they're blown out. So there starts to become this beautiful little dance of, “Okay. Here I'm going to sing 60%. I'm going to sing 80% there. He's just doing pitches right now — I'm literally going to sing 30%.” You start to know when the conductor really needs full voice and when they don't. So that's how I manage the durability of my voice.
What are some remedies for curing short term altercations to the voice (sore throat, cold, etc.)?
One of the things that I love is a little brew — kind of a witch's brew — that helps cut phlegm, and it has worked for me for years. You put one quarter apple cider vinegar in a mug and then the rest. So it's one part apple cider vinegar, three parts water, — warm that up like a cup of hot tea — and then put a tablespoon of honey in that. For whatever reason, and I think there's there's got to be a medical reason, the acidity of the vinegar will help remove the mucus or whatever is around the cords. But then the honey gives a little bit of a coating, so that if there is an injury, it's almost like putting triple antibiotic on something. It gives you a little seal. So that's one of the things if I need to sing right now. In general, hydration is the best thing. I mean, if you're sick, you still have to hydrate your body. In [terms of] the voice, all of the housing is all essentially based on mucosa and if you're dehydrated, the mucosa doesn't function very well and that's when you sound hoarse, or you get cracks.
How important is it for a singer to exercise consistently?
Again, it depends on the singer. Think about the average person — non-musician. If you said [to them], “I'm going to give you three seconds to give me a visual image of an opera singer,” what would that image be? It'd be an obese person. So they're great singers, but they probably don't work out every day. I mean Pavarotti stayed up every night and drank wine and [smoked] cigars every night and was a hundred pounds overweight at the end of his life and still sang amazingly. So it's difficult to say you should work out for singing. I think you should take care of your body for your own personal health. Some singers have to learn how those things affect their singing. Meaning if you're in the gym every day, and your body's great, sometimes just muscle building creates other tensions in your body if you're not balancing that out correctly.
How important is it for a singer to follow a specific diet and what foods and drinks should be avoided?
One of my really good friends David Little — fantastic singer — had his career shortened, because part of our bio rhythm is rehearsal in the day, concert at night, and then we go out with friends after the concert and eat and drink late. So David was doing this for years and had a major opera career. Over time, he was eating rich acid food late at night, and he had acid reflux. When you sleep, and you have acid reflux, and it gets into your throat, it literally just sits around your cords and cooks them. One of the things they do for some people who have acid reflux is put blocks under the head of your bed so your bed is raised just a little bit. The reflux will not sit in your throat and will actually go back down to the chest, but then that can create ulcers there too. He had to end his career when he was in his early 50s, because he didn't realize this was happening. He could have gone to the doctor and just gotten medication for it. It essentially fried his voice. So you have to manage the eating habits and workout habits as it affects your voice individually. There's not one road for anyone.
How does alcohol affect your singing short and long term?
Science will tell you that it absolutely affects your singing. Alcohol is a diuretic, so it removes fluid from your body — it makes you dehydrated. This is, again, a case by case basis. Robert Merrill was one of the greatest baritones in the history of this nation. He would walk to the tavern across the street from the Met in between acts and have two or three beers and then walk out and sing gloriously. Kathleen Battle was a very important soprano in the 1990s and early 2000s. She said if she had a glass of wine, even two days before she had to sing, it basically ruined her. So again, part of that dance is you knowing what you can do. For me personally, if I had a beer or a glass of wine with dinner before I sing, it actually doesn't affect my voice at all. But I know some people that [it does], and they can't drink dairy, or they can't do this [or that]. So it just depends again on your trial and error of what happens.
How much does touring and traveling with high vocal demands affect you?
Now that is a legitimate question. Most of the pro choir world now has learned this. Part of the issue is that, when you're on a plane — we call it plane voice — even if you're on a small regional flight for an hour, that is compressed air, which is good, because we need to have compressed air to be on a flight. But compressed air is incredibly rich in oxygen, which dries you out again. When you get off a plane, even if you feel great, vocally you are compromised. So most professional choirs now will not have a rehearsal on the same day that you fly in. If they do, it'll be a low demand rehearsal, because your voice just does not respond after being on a plane. So that's number one that affects it.
When you're places with high altitude and in hotels, in which, perhaps, the hvac system is drier than what your home is, you might have to manage that and say, “I've got to have a humidifier in my room.” Some singers like to have personal humidifiers with them on planes to try to counteract that plane voice. The traveling part is very difficult because our bodies are responsive to what's happening in the environment. You may go to a new place you've never sung and don't even realize you're allergic to something that's only there. Suddenly, you're having issues with your voice, and the only reason you're there is to sing. Now what happens if you can't sing? You don't get paid. So the management of this goes right to the bottom line. It's very important that you start to learn those things as you move around.
FAMILY AND RELATIONSHIPS
How has being a professional musician affected your relationships?
Depending on which part of my life it is, it has sometimes been much of a struggle. Near the end of my first relationship — which was a long, significant relationship — as I was becoming more successful, as a musician and a conductor, I was required to be away more and more and my relationship suffered. And at the time, I don't think I was mature enough. Or maybe there was nothing I could have done, anyway. There was an entire cycle of anxiety, because I would be really excited for this opportunity to conduct a wonderful contract, but I was going to be away for a week, and that would create issues. So it was a lot of personal stress. So after that, you know, being single for a while makes it a little bit easier. When I got into relationships again, I was a little more aware of making sure that that person knew up front, “Hey, this is a part of this life.” And one of the ways to try to work around that is to say, “Hey, this is a great place I'm going to be staying. Why don’t you come by for the weekend?” Make a vacation out of it. You have to try to find that balance. But it isn't easy. It hasn’t been easy, and for me this past year has been a struggle. This year I have been on the road so much and, you know, it's hard to have a relationship when you're not in the same zip code.
Is it hard to balance a relationship with another professional musician?
I would say so. It's not that I haven't been attracted to other musicians, but I've literally never dated another musician, and that’s been a conscious decision. This is an intense life, and I'm an intense person, I think, especially about music. When I've done eight hours of choral rehearsal, or singing, or conducting, I don't know if I want to talk about that when I come home. It's nice to say, “Hey, what were you doing today?”, and talk about something completely different. I will also admit that there's a competitive nature about music, and if you're living with another musician that might become a problem. When you're with a non- musician it never matters, and so that's been my philosophy. And it's worked moderately well, I'd say.
Would it be difficult to have a partner and children as a professional musician?
I can only speculate on this, but I'd have many, many friends that have families with children, and several right now that have infants. It's very, very difficult. In Santa Fe, when I was just there, there was a husband and wife who sing in the group, and they just had a baby. They had to decide whether or not one of them was going to turn down the contract. And in a situation where you're a freelance musician, every contract could be your rent or car payment. They worked it out with the Desert Chorale so that they both could come and bring the baby, but they got separate housing so that they would be able to manage the baby and not be with other singers. So it's difficult, no doubt about it. But people do it in all kinds of other professions, you know, so it's absolutely possible. But it's not easy.
What is the best way to market yourself as a musician?
The best way to market yourself as a musician is to perform well in public, number one. You have to deliver at the time that deliveries are required. That's the number one thing. The fastest way for you to get other gigs is to be so solid in your current one that they couldn't do without you. I've tried to have that relationship with Patrick Quigley, and I've seen him talk to other conductors and say, “If you want somebody to come in and prepare your choir, James is the guy.” I've never, ever trusted anyone more than him. That is the best marketing you have. After that, there's the normal kind of standard things in modern life, like an updated website. But, if you're going to have a website — listen carefully — you have to commit or pay to have it updated. Periodically, every two months update it to where you are. Put some fresh recordings on there. Having, essentially, a static web monument (like, a picture of you face and bio only) does not help you. You're just wasting your money. If I really want to find out your website, and there's nothing on there for the last five years, I'm immediately turned off. But if I go there, find your calendar, and see that you're — maybe — performing with Glimmerglass next month and just sang in Phoenix, and I get to see a fresh recording? That’s the fastest way to get me to say, “Alright, that's the singer, let's get him on the list.” So the electronic media, all the stuff that you normally would have to do, you should do. But, again, part of marketing yourself — in addition to the great performances — is that you just need to be a personality that is engaging when you have the opportunity to market yourself. So, don’t come across as bravado, but in the right moment say, “Hey, by the way, I'd love to sing for you.” If you do it in a gracious way, they're gonna hear you.
Do you think that it is necessary to have an active social media?
How important is it to network?
It's 100% important. In the professional choral world, as this is evolving, as PCI is evolving, we're trying to create more codified portals for people to get into this business. But prior to this, there is no one way, so the way that you get on a roster, essentially, is networking and word of mouth. For example, you and I sing together in a thing, I get offered a gig, and then I say, “Oh, well I'm busy that week, but Connor is great, why don’t you give him a call!” That's that's literally how it happens, because when you either turn down a gig or have to back out of a gig, one of the most gracious ways to ingratiate yourself is to offer them your replacement. Not to say, “Hey, I can't make it. I'm out, bye.” Now they have to go to the effort of trying to find a singer. Or if you've already done the legwork and say, “I've already called Connor, he's available that weekend and knows the rep.” then they’ll appreciate that and that’ll save them time. For networking, you have to be out and about. If nobody knows you, you're not going to get hired.
Is being a musician financially difficult?
It is. For me, personally, I'm in a comfortable place, because I parlay an education job and salary, a nonprofit arts organization for which I'm the artistic director, plus an entire half year’s worth of freelancing. Some people only freelance. The thing about only freelancing is [that] nothing's guaranteed. Imagine trying to build a life or family [and saying,] “I'm going to live here. I've got 18 contracts this year.” What if they don't call you next year? There's no guarantee they will. Most of the time, if the organization is healthy, and you're great, they're gonna call you back, but it's not guaranteed. So there's always that anxiety of [thinking], “Am I going to make as much as I did last year or not?”
And then the management of that type of money. You know how we're paid in this business, right? Non-employee compensation. Let's say you go and work at a corporation. Your paycheck is through a W-2, so the employer is required to take out federal taxes, social security — all those things. The money you get — you've already paid taxes on it, so at the end of the year, you might have a little tiny adjustment here [and there] but essentially, that's done.
When you're paid for a gig like Seraphic Fire — let’s use this as an example — you get a paycheck for $1,000. It's a 1099. 1099 means no taxes have been taken out. You're not even an employee. You're a non-employee. You are a contractor. So essentially, you're not even employed by them. You get $1,000. You desperately need that $1000 to pay your rent, but what you don't know is that $400 of that $1000 is not yours. You owe federal income tax on that $1000 dollars. You owe social security tax on that $1,000. You owe non-employee tax on that money. You owe self-employment tax. So if you spend all $1,000, you spend all of it, and then you go to pay your taxes — you're gonna get a bill for $400. How do you pay for it? So imagine over the entire year, all that money you make — you are responsible for paying the taxes on that at some point.
Now there are lots of ways to offset. You can itemize, because essentially, when you're a non-employee compensation, you own your own business. You are your own business. You look, [and] it'll say, “Sole proprietor — Connor Lovelace,” that's the name of the business on the schedule-C. This sounds complicated, because musicians have to know this. You can then say, “Well, I use my cell phone. I talk to the conductor, and we talked about the gig, and I talked about this [and that].” So over time, how much percentage of your cell phone was used for your work? You can write that off. If you lease a car, and you take your car to work, [you can do the same thing].
So you have to manage all these things — save receipts, and contemplate what actually affects your business. If you go to Seraphic Fire, and Seraphic Fire says the uniform for you to wear [for] this performance is a black suit, a white shirt, and a tie, I can write that off of my taxes, because they required me to have it to work there. So there's a whole bunch of ins and outs, but it's very complicated. You need to find somebody that knows something about it to teach you this quickly.
I know I talked a lot about this, but this is really sticky for musicians. My very first year that I made any [money], — I think I made $10,000 — I was a college student. I made around $10,000 as an independent contractor, and I want to just turn in my taxes like I had always done, and I always got $200 back. She goes “Okay, you owe $4,600 today. How would you like to pay that? Credit card or check?” So 21 year old college student, like, “What? I don't have any money. I have like $100 in my savings account.” She says, “Well, sir, you owe $4,600.” So I didn't know. No one had taught me about itemizing. I could have resubmitted an itemized list and got that number down. Instead, I had to pay quarterly payments with a penalty, because I didn't have $4,600. So they said, “Well, you got to make a payment plan. Now we're going to charge interest.” So then I learned very quickly how to do it anyway.
How beneficial is it to have an accountant that is adept at working with musicians in terms of taxes?
I think I just answered that.
Yeah, it's a very important, and I have one. I've been going to the same one for 19 years, because she understands the world of music. She asks me questions about, “Wait a minute. Did you buy any of this this year?” She thinks about things that can be related back to your business. She said, “Did you take voice lessons? That can be written off? Did you buy a piano? Do you own a piano? Do you practice the piano? That can be written off.”
So she started asking about all these things that you are entitled to write off. It's worth it, and then if you do get an accountant, or you get someone to help you with it, of course it's going to cost you a little money, but again, that can be written off. Because if you're a sole proprietor, [they are] what's called professional fees. So lawyers, accountants, or anyone that's helping you with the business, you can write off a portion of their fees. So, yes, yes, yes.
What is a normal day like for a member of Seraphic Fire?
Well, one of the great things about Seraphic is [that] we have no rehearsals ever in the morning. Our first rehearsal is [at] one o'clock. Some of the singers are maybe at a host family. Some of us are at hotels. Most of us will have our own hotel room. You get up in the morning. For me personally — I think a lot of singers are the same way — you're managing the rest of your life while you're away. So [during] these first few hours in the morning, you're doing your emails, doing any kind of conference calls, or any kind of stuff that you need to take care of. You do that from 8:00 to 10:00 out of the hotel.
Then we have our friends. For example, there are four guys: me, Patrick Muehleise, Brad Diamond and John Buffett. The four of us are almost always on contracts together. They hire us kind of as a group, and our friends refer to us as the Wolf Pack, because we love each other. I always joke, and I always say that Patrick Muehleise is my road husband. So then we'll go to lunch. We’ll usually go to lunch together. We'll find something to do, or maybe we've gone to the beach because Miami is great for that. We rehearse 1:00 P.M. to 4:00 P.M, and we have a break 4:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. We call that “linner,” because it's too early for dinner and too late for lunch. So that's a little time just to be out of the music for a bit. Sometimes we go to PF Changs, which is right near our rehearsal site, and we will sit there and watch some sports and just get out of the music for a bit. Then we're back to rehearsal from 6:00 P.M. to 9:00. Most of the time after that, we'll go back to the hotel. Sometimes we'll play games in the hotel. We like to play liar's dice, which is this very cool game from Pirates of the Caribbean. It's amazing, by the way.
That might be a typical day. Concert days — once we've gotten out of rehearsal schedule — the full day is free, meaning the first thing we have is our call at 5:00 P.M. So those days, maybe we'll get up [and] we'll plan something. We'll go play golf. We'll go to the beach or exercise. Again, some days, depending on how you feel, maybe you just veg in the hotel and you get your work done. It’s a little routine [that] occurs.
What’s it like being a member of Seraphic Fire for 17 seasons?
It's amazing. Seraphic Fire had their very first concert — I was not involved in that concert — then Patrick Quigley was looking for a bass to add for the second concert. There was an audition thing. I saw it, and called him and said “I'd like to sing for you.” He said, “Well, can you meet at my church today at five o'clock?” I go down to the church. There was this excerpt from Jephtha. I sang the line, and Patrick goes, “Can you stay for rehearsal tonight?” I've been with the group since then. The second concert on. That has really allowed me to see the incredible growth of this organization and this entire professional choral world.
Where do you see yourself after Seraphic Fire?
Well, I'll still be in the academic world and teaching. I've told all of my employers and anyone that knows about me [that] I will sing as long as I can. As we all know, there's a shelf life on our voices. As a bass, we get generally a little bit longer time than the higher voices. It's just a generalization, but a 50 year old bass is sometimes exactly the sound you want, versus a 50 year old soprano or tenor. So we get a little leeway there as basses. I'll will still be in music, but mainly probably as a conductor.
What are some things you wish you knew while you were going through the process of becoming a professional musician?
The stuff I told you about the taxes. I wish I knew that, because that first year was brutal — scared me to death. I thought, “I don't want to do this anymore.” Then I figured it all out. [Also], I knew that there was going to be travel involved, and as a younger man in my 20s, that was so exciting. “I can't wait. I get to go to all these cities.” On some level, it still is exciting, but I wish someone had said to me, “Hey, James. Make this burn a little more steady,” because I kind of burned it all out at the beginning, as far as my emotional commitment to it. Now, I love to make the music. I love to sing. I love to be with these groups, but the day or two before you go, you're like, “I've got a pack. I've got to get everything ready to school.” I wish someone had told me to measure this out a little differently, so it didn't become a little bit of a drudgery now. It's not awful, but it's a detractor part of the job. I wish someone had told me that. I wish someone had told me to learn a few different repertoires earlier in my life, so I knew it a little bit earlier and had some more passes with it. No regrets, but now I know it.
I think that's about it. One of the great things about my life and Seraphic Fire in this business is that we were all kind of learning as we went along. “Look, I don't know. Are we going to do four concerts or eight concerts next year? Are we going to fly people in?” And then we kind of figured it out. We move to the next step. We all were doing it together, so there is a kind of a group ownership like, “We all did this. This happened, and we were a part of it.” So [we are] certainly proud of it.
How do you manage being a contract musician, as well as being a Director of Choral Studies in terms of time management?
So this is a good question, because people ask me all the time, — and I'm on the road a lot — “How do you keep this job?” First of all, you should be very careful with your calendars and manage these things, but I try very carefully that, within any given academic unit of time, I never want to be gone more than 20% of the time. So in a 10 week quarter, I can be gone two weeks. In a semester, I could be gone three and a half weeks. So when [I’m] looking at taking contracts, if I get offered back to back contracts, or three contracts in a row, I can almost never do that, because [I’m] gone from school for three weeks. If I'm gone in week two and gone in week five, I'm still present enough to manage the program. The graduate students — part of what they love is when I'm gone, because they get to do all the conducting, and it's important for them.
But from the university standpoint, they encourage it. Now I'm a full professor with tenure already. So you know what tenure is and how that works, and you have to achieve it. These things are considered tenurable activity, because they're in the discipline. Now, if I was taking week two and week five off to rehab houses, this university would say “You're not allowed to that.” But if you're a chemistry professor, and you take week two off to go to Dow Chemicals, because you're working on a brand new something, the university looks at this as you're working in your discipline in the professional environment. That actually is good for our students. Now you can't be gone the whole quarter, or you take a leave of absence.
So there is a balance — a little dance that happens there. I always try to leave a little room for what I call add-ons — happens every single year. So we're working on calendars in this business, usually 18 months out. So right now we're contracting for 2022. So your year is set before it happens. I'll take the things I want, and I prioritize Seraphic. It's higher priority because I'm Associate Conductor. I get to conduct their this, that, and the other, and then I leave some spots, because I'll get a call that says, “Hey, can you come and do an All-State Chorus,” or “Hey, can you come and be this this year.” I just got the call. They wanted me to come judge the Michigan Vocal Association’s state festival. So I leave a little time in there that I can add a few weekends, but that's the formula that I go through every year. It's still difficult, because when you're away from that job, and you're doing this job, things happen there that you have to take care of while you're here and say “Okay, well, I have to do a conference call or a search committee meeting. I've got to do things,” and so you have to fit all that in, but far greater people than I am have done it, so it's possible.