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Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Most Meaningful Mentor

This is a difficult choice, since I've been lucky to have some wonderful teachers and mentors. For example, Neil Lieurance was an influential teacher—without him I probably wouldn't have made a career as a conductor. Neil died this past year at the too-young age of 70. I wrote about him here. But beyond his influence in HS, Neil immediately treated me like a colleague after I graduated and began my undergraduate studies at the University of Washington—I'd visit and he'd share whatever music and recordings were interesting him. He followed my work with early ensembles I conducted and was always willing to give advice. He was a true mentor.
Rod Eichenberger, my undergraduate conducting teacher (although he let me take part in the graduate conducting class as an undergrad), has been another great teacher and mentor. I started hanging around his office and listening to his conversations with the grad students around my junior year (among them Bruce Browne and Larry Marsh) and he told me if I'd file the large stacks of scores for him, I could keep any duplicates. This not only gave me the beginning of my personal library but a great overview of choral literature—if I filed a piece by Hindemith, I'd look through the file to see what else Hindemith wrote for chorus. And, like Neil, he remained a mentor long after I graduated (to the current day, in fact). When I took the job at Pacific Lutheran University, following Maurice Skones, he called and congratulated me, but also said, "As someone who followed Charles Hirt at USC, I know something about the challenges of following a legend. If you ever want to call and talk, don't hesitate." This was a gift . . . and a relationship that has continued up to the present.
But for this post about my most meaningful mentor, I'll speak of Eric Ericson. Eric was never my teacher, but has undeniably been a major influence on my music-making, repertoire, and approach to so many things.
I was aware of Eric's recordings from at least the early '70s (Neil Lieurance or Rod probably introduced me to them). I was fascinated with the amazing sound of his Chamber Choir and the Swedish Radio Choir, the purity of their intonation, and the repertoire they performed. In 1983 at the ACDA Conference I heard the Radio Choir live for the first time. And since I'd just auditioned for the DMA program at CCM, was invited by John Leman to join the masterclass conducting choir and got to observe Eric's teaching first-hand.
The following fall I began at PLU and in 1985 Bruce Browne called and said Eric's Conservatory Chamber Choir would be performing at the ISME conference in Eugene, OR and wanted some other opportunities for the choir. So I built the PLU Summer Choral Workshop around Eric and the choir. They were in San Francisco before coming to Tacoma, so Eric flew up and the choir came a day later on their tour bus. This was my first time to get to know Eric, watch him work on conducting technique with the whole group and a small group of master class conductors who worked with the Chamber Choir. It was an amazing experience.
About a year later I participated as a singer in a choir put together by Bruce Browne for his Haystack Workshop for which Eric was the clinician, I brought Eric and the Conservatory Chamber Choir back to PLU's summer workshop a few years later as well.
When I began thinking of a topic for my dissertation, I knew it would be about Swedish choral music, so I traveled for the first time to Sweden in April of 1989, where I searched for "the" topic, and Eric was the guide, introducing me to lots of people and resources. I sublet the apartment of one of his wife Monica's sons. I would then return for the full summer of 1990 to do research (and sublet the apartment of another of Monica’s son’s). Given the topic of my dissertation, Swedish A Cappella Music Since 1945 (published later here) I spoke with Eric numerous times, spent time in the Radio’s library, spent time going through Eric’s personal library of scores in his apartment, and Eric made connections for interviews with virtually every important choral composer of the this time period, plus many conductors and administrators.
I’ve also seen Eric work many times with his various choirs in rehearsal, recording sessions, and concerts. He was also the first conductor with a group of singers that would become Choral Arts. I’ve had numerous discussions with him (and those close to him) about his art. Eric was eternally curious about anything choral—always wanted to know what you were doing, what others he knew were doing, what repertoire you were doing (and it wasn’t easy to stump him about a huge range of rep: “Oh yes, I did that in the late ‘60s" or (about some obscure American piece), "Yes, I know that."
It’s hard to separate out all aspects of Eric as mentor, but so many opportunities have come from my work with him. There’s so much repertoire I’ve learned due to him. Approaches to sound (even though few of us have the level of voices of the Radio or Chamber choirs), and intonation have also come from him. And incredibly important is his work ethic and dedication. Eric lived for music and this showed in his every approach to music, music-making, and his choirs.
I owe him an immense debt. And thanking all my teachers and mentors, I hope I have been a mentor to those students and conductors I’ve come worked with over the years. That will certainly continue as long as I’m able to help. It’s an important way of giving back all that I (or you!) have been given over the years.
ACDA has a great new mentoring program and I hope you’ll consider being a mentor or mentee. Make sure you check it out!
(Will you one day be someone’s most meaningful mentor? Plant the seeds today for tomorrow's choral world. ACDA Mentoring.

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