The Balancing Act

Choral conductors share their professional responsibilities and work-life balance.

In her memoirs, Alma Mahler narrates the meticulous schedule by which her husband Gustav balanced his daily priorities in order to preserve his energy and maximize the value of every minute. In the summertime, when he composed at their lake house, he took a mandatory afternoon swim, followed by a three-hour walk, rain or shine. In the wintertime, when he conducted in Vienna, the opera house called ahead at lunchtime to ensure that his apartment door was open so he would not have to wait. His soup, hot, was expected to be already placed on the table.

The lives of today’s choral conductors may not always be Mahlerian in scale, but they are frequently Herculean in scope. Chorus America’s research has found that the typical choral conductor leads two or three choruses, often of different types—and performs a range of roles and responsibilities for those choruses that goes far beyond the purely artistic.

What does this myriad of professional responsibilities look like in practice—especially when balanced with personal needs and obligations? Chorus America asked six choral conductors at various stages of their careers to talk about a typical week in their lives. Their answers provide a snapshot that reveals how each finds a unique equilibrium.

Balancing act collage
Clockwise from top right: Philip Brunelle, George Case, Glen Thomas Rideout, Carrie Tennant, Jeffery Redding, Edith Copley.

There are those who lead professional, collegiate, community, and church choruses in various combinations. Each choir has its own audition, rehearsal, and performance schedule, and all come with their own needs for coaching, planning, and score preparation. Administrative requirements, such as correspondence and fundraising, are also part of the package.

There are academic positions, with all the expectations of ensembles, master classes, testing, grading, auditioning, recruiting students for undergraduate and graduate programs, all while passing muster for tenure.There is travel, whether to attend conferences, lead tours, or guest conduct. Many conductors also find time to fill other personal needs for artistic expression, such as performing in a band or as a vocal soloist.

Then, of course, there is life itself: young children and elderly parents to care for, vacations to take, and the basic need for friendship. “I have many friends in the choral world, but they don’t live in Flagstaff,” says Edith Copley, music director of the Master Chorale of Flagstaff and director of choral studies at Northern Arizona University, whose local “civilian” friends are non-musicians.

On those rare occasions when music and life are not all-consuming, there are hobbies. Reading is the pastime most frequently cited, followed by cooking. “When I was in high school my mother started teaching me how to cook,” says Glen Thomas Rideout, director of music for the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, Michigan. “After a big concert or festival the first thing I’m thinking about is making a pot roast.” Philip Brunelle, founder and artistic director of VocalEssence, and organist and choirmaster of Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, has a passion for fine French cooking, but is lucky to find time to prepare a certain signature potato dish each Easter.

VocalEssence in Nanjing
Travel is a huge part of life for many conductors. Here Philip Brunelle poses with singers from the choral community in Nanjing, China during a tour with VocalEssence’s Ensemble Singers.

Preparing comfort food or gourmet meals may be fine for the occasional day off, but nutrition is often the first thing that gets lost in the shuffle (or rather, shuttle) between daily responsibilities. Copley is so tall and lithe that even her doctor assumes she’s a health-conscious exercise buff (“I haven’t run since 1968,” she insists), but in reality her fast-paced life is fueled by fast food. Others subsist on coffee or nutrition bars.

Exercise provides an important counterpoint to time spent mostly behind a desk or podium. Brunelle begins each day with a three-mile run, outdoors whenever the Twin Cities weather allows. “It’s nice to hear the birds and enjoy the change of seasons,” he says. Jeffery Redding, director of choral activities at West Orange High School in Winter Garden, Florida, is an early-morning weightlifter. Racquetball is the preferred choice of George Case, director of choral activities at The Boston Conservatory.

For Carrie Tennant, founder and director of Vancouver Youth Choir and associate artistic director for Coastal Sound Youth Choir, the day begins on a different note: a tiny chorister calls out at 7:00 am. Tennant welcomed her first child, Sebastian, last fall. She continues to maintain a schedule of rehearsals and performances, and also makes time for the Salteens, the band for which she plays keyboards and sings back-up vocals.

When deciding whether to take on additional professional opportunities, such as guest conducting, Tennant uses a three-part formula she learned from a colleague. “Does it pay well and will it help your family? Is it a learning experience? Is it really joyful? If the answer is two out of three, you say yes,” she says. The year before Sebastian arrived, she spent fewer than a dozen weekends at home, between retreats, tours, and concerts. Not so now. “When you have a kid it forces you to draw those lines.” When Brunelle was a young conductor with three small children, he drew the line at the dinner table: “The phone went in the drawer.”

Jeffery Redding says that for him the decision to say yes or no is a balance between the potential benefit to the other organization and his personal obligations. “I usually say yes,” he confesses, as evidenced by a recent schedule that included a tour with his high school choir in Chicago, a performance in Texas, and  a festival in Washington DC. Says Edith Copley: “I keep telling myself I’m going to less next year—then an All-State comes up, and I want to meet the kids and the teachers.”

Carrie Tennant in the Salteens
Carrie Tennant finds an outlet for her musical interests outside choral music as a keyboardist and backup vocalist for the band the Salteens.

The profession of choral conducting tends to attract individuals who usually say yes. “I think we as conductors look to connect with other people,” says George Case, “so we love environments where we can connect. And that can become somewhat of an addiction.”

Some feel that juggling many different moving pieces actually makes for a more harmonious whole. Rideout, who only recently completed his final season leading the Saginaw Choral Society, is eager for another community choir to complement his work at Ann Arbor’s First Unitarian. “The work of the church helps me feel I am doing something good for a spiritual community. They are putting music to work so they can be helpful to the wider world,” he says. “A choral society does that too but they are more of a performing organization, and there’s a part of me that needs to be focused on creating great programs. I wouldn’t want to go further in any one direction.”

Few have complaints about their hectic—yet satisfying—lives. “I’m at that age where people ask when I’m going to retire,” says Copley. “I think I will retire when it’s not any fun anymore. To me the best part of the day is standing in front of the choir.” Brunelle, who has never missed a rehearsal or a concert in nearly five decades leading VocalEssence, says, “Some people use the word ‘work’ to mean ‘not enjoyable.’ For me it’s not work. For me it’s a seven-day-a-week occupation.”


Rise and Shine

Philip Brunelle: Each day begins with a three-mile run and two newspapers (The New York Times and The Minneapolis Star Tribune).
Carrie Tennant: Her baby boy Sebastian calls out for his morning feeding, followed by play time. While he naps, she catches up on emails and plans rehearsals.
Edith Copley: “Coffee.”

Daily Regimen

Jeffery Redding: Mornings are usually dedicated to score preparation. The rest of the day is a difficult-to-schedule mix of rehearsals for the ensembles he directs at West Orange High School (including a male chorus, an advanced mixed choir, and an advanced women’s choir), sometimes combined with an evening rehearsal for the community choir that he founded.
Edith Copley: Copley meets with undergraduate advisees, takes care of correspondence, and does administrative work on graduate scholarships. She also rehearses with NAU’s Shrine of the Ages Choir and teaches graduate choral literature and undergraduate and graduate conducting courses.
Philip Brunelle: Brunelle attends two staff meetings regularly during the week: a morning meeting for VocalEssence, and an afternoon one for Plymouth Congregational Church. He also keeps up with his correspondence, including emails to colleagues and thank-you notes to patrons.

Life Outside the Choral World

Glen Thomas Rideout: “I have close friends, a lot of whom are social workers. They see music as a community building tool for social justice and education work.”
Carrie Tennant: Tennant is a member of the Salteens, a rock band for which she sings back up and plays keyboards, and for which her husband sings lead and plays guitar. Two other male band members have young children, and their wives babysit during practice.
George Case: “I was in a book club but they voted me off the island because I wasn’t able to show up often enough.”

On Equilibrium

Jeffery Redding: Summers are devoted to spending time with family and friends and recharging. “I try to get my mind and my spirit together so I can give. It’s something I give to myself so I can be there for everyone else.”
George Case:“If you looked at my calendar it would look a bit terrifying, but I am doing the things I want to be doing in all categories.”
Glen Thomas Rideout: “I’ve spent most of my life in school in a schedule that was in charge of me. I’m using this time after my doctoral work to find a rhythm that is productive and creative and open.” He maintains work-life balance by doing administrative work at the office and creative work at home.

If There Were More Hours in the Week

George Case:“I would devote them to tennis."
Glen Thomas Rideout:“I would fly back home to Baltimore and see my family more often."
Carrie Tennant: She would like to find extra time for reading fiction, swimming, and the band.

Non-Negotiable Life Requirement

Edith Copley: She has a standing Wednesday afternoon appointment with a massage therapist.
Jeffery Redding:“Tuesday is my personal Sabbath.

Matthew Sigman is editor of Opera America magazine. A three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism, he has written for American Theatre and Symphony, and is a frequent contributor to The Voice.

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