Maestro Vance George
Partway through my conversation with Vance George, a Grammy and Emmy Award-winning choral conductor and teacher, the internationally acclaimed maestro sang to me, illustrating the difference in coloration between two versions of the same phrase. Then, in a moment of wry self-awareness, he confessed, “I’m not quite sure how you’re going to write that down.” I could almost hear him grinning into his phone. Renowned for his facility with language and his mastery of musical styles and colors, George brought the San Francisco Symphony Chorus to tremendous acclaim in his celebrated 23-year tenure there. Maestro George is a master sculptor of the voice, and will bring his unique and deep knowledge of choral conducting to Harvard during his residency January 27–30 with the Holden Choruses as well as a public master class, open rehearsals and a performance. We spoke about finding the hidden architecture of a piece of music, speaking in singer’s lingo and being one’s best self. An edited version of our conversation follows.
You have been lauded for your ability to bring out different vocal colors in your singers. Can you talk a little bit about what this means?
Human voice is an amazing instrument that reflects – in expression and specifically in coloring and space and time – what you are talking about or singing about. There’s a specific way of listening; for instance, word accentuation is very important. In most languages, the first syllable is stressed and the second syllable is unstressed, which means that the second has a very different color and also less weight on it. There is also a difference in colors according to the style period in which you’re singing. [During my residency] I’m going to be working with both Brahms, which will be in a Romantic style with a very full, rounded sound, and Bach, which has less vibrato, more articulation of fast notes and straighter tone quality. So that’s just a very simple way of talking about it. It’s singer’s lingo, and it’s quite specific. If you’re singing English, you want it to sound like English, and English is actually quite a difficult language to sing beautifully. If I had to sum it up in one idea, it would be “stressed and unstressed.”
What is the difference for you between working with students and working with professionals?
Professionals have more experience, certainly, but you’re still teaching, although not quite as obviously with professionals, because they have, probably, both degrees (an undergraduate and a masters degree) and experience professionally in singing. The kind of lingo I’m talking to you about right now I can just simply say to them, whereas to a student I might have to explain in a more teacherly fashion: “This is the sound that I would like, this is what it’s called.” And that opens up a whole area for them to experience both the sonority of a particular vowel and how you write it. I love teaching, and I love teaching students – but not every professional actually has that training.
Which element of your career do you find most rewarding?
I am my best self, I think, when I am making music, when I am actually involved in the action of conducting and listening to what is coming to my ear and then making these slight adjustments. I also enjoy very much taking a group, like the group I’ll be working with in Boston, and watching [at Harvard] and speaking to the actual singers in the choir and saying, “Why don’t you give this a try?” and demonstrating for them vocally. My undergraduate degree was a double major in voice and keyboard, so I can speak to them as a singer, and I can also speak to them architecturally, because there is a particular architecture in any phrase of music. It’s usually about three-quarters of the way through the phrase that you want the emphasis, and so you aim towards that. Otherwise the making of music can be very clunky. Architecture is very, very important in making music, and I love to conduct, I love to work with a choir, work with an orchestra, and come up with a product that is both gratifying to the performers and hopefully life-changing to the listener. I think that art really does call upon us to be our best selves, so it’s a wonderful thing to make music. If you’re dealing with the self, then you are helping to make a difference in the world, and that is what music is about for me. It doesn’t matter what your vocation is. Someone who teaches middle school or first grade is doing something very, very important.
Does writing about music have a special importance to you?
I’m a very slow writer. Language is so beautiful, and I love languages. I love the English language. I love German. I speak English and German, and I can pronounce French and Italian. So languages are very important to me, but of course I dealt with them mostly on a level of teaching other people to make beautiful sounds and sounds that reflect the natural accentuation of the language. But writing actually came to me rather late, since I was asked to write an article for a book on choral music called The Cambridge Companion to Conducting. I contributed a chapter on conducting. That was the first I really sat down an wrote as a professional. I was allowed 5,000 words, and I probably wrote 100,000. I guess I have a very practical bent, but there’s always a philosophical twist.
What will you be aiming to teach the students you work with beyond vocal technique?
Heart, soul, humanity. In the process of learning an art, you can become so technical that it becomes rather soulless. For instance, an obvious example, is that when you are making Japanese pottery you inflict a little error, because nothing is perfect. You want to get as close to perfection as possible, but always with that strong element of one human expressing to another human. Beethoven said that most beautifully: “From my heart to your heart.” So this music is, of course, structured in classical style – the style of Mozart, Hayden, Beethoven – but overriding all of that is his desire to express through this music what is in his heart, and that it will touch your heart.
What advice do you have for students looking to pursue careers in the arts?
Follow your bliss. If you really have it, if you really want to be in music or in art or in writing, then you simply do it. It can be on the most simple level of working in an inner-city school and having to deal with all the machinations and politics of that kind of job, but knowing that you’re reaching out to them in an area that maybe has never touched them before. I took every job I could get. People ask me, “How did you get where you are?” Well, I finished my undergraduate degree, and I got a job and I taught. That was when I was teaching all 12 grades of music, and it was just a beginning. Looking at it from a career standpoint: From that experience the only direction is up! Yeah – do it. Just go do it. And if you’re not happy, be flexible enough to change. If you’re doing work in your art or your field and it’s not gratifying, do something else. When you’re doing something you love, it’s not work. It may be frustrating, but it’s not work. It’s that gift that you were given. We’re all given gifts. Mine is ears and language and so forth, but always linked through the heart.