Brush With Greatness

A piece I submitted to JazzFM was read on air this week as part of their “Brush with Greatness” series. It is posted to their site. The full text is also copied below.


I was working at a summer camp when Brainerd Blyden-Taylor came up for a week to do some singing workshops. Then, as now, he was the director of the Nathaniel Dett Chorale. I was the piano accompanist at camp, and so I was there for all his workshops, etc., and we also spent a lot of time talking in the evenings. At one point he suggested that he use me as a guinea pig for one of his classes in order to demonstrate coaching and critique. The idea was that I would sing a song, accompanying myself on piano, and then he would critique the piece in front of the class. That way the students could see what the process was all about and none of them would have to be the first one on the hot seat.

So, it’s in the evening and it’s just him and me, and he asks, “So what are you going to play?” I had been trying to work up an interesting arrangement of Rocket Man, so I suggested it and he said, “All right, let me hear it.” I finish and he said a number of things that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. He complimented my voice and phrasing, and the accompaniment, saying that those things weren’t at issue. Then he asked why I chose that song. I said, well, because it’s a good song. And he said, “yes, but the world is full of good songs. Even great songs. Hundreds and hundreds of them. But you chose that one, and until you know why, you can never really sing it. You need to go back and look at the song, what it means, what it says, and you need to find out what it is within the song that speaks specifically to you. You need to know why you chose that song.”

Maybe for some people that idea would have been obvious, but for me it absolutely wasn’t. And, given the themes of Rocket Man, it was a fairly devastating thing to face. There was an anxiety/fear (whatever the word would be) within the song that was as obvious as it was a reflection of things I had been feeling … though I had missed all of that. Anyway, in the following days—and I would see him for that week in the summer for a number of years, so this became an idea that we returned to at a number of points—he suggested I look at all the music that appeals to me in the same way. Why do we like the music that we like? He suggested it’s worth thinking about in general, not only about the pieces we choose to play.

As I say, it’s a concept that I’ll never forget, and one that I apply to the music I listen to and the songs that I play. It’s the idea that music can function as a kind of mirror, and can tell us things about ourselves. It’s a dimension of music that can make our experience of it richer. And, in  terms of making music, it’s about knowing that singing a song isn’t just about timbre, timing, phrasing … all those bits and pieces. It’s about combining those things in the service of a consistent expression.

I later had the chance to see Brainerd rehearse his choir, and that was stunning as well. He doesn’t say the kinds of things that you might expect choral directors to say, and he knows exceptionally well how to bring out dimensions in the music. Just as he did with me, with his choir he goes for the core of the song, it’s emotional centre, and then works to support that. Its stunning to watch him in action, and I feel so privileged to have had those experiences. Brush with greatness? It absolutely was.


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