In the moment

One thing I often tell choirs who are performing my music as well as choirs I conduct in performance is that if they sing with real intention and singleness of purpose, they can stop time. They can be fully present, and dwell completely in the moment (this is just a homely paraphrase of the title of an 1847 sermon by Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of heart is to will one thing.)

The challenge, of course, is getting there. We have to set aside distractions external (the hall, the day, the notes, the audience) and internal (ego, fear, insecurity, and all the rest) and find a way to be at home in the center of the music we make with one another. In choral music-making, we have an easier path than orchestral musicians do, because we have the added benefit of text to communicate the elements of story.

Even so, this is a daunting task, as anyone who has tried it knows full well. All the more impressive, then, that the members of RTÉ Cór Linn — a mixed choir of 35 or so singers aged 15 to 20, meeting weekly on Saturdays — achieved such a high level of artistry last night in their premiere of the newly orchestrated arrangement of I Will Be The Light in Dublin’s National Concert Hall, accompanied by the RTÉ National Concert Orchestra and conductor Gavin Maloney.

2770-036-300x204The concert itself was something the likes of which I’ve never seen before: a live taping of the hugely successful “Sunday Miscellaney” (here pronounced miss-CELL-a-nee for reasons that remain in the cloud of unknowing to me) radio programme on RTÉ, which cleverly alternates prose and poetry with musical performances in a variety of styles from jazz and pop standards to classical.

Some shows are themed, and that’s what was happening last night–a recording of the programme’s highly popular “Live at Christmas” episode. From my seat near the front of the main balcony, I was afforded a view that showed a sold-out house (in fact, it had been sold out in advance for some time).

RTÉ Cór Linn had been on site for hours before concert time, and I got to finally meet them around 4:30, when they gathered to warm up and polish the two selections they were going to sing on the programme: Mark Hayes’ choral/orchestral setting of Sing We All of Christmas (based on the French Noël Nouvelet) and the premiere of my tune.

And they were just what you’d expect from a group of singers that age: plenty of high spirits, lots of energy, boisterous . . . one young tenor cutting a length of fabric to fashion an improvised tie in place of the one he’d forgotten at home . . . that is, until the time for the downbeat came.

Now, I have been around choirs of one kind or another for 45 years. But this singing was truly special. Free, lovely sound. Nuanced phrasing. Healthy dynamic range (not wispy at piano, not belted or throaty at forte). Energized line. It was hard to believe that they’d only been singing together since September.

Was there room for improvement? Sure. We spent time reviewing some of the basic principles for singers’ diction: when two consonants meet, insert a shadow vowel. When two vowels meet, always bracket the second vowel. When singing a diphthong, energize the sustained vowel and don’t even think about the vanishing vowel. Vocal  consonants having pitch must carry the pitch of the vowel that follows them, as in “mood,” or on the pitch of the vowel that precedes them, as in “doom.”

They all were quick studies, and held onto the new concepts very well. Then it was time to go rehearse with the orchestra. That’s when things got surprising–and wonderful.

The first surprise was that they were seated in the balcony behind and above the stage, next to the organ console, which they took in stride. The second surprise was hearing the instrumentation for the first time; they had been singing my tune strictly with the piano accompaniment I had originally written for it. Even though none of the notes were new, the colours were, and the first time they sang through it with Maestro Maloney things were a little tentative.

By the second run-through, they were back in the groove, and all that was really needed was to check for balance between the performing forces. So they hired this guy, who was otherwise standing around doing nothing, and got things toned down appropriately:


And then it was time for the concert. The first half closed with my tune, and the choir sang it beautifully. I managed to maintain my composure, but I’ll admit that it wasn’t easy. After the applause died down, the narrator doing continuity for the evening said, “The composer of this piece is an American, Dr Gerald Custer from Detroit, and we’ve heard he’s come over to hear tonight’s premiere. We hope he liked it!”

Well, to borrow a phrase from a famous dead Welshman, I am not one to “go gentle into that good night.” So I yelled out, as charmingly as possible–but still resonantly–from my seat in the balcony, “Why, yes — he certainly did!”

And then the lights came up, and it was time for the interval (intermission), and that was that. Over and done.

So that’s the story. I wish you could have all been with me in person, and I hope this little account helped bring it alive somewhat. I could sense your presence with me in spirit, and that was a source of real happiness. Thank you for being there.

At some point, RTÉ will broadcast the concert on one of their FM channels. I’ve been told we can stream them over here, so when I get the date and time information, I will post it here for anyone who’s interested.










wow. Simply, wow.

It was half past midnight in Dublin (they would say “half twelve,” I think) when I began writing this post. It’s 6 AM now, and I haven’t slept a wink. Tried. Can’t.

Those of you who know me (even slightly) will readily attest that I am seldom at a loss for words. My Irish grandmother, Monica Furlong Pellens, claimed I’d been vaccinated with a phonograph needle, which was essentially a polite way to say I didn’t know when or how to shut up–which is true.

But I have run out of words.

I can’t tell you much. Not yet. But I can tell you a few things in the hopes that it will serve for now, with the promise that I will write more soon.

  • I can tell you that the amazing Cor Linn gave their hearts away with mindful, intentional singing, vulnerable artistry, healthy truth-telling, and transparent honesty.
  • I can tell you that the sold-out audience in the National Concert Hall was thrilled and deeply moved, and responded very kindly to the singers (and the composer)
  • I can tell you that it has been a night, and a premiere, that I will not forget for a long, long time.
  • And I can tell you that the outpouring of comments from friends sharing my joy in all of this is incredibly moving and affirming to me.

Here are the members of Cor Linn and their gifted conductor, Mary Amond O’Brien, just before they took the stage tonight:


And here we are working hard together:


Alright, maybe not.

Choral music can change the world, because it always begins by changing the singers.
I believe this with all my heart. I know it is true. I have experienced it personally.

50 years ago, I told my high school teacher that if I could make choral music for the rest of my life, I would be the happiest man on earth. Hearing this, Dr Dennis Shrock smiled at me and said, “I hope that you do.”

That was the desire that fueled my first steps on this journey. It was that same calling that led me to be sitting in the audience of Dublin’s National Concert hall tonight.

For all of this — and for all of you — I am so grateful.

Even if words fail me, I am grateful.

Even if words fail me, music will never fail us.







Premiere’s Almost Here!

Take a look at this, friends. Just stop for a sec to take it in. It is no exaggeration.


This is the outside of the National Concert Hall in the heart of Dublin. The outside. Can you imagine what the inside looks like? Well, imagine no more.


(Organists, in case you’re interested, it’s a four manual, 56 rank instrument built by Kenneth Jones in 1991 and upgraded in 2006 to include a rank of trompette en chamade. A full list of stops and other technical specifications can be found here.)

I was at the NCH tonight as the guest of Dr Sean Doherty, professor of music at Dublin City University. Dr Sean is a musicologist, composer, inger, ansd choral conductor, and his charming new piece for choir and piano, The Happy Grass, had its premiere there tonight.

Dr Sean and his colleagues at DCU are presently developing a Master’s programme in Choral Studies. We’ll be talking about that on Friday, so I’ll tell you more details then — but for now, let’s just say that we had a delightful talk and dinner ahead of the concert, and that he thought I had some very . . . useful . . . ideas.

He also said he’s going to use all three books I’ve co-authored with Dr Blake Henson
(The Composer’s Craft, From Words to Music, and Arranging) as the core texts for the curriculum, along with the choral primer Working with Voices that’s still in the process of being written.

Not bad for a day’s work. And even though it’s quarter past midnight here, I’m still very geeked — and a little nervous, because tomorrow is the first time the singers and the orchestra will rehearse, and the first time I will hear what my orchestration sounds like and see whether it works.

My former student Kris Kehrer, who among other things is a fine musician as well as the technical guru behind this blog, has figured out that RTE can be picked up on the North American side of the Atlantic. So if the concert is going to be live streamed, I will be sure to provide that information to you. As far as I know, it will begin at 8:00 PM Dublin time (or 2000 GMT), which works out to be 2:00 PM in the Eastern Time Zone, just in case Kris is right and some of you actually want to listen.

Anyway, more tomorrow. It’s cold and I’m wet. Time for tea and crackers, and then to work on the Theory III final exam draft. Never a dull minute around here.



Off Topic: The Chimneys of Dublin

If you look online, you can readily find glossy colour photograph posters of The Doors of Dublin. And for good reason–there really are some spectacularly beautiful ones to be seen in the neighbourhood where I’m staying.

But I’ve become fascinated by something else: what flies above the doors, namely The Chimneys of Dublin. Here are some samples from this morning’s walkabout on my way to catch breakfast:


Here’s what you can find right around the corner where I’m staying, even in the first week  of December:


And speaking of breakfast, here’s what mine looked like a few minutes ago:


It’s gone now.

In Praise of Teachers

At dinner the other night with Lesley Bishop, the choral administrator from RTÉ, the question came up, “What do you think is essential for success in our profession? Is it just raw talent? Or is it something else?”

The longer I’m here in Ireland, the more I’m realizing the power of story and storytelling. And so I started my answer by telling two stories about myself.

The first took place when my symphony for chorus and orchestra, Everything Indicates, was premiered at Carnegie Hall. After I took a bow from the composer’s box, my mother (who was sitting there beside me) turned to me and said, “Where did that come from?”

At the time, I didn’t know how to answer her. I got a tad defensive (it was awhile ago) and said, “From me, of course!” That wasn’t the right answer, by the way. Keep reading.

The second was sharing the question I traditionally ask my students when they return from Thanksgiving break, “Honest show of hands–how many of you actually practiced over the vacation?” Typically, about half say they have. To them, I say “Congratulations. You might just possibly have a career.” **

The truth of the matter is this: I am not really all that gifted. I have been surrounded by far more talented people for my entire career, starting with my classmates: Michael Sylvester, who sang Radames at the Met more times than any tenor in the last 30 years. David Agler, artistic director of the National Opera Center in Wexford, Ireland. Daniel Beckwith, whose career conducting at the Met and other opera houses continues to astonish. Gregory Funfgeld, long-term conductor of the Bethlehem Bach Choir.

There are more: John Bragle, director of choirs at the Interlochen Arts Academy. Sarah Graham, clinician, teacher, and director of choirs at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho. Andrew Crane, conductor of the BYU Singers at Brigham Young University. And former students who are already surpassing their teacher, like composers Christopher Horn and Colin Payne, and up-and-coming jazz stars like Adam Dib and Dave Vessella.

Each and all of these wonderful people have far more talent than I do. Truly. I am not being self-deprecatory here, merely stating fact.

What has given me a career, and brought me to a bedsit in Dublin where I sit typing at 7:30 this chilly Tuesday morning in December, are two things: diligence and teachers.

More than raw talent, more than overweening gift, more than lucky breaks, what has let me craft a life making music is this: I’m a nerd, a grind. I try to spend at least an hour every day looking at scores. I set aside time almost every day to put something down on paper, regardless of how I feel about it (review and revision comes later). It’s no secret, really: I show up and do the work in front of me, day in and day out.

And where did I learn that? From my teachers.

I would not be who I am, or able to do what I do, without the investment poured into my soul by those who taught me. Dr Dennis Shrock encouraged me to be a choral conductor. Mr Bruce Campbell prepared me to matriculate at Westminster Choir College. Robert Simpson, Robert Carwithen, and Dr Joseph Flummerfelt showed me what conductors really do, and how to consistently pursue excellence.

Through them, I had the opportunity to learn from Wilhelm Ehmann and Robert Shaw. My dear mentor Ralph Fisher handed me over to his composition teacher, Malcolm Williamson. And Dr David Rayl took up the challenge of finishing my education at Michigan State, 25 years later (bless him for putting up with me).

What these characters, and others like my intellectual mother Dr Augusta Barrois and the unforgettable Dr Elaine Brown, gave me most of all was what I try to share with my students today: the gift of passion. Excellence was worthy, and worth pursuing, but not the final goal or the ultimate value. Passionate truth-telling was.

It still is.

“Where did all that come from,” Mom? From the hearts of those who taught me, and by working at it, one day at a time. What does it take to succeed in music? Diligent honesty in learning to passionately communicate, most of all. Or, as I regularly tell my students and choirs, “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. But it helps.”

** Even if you’re really good, music is a hard way to make a living. But it’s still a great way to make a life that’s worth living. Just realise that if you are not practising three hours a day, every day, someone else who plays your instrument, is. And they’re competing against you for every gig that’s open. That’s reality, friends. Deal with it.

A Tune goes to Ireland

In my previous book, Theophilus, I told the story of how my little tune I Will Be The Light came into being. Here I’ll try to complete the story–but before I do, a quick word about why I call virtually all of my works “tunes,” and identify myself as a “tunesmith.”

Some composers breathe a different kind of air and inhabit a different world than the rest of us: Ockeghem, Machaut, Josquin, Byrd, Monteverdi, Schuetz, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Mahler, and others. In my mind, these are real composers. They wrote substantive compositions, works that will stand the test of time.

But the rest of us, for better or worse, just write tunes. There’s not a shred of shame in that, either. One of my heroes, Ralph Vaughan Williams, routinely referred to the music he wrote as “tunes.” If it’s good enough for Rafe (“don’t call me Ralph!”), it’s plenty good enough for yours truly.

Back to business. Here in Ireland, the national public broadcaster is Raidió Teilifís Éireann, or RTÉ for short. Like their counterparts in the US (PBS and NPR), they manage to accomplish a huge amount of good on a budget that is constantly shrinking  (they just sold a chunk of the land on their HQ campus to developers to continue to fund their operations). And like their counterparts in the UK, they sponsor performing groups (per Wikipedia):

RTÉ supports two full-time orchestras—the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and RTÉ
National Symphony Orchestra—as well as the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet, RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, and two youth choirs, RTÉ Cór na nÓg and RTÉ Cór Linn.
These groups present over 250 events annually, including live performances
and work in education. Currently, approximately 200 adults and children are involved in the choirs.

I Will Be The Light came to the attention of Mary Amond O’Brien, who conducts both of the youth choirs, last summer during repertoire planning for the 2018-19 season. She asked Lesley Bishop, a professional horn player who acts as artistic administrator for several of these groups (including both RTÉ Cór na nÓg and RTÉ Cór Linn) to see if the composer could be contacted.

Well, of course he could, and was.

And he was delighted to learn that his little tune would have its Irish and European premiere in September of 2018. According to Mary and Lesley (or was it Lesley and Mary? I honestly can’t remember) “it’s quickly become our signature piece for this year.” And now, at the request of the choirs and their conductor, I have taken the original chorus and piano piece and orchestrated it three other ways: for choir, strings and harp; for choir and woodwind quintet; and (combining the two) for choir and chamber orchestra.

It’s this last version that will be premiered at the National Concert Hall in Dublin this Wednesday, and repeated this coming Sunday.

Yeah, I know: I’m pinching myself.


Good Heavens–It’s Green!

I must admit that I find it more than a little ironic that many of the people I know are right now either just getting up, driving to work, or heading out to school, while I sit here sipping strong Irish tea in my airbnb in Dublin 6, also known as Ranelagh, which is essentially the city of Dublin’s answer to . . . Fabulous Funky Ferndale.

20181203_094415This bedsit is really wonderful, a great place to serve as home base for the week. Here’s my front door for the next 6 days.

And it comes with two amazing amenities: there is a back-yard reserved for smoking (you gotta love the Europeans!) and there are these strange colours outside. Green like you’ve never seen before, green as if it was the primordial green God had in mind when he said Let there be green. Shades and varieties of green, juxtaposed and tumbled all together in a crazy quilt tapestry that just warms my Spartan heart.

20181203_100152And then there’s this big yellow ball of warmth up in the sky. The locals are a bit unsure what to call it. I told them it’s known as the Sun. Here’s what it makes the skies look like.

Okay, I’m exhausted. Left Detroit 7PM (eventually) last night, got off the plane here in Dublin at 9:30AM their time — which translates into 4:30AM Detroit time. Time to grab some jet-lag-amelioration sleep. More soon. Sooner than later, actually.

20181203_100851PS Turns out that I’m way too excited
to really sleep much, yet. So I went walkabout to the local grocery store, and this is what I found. Coffee and tea are going to be fantastic!