By Tom Price, Sechrist Travel
The following is an edited version of a post originally appearing on Sechrist Travel’s newest blog series Modern Measures. To view the full post, visit https://sechristtravel.com/2017/11/07/dr-john-leavitt/.
Recently, Sechrist Travel had the honor of speaking with a man who, although well-known and admired, humbly spoke of music and performance in a way that brought fresh perspective and understanding. Dr. John Leavitt – conductor, composer, teacher, and ACDA Life member – spent some precious time with them as they discussed the festival experience and, more importantly, the impact preparation for such an event has upon the singer.
I used to live for performance; now, as a more experienced musician, I live for rehearsal,” he recited as he reminisced on a joint experience shared at Carnegie Hall in the Fall of 2016.
If you have ever had the pleasure of singing in a festival chorus with Dr. Leavitt, you will note that he begins the first day of the first rehearsal spending a significant amount of time seating and placing singers in the room. He insists there is a true and viable reason for this task. Although disorienting at first, breaking away from the home choir gives the singer the unique opportunity of truly connecting and learning in a way that is not possible while locked within the comfort of known colleagues and voices. And that, says Dr. Leavitt, is the point.
Making music with a group is a powerful experience- connecting with new singer/musicians enhances this experience in unexpected ways.
In an event produced not too long ago, a former student called me to request permission for her pre-teenage daughter to join in the experience. I replied that she could. She was placed next to older singers from other choirs. Since she comes from a musical family, I’m sure she surprised some of the older singers with her ability and preparation. This makes a connection with the older singers: one of admiration and motivation.
In another example, I placed the daughter of a childhood school-mate (in her early 30’s) who sings in my local ensemble next to my former Supervisor- an accomplished vocal teacher with her Doctorate in Vocal Pedagogy. This inter-generational experience enhanced the learning and connection that occurred between these two women. The influence each had on the other is immeasurable. The overall effect of such a vocal connection throughout the chorus was tangible to audiences and participants, alike.
I also try to motivate singer/musicians in the rehearsal with humor, a powerful tool. I believe that everyone wants to please. I try to remember that singer/musicians come to the rehearsal with different training, preparation, and backgrounds. For example: rather than scold a section for singing out of tune, I try to infuse a bit of wit. I have been known to say something like, ‘dear sopranos, that was creative with lots of zeal but not quite what the composer had in mind. Would you like another opportunity at that phrase with the high tessitura?’ ”
Dr. Leavitt spoke in depth about the importance of connection and the experience for the singer/musician when commenting on why his events are so successful. It is also, in the opinion of the staff, the quality of his programing.
When challenged with this statement, Dr. Leavitt acquiesced that designing the musical journey throughout the concert certainly does play a huge role in drawing in a varied audience.
I believe all singers and listeners are seeking connection. I program with the intention to try and build bridges or connections with groups on an immediate instinctive basis. I look for music and words that have shared values whether they are beauty, faith, love, healing, or humor. I believe that music can be a shared experience that binds us together as a people; music can be an anchor for the soul!”
What about the singer’s perspective in this process? In reaching out to community choral leadership for feedback on participating in an event with Dr. Leavitt, this is what Sue Young, Conductor Emeritus, Northbrook Community Choir, had to say:
John Leavitt’s rehearsals are so inspiring because they exemplify what he is best at – creating beautiful music by being inclusive of and responsive to every singer. In addition to his excellent conducting skills and thorough knowledge of his musical vision, he has the rare gift to make each individual feel as though they are the only one there in the room by modeling genuine respect and care for each singer. The atmosphere seems relaxed; there is always a reminder to the choirs that they can keep striving to a higher level of excellence, but always with that special added ‘Leavitt touch.’ ”
It is clear the impact he has upon vocalists and instrumentalists who have the pleasure of creating music under his direction.