Here is the Crescendo Music Education Podcast - Episode 32.
In this episode, you're going to get to meet Dan Walker, composer, conductor performer, extraordinaire. You'll hear a little about what he does. You'll hear why I'm a bit of a Dan fan. And I hope you really enjoy part one of my chat with Dan Walker. Hello, Dan Walker. Thank you and welcome to the Crescendo Music Education podcast. Yay.
Hey Deb. Lovely to see you again.
Yes, it's been too long with COVID and living in different parts of Australia.
Yeah, it's been really ordinary. I mean, I think it's sort of, it's hit everyone really hard but I think, you know, for us in the choral world, you know, we've really sort of borne the brunt of it. And we're only sort of just, I think, coming out of the woods, I found with the choirs that I'm running here in Canberra, you know, particularly some of the ones that are of an older demographic that's still very hesitant, you know, to sort of get back together in the same kind of way and with the same level of vigor that they were pre COVID and that's making life quite difficult, but we just soldier on.
Yes, yes and we'll get there. You know, we will come out the other end. I feel like we have already to a certain degree, so that's great. Well, I'm going to start by reading your short bio, and I know when I was looking at your bios online, it certainly really is in reality a lot longer than this. But this is your short bio and this is for people who haven't had the honour of meeting you yet Dan. Okay, here we go. Canberra composer, conductor and performer Dan Walker is one of Australia's most in-demand choral specialists. He has written music for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Gondwana choirs and Halcyon. As a performer Dan is a member of the Clarion vocal quartet, Sydney based Cantillation and Pinchgut Opera. He is a guest performer with The Song Company and was a founding member of early music ensemble. It's The Parson's, how do you say that?
Affayre, it's just ye oldie writing of affair.
Ye oldie way of saying affair. A keenly sought after conductor. Dan has appeared as Chorus Master for the Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Choruses, and is now Music Director of the Canberra Choral Society Oriana Chamber Choir, Luminescence Chamber Singers. Oh, that sounds quite beautiful. That's a lovely name and the Canberra community Chorale. Okay, so it just sounds like you're keeping busy as usual, Dan. And before we go, Oh, I'll actually tell everybody where I first met you because that's an interesting story where I first met you, you were just a little tacker.
I would have been a spring chicken.
Yeah you were, just a spring chicken. Yep, I mean you still are, obviously.
It's all relative.
Yeah. Listening to that brief bio would there be anything you want to add? That's not in there.
No, that pretty much covers it. I am singing more regularly with The Song Company. The Song Company is a Sydney based ensemble that is sort of going through a little bit of restructure at the moment. And as a result, I am looking at being one of the sort of core six singers of that group. Luminescence Chamber Singers is a five voice group that is based here in Canberra, and I'm not Artistic Director of that choir, I am just a singer, well not just a singer. But that is very much kind of running a slightly sort of democratic process whereby you know, all of the singers kind of bring something to the table. We don't really have a conductor per se, but you know, everyone sort of brings their own level of expertise to that particular group and it's fabulous. We've got plenty of things happening here in Canberra, which is great, but it is nice to be sort of close ish to Sydney so that I can travel to do The Song Company things and of course with Pinchgut Opera, which is the Baroque Opera Company that is based out of Sydney and does several productions a year. So yeah, fingers in lots of different pies.
Lots of different pies. Well, I know this podcast won't come out for actually several months because I work a lot ahead of time. Working full time at school I've just got to do all the work in holidays and schedule it out. But at the time of recording I am one day away from coming to Canberra myself.
Oh, you're coming for the Kodaly conference?
I sure am, yes.
Well, Oriana is singing on Wednesday night in that gala concert at Girls Grammar, so I will see you there.
Oh, well, I'll see you let's make sure we wave to each other there at least. I've packed my warm clothes because it's like up here it's virtually turned into summer already. So what's the weather like?
Yeah it's not bad, I mean, it's a bit grey. But it's certainly warmed up, we had a bit of a miserable winter, Canberra doesn't deal with the rain very well and we've had a lot of it. And so it's a little bit sodden around the place, but things are warming up, it's Floriade at the moment. So there's lots of people driving around not knowing where they're going and kind of on these interminable roundabout loops, while they find their way. But it's great.
Your roads are very, they take a bit of getting used to when you first come into ACT.
They do, we have problem with the arterial roads is they all look the same? So you're on one and you're not really sure which one it is. They're often hard to get off. But anyway, look, I'm loving it. It's a really great place. And the you know, the balance of being able to get outdoors and do nice things in the in the beautiful country that we have here is a real pleasure and one of the perks. So yeah.
Oh, that's beautiful. Do you consider yourself, this is just a random question that popped in my head? Do you consider yourself more a performer or a composer?
Look, I think at heart, I'm a composer. I certainly study, that's what I studied as part of my tertiary education. I studied composition at the Queensland Con. And while the business of that particular arm of my portfolio tends to kind of wax and wane, while the performing side of things tend to be a little bit more regular, I think at the heart, it's the thing that I enjoy the most. I really like creating new music. I love creating music for young people. And I really love that process of them kind of unpacking and singing that sort of stuff for the first time. So that's probably the thing that sparked me the most joy. I do really enjoy performing. But you know, it also has its ups and downs. And yeah, I mean, I'm doing probably just as much conducting as both of those things now, too. But again, it is one of those things that often kind of pays the bills as much as anything else. That being said, there are lots and lots of choirs in Canberra so there are lots of conducting opportunities. But I think yeah, well and truly at heart I am definitely a composer.
Oh, that's lovely. Well, I'm going to tell everybody about when I first met you, whether you remember or not. I was classroom teaching at Sandgate State School.
I do remember. Oh, yes.
So we're talking a long, I was at Sandagate State School from 2000 to 2010. Like I was there for a long time. So it was in there somewhere.
It would have been 2001. And so that was my last year in Brisbane, and I was living there and we were there as part of the Queensland Music Festival. So Stephen, Deacon and I had written this piece of music that involved all of these amazing local primary school buyers. And we were doing the rounds. So yes, I do remember that was many years ago.
Yes, I had this tiny little music room, like the only lower fourth floor room in all of that. So it was it's like those of you who know, Queensland state school buildings, it's an old, the old wooden two storey buildings, and I had a room underneath the buildings, and it was just a little dungeon like, I made it as fun as it could be. And then I had Stephen Leek and Dan Walker, come and arrive and work with my choir in this little room in a state school. Though we sounded alright, that was only the beginning of my journey there. We ended up with really good choirs. But you know, that was the beginning of the journey. But yeah, we sang in that great, The Creek? It was part of the festival of that.
Ah yeah, the one in behind Chermside.
Yeah, that waterway, what's it called?
Oh, I can't remember. It's not my neck of the woods anymore.
No, no, it's mine and I can't remember it. Please, everybody, forgive me for not remembering the name. But anyway, that's when we came in. And I heard your voice, there's more to this story, right. And I heard you singing with the kids, of course. And Stephen Leek, you know, having Stephen Leek in my room is like, oh, a famous person. And I was just so taken with your voice. And I, oh, hey, could, I've actually got this little project, I need a male voice to do a recording for me, and you did. And I remember working with you, it was so good. And that still is around, that still is around people can purchase it on my website. I'm actually doing something exciting with it at the moment. But that's another story. And I remember quite vividly you came in it was just singing a couple of you know, eight beat songs. And I remember saying we were having this chat and I said could you sort of relax a little more because it sounded a little proper, you just went sure. Andit was just perfect. I just remember thinking then that's it. I'm a Dan fan and have been a Dan fan ever since?
Yeah. That was a long time ago. Those sort of projects do stick with you. I think. I mean, they certainly stick with me because they are often so different from the day to day that I do and regardless of how you know simple the music is or you know, kind of not even out of my comfort zone but out of the day to day it is I really love those opportunities because you know that you know, you are tapping into an audience and a whole a new generation, and it's an opportunity to kind of, you know, inspire the next next set of musicians. So, it's a pleasure.
Yeah, I love it. I love it. Okay, so we'll get back on track because I sort of have some guiding questions in there. All right, what would you consider a highlight or highlights of your journey as a conductor, composer, performer, music educator, everything. There's so many, like you work with so many fabulous groups and stuff, don't you?
Yeah and I've been doing it for a long time, I sort of, I was having a little bit of an existential crisis through COVID. Because, you know, I mean, like all musicians, you know, we were just really struggling to make ends meet and felt at every turn that we had to justify our existence. And I found that really hard. And I was thinking, you know, if I was in any other job, you know, if I was in Canberra, working in the public service for 20 years, I'd be up in the upper echelons of management, regardless of how good or how not good I was at the job. And I was sort of thinking, you know, I've been doing this as a professional for more than 20 years. And it's really hard, you know, you have to have a diverse portfolio, you have to be conducting and singing and composing, and, you know, doing all the other bits and pieces just to, you know, eke out a living. And I mean, it's sort of indicative of lots of things that's indicative of where, you know, classical music, and music education sits in our cultural landscape. But I have had some really fantastic opportunities. I've done some amazing projects, one of the highlights, while probably not necessarily, you know, something that kind of pushed my career in any one direction, but I was quite involved in the Rugby World Cup, when it was here in 2003. I did all the arrangements of the anthems of the 20 different countries that were involved in that year's World Cup and then ended up singing for one of the countries and it wasn't Australia. And there's a bit of a backstory to that as well. But that was basically, it was like an amazing two month holiday where we got put up in all these amazing hotels around Australia and got amazing seats to all of these rugby games. And it was just fabulous. But I also made some really fantastic lifelong friends doing that, you know, lots, musicians, singers from different countries that were at similar stages in their careers, some of whom have gone on to be absolute superstars. And, you know, I'm still in touch with them. So that was certainly one of those really fabulous moments that I look back on really fondly.
I think probably one of the most important moments would be when I was quite young, and I started singing with The Australian Voices. And that was when I was living in Brisbane and Graham Morton and Stephen Leek were, well with Graham Morton was the conductor at the time, Stephen Leek was working as sort of composer in residence and then he took over the conducting reins not long after I started, but the opportunities that I was presented with in singing that choir which involved everything from overseas tours, singing almost exclusively Australian repertoire, and having the opportunity to do conducting workshops, having the opportunity to write music for that group, making connections with other music organisations, choirs that we're also doing predominantly Australian repertoire, people like Gondwana Choirs with Lynn Williams, and Woden Valley with Alpha Gregory here in Canberra that really kind of changed the direction of where I thought I wanted to go as a musician, I got into composing, thinking that I wanted to be a film music composer wanted to be the next John Williams. And my path diverged quite quickly after not very long at the Con. And that was basically because I had these opportunities. And I was very quickly made aware of this incredible community, this incredible choral community that exists in this country with a amazing commissioning culture, which doesn't really exist in any other country in the world, as far as I know.
Not really, I mean, there's organisations from other countries commissioning music on a regular basis, but in terms of, you know, schools, commissioning music, schools commissioning composers to write new school songs for them, primary schools, you know, in low socio economic areas in Western Sydney wanting to have a new song written just for them. And will spend, you know, significant amount of money in terms of their budget that they've got, you know, for music, to have someone come in and write something is really extraordinary. And as a result, we have this incredible wealth of music that's written for amateur singers. And it's really unlike, you know, it's not something that we really see in the UK, it's not really something that we see on mass, you know, in the US, you have to sort of go to places like Finland, where choral music is such an integral part of growing up that you see anything that's even remotely similar. So I feel very lucky to be a part of that.
Well, that's it's good to hear that side. Because the negative side of that coin from my understanding of being just like on the edges of your world, really, I'm like you just the choral community in Australia is just just amazing. And to just be vaguely in the vicinity of that world is wonderful but the negative side of that coin is it's fairly difficult in Australia to make a living as a composer because you get nowhere near the financial rewards for being a successful choral composer that you would in, say, America, if you're being a fairly successful choral composer, you get quite a lot. I know the systems are different. But with our licensing and our various bits and pieces, there's a lot of money that I believe composers are missing out on, that they really should be paid for. So that's the negative side of the coin, the positive side, and you can say something about that if you want. But I love that you talked about that positive side, which is the community and the fact that we do commission.
Yeah, look, I totally agree with you. And for those viewers at home that don't quite get what we're speaking about in terms of, you know, money that is potentially owed to composers. And we're sort of talking about this mechanical licensing system that AMCOS, which is the Australian, I can't remember what it stands for music owners. Music, copyright, something something anyway, someone can chime in and fix it. But anyway, there is a system whereby schools pay a license to reproduce music at a ratio of one to five. So for every single copy of music that they buy, they can copy five times. And in no other universe, would that be a thing? That is okay, you know, imagine buying one textbook and then photocopying that textbook five times and giving it out to the other kids. Like it's just not a thing. And the most mind boggling thing for me is that really, music isn't expensive, you know, you can buy a single piece of music for $2.50. So, you know, it's not an expensive venture. I think the way that AMCOS and APRA tried to offset that is they basically all of that money is put together in a pool, and then that is distributed to a cross section of composers, and it's a bit of a lottery. It's gotten far fairer now then it used to be.
Yes, because I, composers speak not kindly of that system. And by the way, I googled it while you were talking the Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society.
There you go. Yeah. That's the one anyway, and look, you know, if you're lucky enough to receive royalties from that, that's great. You know, it can be, you know, quite a good amount of remuneration. But there are many composers that just don't see a cent. And that makes it really, really difficult. Yeah, I'm not quite sure what the answer is to that. I'm thankfully, in this country, you know, music teachers are generally pretty honest. And the number of illegal copies that are kind of, you know, floating around in the system are pretty minimal. But it is a challenge. It certainly is a challenge for composers. And, you know, in the scheme of things, we're not a big country, you know, we've only got 22 or so million people. And you don't have the, you know, the number of schools, the sheer number of schools with choirs that you're doing somewhere like the states, and that itself is its own own scene that is very difficult to break into as a composer, you know, writing or what I think is very accessible choral music, I've only really had limited success in getting that into the states. But that's just, you know, one of the things I think there are plenty of fantastic composers over there that are struggling as well. So it is certainly not unique to us.
This podcast might introduce some of your music to some listeners over there. And they might go, hey, I want to buy me some of that.
It's all very accessible. Yes, there's plenty there. That reminds me, I do need to update my website. So maybe don't go there quite yet.
Oh, no, you got two months before this comes out.
Yeah, you get in, update your website. And while we're on your compositions, there's two questions I want to ask. I want to ask you about some of your favorite compositions, ones you love the best and ones that singers have loved the best.
Pieces of my own?
Yes. Yes. I'm talking about you. This is time. Let's have a little blow Dan Walker's trumpet time.
I do struggle to blow my own trumpet.
What can I start, let me do it first. I'm going to tell you that I have started doing one of yours with my little grade one and two choir. And it's really one of my favourites. Do you know what I'm gonna say?
You have done it up here at a Crescendo workshop I think too, The hour that I like best.
Oh, yes. Oh, that's a cute one.
Oh, but it's better than cute. It's beautiful. It is just it's unison, the accompaniments just right. It's not as simple as it appears at first. Like where you put the dots. You know ,the rhythm at the kangaroos is different to the heron rhythm. You know, I love that it's so uniquely Australian. I love, do you know one of the reasons I love it, and then I will shut up for a little while and let you talk. One of the reasons I love it is it's actually the hour I like the best too, like in real life. Yeah, it's the hour I like the best. It's when you can have a little breath. The sun is going down. The birds are roosting. It's just, I don't know, it's a magic piece.
Yeah, oh thank you.
So anyone out there who wants a unison piece, and these singers are like 5, 6, 7 year olds, you could do it a bit older, obviously. But it just hearing those little voices singing that beautiful unison phrase like, yeah, anyway, so The Hour that I like best. That's my first recommendation. Now it's your turn Dan.
Look, I will add to that. I mean, I've written a lot of music for treble voices. And I am quite deliberate about how I approach that. And I think each of the pieces, particularly the unison, and simple two part things that I've written, I do really kind of think quite carefully about what it is that I'm trying to get the choruses to do. And in that piece, it's just to sing a supported line, to sing a beautiful line. And to really focus on the vowels, to think about how the colours that are spoken about in the song can be reflected in the way that they sing. So that it's not, you know, they're not kind of singing on autopilot and taking breaths in all the spots they're not supposed to. So there is that kind of sense of taking ownership of that particular line, because they don't sing themselves, you know, there's plenty of, you know, simple pieces in unison, that kind of sing themselves. And this one doesn't, I think as a result, it has kind of had legs, you know, it's been performed quite a lot. And I think one of the other things that is off, there's a stigma around in terms of young treble voice repertoire is that it has to be really simple. And it doesn't have to be really simple. Kids are actually very good at doing syncopation. Kids are very good at, you know, at remembering tricky little rhythms, as long as you're not kind of changing those rhythms. You know, every time if you've got a similar kind of pattern, it makes it difficult to differentiate. But in terms of actually doing it, I found that five and six year old kids have a lot easier job of doing that than singers that have been singing in choral societies for 50 years, and can sing Beethoven inside out and back the front, but can't sing in 7/8. So it's one of those things.
Oh I agree wholeheartedly.
I must admit, the pieces that I'm probably the most happy with are some of the simplest pieces that I've written, you know I've written some really big pieces for adult choirs that are really complicated pieces that have had some great performances, but there's nothing quite like that. So for example, three days ago, I was down in Adelaide, and I was attending one of the performances of the Adelaide Primary Schools Music Festival. And this is an initiative that's been going for 130 years and every single primary school child in year it was up to year seven, but it was it's now four to six, because the year sevens are now in high school in South Australia, every single one of those kids that is in the public school system scenes in these mass choir events at the Festival Theatre in Adelaide. So they've had 10 concerts, well 9 because they had to cancel one for the public holiday that we've just had for the Queen's passing. And there's 450 kids on stage. And they commission new works for every one of these festivals. And so just before COVID hit, I was commissioned to write a set of four pieces for these kids. And that was a challenge in itself. Because you know, you've got some very extraordinarily talented kids. And then you've got some kids that are in regional areas that just do not have music, it just is not a part of their curriculum. But the idea is that there it is all about inclusivity. And it's all about giving these these kids whether they're from you know Norwood in South Australia to who knows somewhere in the middle of nowhere, the same opportunities and to hear a piece of music being sung by 450 kids on stage rough around the edges and all is just the most extraordinary thing. And then to hear them singing that in the hallways outside of rehearsal or outside of concert, that's when you know you've got them and you just can't beat it.
That's amazing. So every child, not every child in the choir, every child in grade four, five or six?
Every child in year four, five and six.
Yes. I love it. Well South Australia is now, they're working on their 10 year plan and I will, have you heard about Together Sing?
Oh goodness, Dan. I will send you an email. Okay. And by the time this comes out, our first Together Sing event will have been held, but it's quite extraordinary. So it's basically connecting singing together with well being, and you can sign up for nothing, download the song resource materials. See the videos, if you think along the lines of Music Count Us In except basically, you know run by coordinated by Deb Brydon and I. We had this idea a year ago to get it happening and under the umbrella of Kodaly Queensland and we have lots of partners hop on board to make it all possible. And it's we've got, what are we up to, I'm gonna misquote, 350 teachers/conductors signed up with over 120,000 singers so far, in every state and territory in Australia, and some from overseas. And it's still growing, we're getting registrations every day. So I must get you to have a look. So we had Slade Gibson, a rock guitarist that I know wrote the piece, and then we had fun, like editing it with him. And then Will Brown wrote the piano arrangement for us, and he tweaked it slightly, and it's just a pretty fabulous everybody getting in sync. So I will email that to you, it's going to be an annual event.
Together Sing, so we've got to get you on board with that one. And anyone who's listening, you can still sign up and get it even after the event, you can still get it, we just want it to be sung. So get in there, sign up, download all the materials.
It sounds like an amazing initiative, I think one of the things that became very evident for people that were sort of taking their choral singing for granted pre COVID was how important it is for their mental health and how much not being able to sing affected them. You know, and it's whether it's a, you know, a creative outlet, or whether it's the socialisation element, or whether it's the, you know, the personal challenge of learning repertoire, whatever it was, it was really affecting people. And I think that's why everyone was working so hard at trying to find ways to facilitate that process, you know, over zoom, or socially distanced, or whatever it was, some of those things didn't really work. I never had success with Zoom rehearsals. But you know, it wasn't for my benefit. It was really for the choruses benefit. And so, you know, I knew that through that period, we weren't going to necessarily be kind of breaking any new ground in terms of the choirs development and how they were going to sort of sound as an ensemble post COVID. But in terms of the choristers well being, it was absolutely invaluable. So I think what you're doing is fabulous.
Thank you are we're going to keep trying, we're going to keep trying, and we'll have to have a chat to you about a few other things that's happening around the place.
Thank you for joining me for this podcast. Don't forget that you'll find the show notes on crescendo.com.au/32. Also, you can find the transcripts there. So you've got all of the detail that you need. If you found this podcast useful, I'd really love it if you share the link with a colleague. Remember all I can be is the best version of me. All you can do is be the best you will meet again. I hope we will. Bye!
As we know laughter relieves stress. Don't lose sight of the funny side of life. Did you hear about the Italian chef who died? He pasta way.