Here is the Crescendo Music Education Podcast - Episode 33.
In this second part of my talk with Dan Walker, we'll hear some more interesting information, along with his nuggets of fabulous. All right, now, is it easy for you to talk about your composition process? Or is that something that is very amorphous? Like it changes all the time? Do you have a sort of usual process or not?
Look, I would love to say that it's amorphous, and a bit, you know, shrouded in mystery, because I think composers kind of have that sense of amnesia about them. But I think that is absolutely not true. I very much have a process. And when I was busy, it almost got to the point of that being a bit formulaic, and I sort of had to just step back a little bit and go, Okay, maybe this children's choir doesn't want, you know, a unison melody, and then a melody in cannon, and then you know, the kind of Dan special
I'm gonna have to analyse all your pieces, you know, work out what the Dan special is.
It is a little bit more different from piece to piece now, and I think that's partly in my approach, I'm really sort of wanting to kind of tailor pieces for different groups more specifically. And so I am sort of talking a bit more with, you know, the conductors of those groups to see what they want to get out of the piece. And I'm trying to kind of create a product that they're really, really happy with not just something that they can sing once and then sort of go okay, well, that was nice, but we probably won't do it very often anymore. If I'm writing the text, which I often do, that very much dictates how the process is going to go. I often write the text first. And then after that, I'll write the musical material that goes around that, but I can sort of tweak both sides of that as I go. Just recently, I wrote a piece for Luminescence, the quintet that I sing with as part of a program entitled Drawing Breath, which by the time you watch this podcast, it will well and truly have been premiered. And it's a total departure and I wanted to try doing things a little bit differently. There's some sort of effects that we you know, associate with the inhalation and exhalation of breath. There's bits and pieces in different languages that I've never worked with before. So Nepali and Arabic, and Mandarin Chinese. And I just wanted to sort of push myself out of my comfort zone. And so having, you know, fewer commissions is not necessarily the worst thing in the world, because it actually gives you time to think about each one of those a little bit more. So yeah, I definitely have a process, but I'm trying to kind of mix it up a little bit these days.
Good, do you think you could tell us about a person or people who've been really influential in your life? Professional or personal.
Sure. Yeah, well, I mean, the first person that springs to mind and we've spoken about him today already is Stephen Leek and I had heard of Stephen when I was studying music. So I went to school at Brisbane Grammar, Brisbane Grammar has an incredible music program and it had an incredible choral program. I mean, it still does, but it had a really fabulous choral program when I was there and I was introduced to the music of Steven Leek. I would have been in about grade nine or so, I was blown away. You know, I had heard nothing like it. It kind of, we sort of looked back at the you know the music of Stephen and you know, Paul Stanhope and Nigel Butterley and Ross Edwards as kind of being landscape composers. And that didn't really mean anything to me until I heard Stephen's music but it is literally canned landscapes you know, he creates these amazing soundscapes, often with you know, aleatoric you know music in boxes, where each chorister is kind of asked to make their own creative decisions. And we get these really extraordinary performances where no one performance is the same as another one. And I in year 10, was on a composers camp where Steven was the composer in residence, and so I got to meet him and to work with him and it's been a lifelong friendship. He was living in Canberra till quite recently, he's just recently moved down to Launceston but his music has been extremely influential on a lot of composers, particularly of my generation.
Anybody else? Now there must be, I know there's a lot of people, anyone else you'd like to single out?
I'm just sort of thinking if there's anyone really recently, look, probably the other person for different reasons, actually is is Roland Peelman. And Roland Peelman was the Director of The Song Company for many many years and now sort of spends his time halfway between Sydney and Canberra as he's the artistic director of the Canberra International Music festival, but he's just this. I mean, he's has so much energy, and so much knowledge in so many different fields, it's really extraordinary for someone that isn't a singer. And if you've ever heard him sing, you will very quickly ascertain that he's really not a singer. But one of the great things that I learned from Roland is that it's not the conductor's job to tell the singers how to sing all the time. You know, it is about kind of taking these instruments and making them work in an ensemble. And so The Song Company model when I started singing with them was that there were six full time singers. And each of those singers have very unique voices, you know, obviously, both in where they were in their range, but also in terms of their tambor and Roland never told them how to sing, he never said, said that they needed to be this colour, or they need to sing it this way. It was about mixing these colours to create something that was really, really beautiful. And every time I work with him, I'm absolutely inspired, which is, I think, something incredibly important. You know, for all choristers, and for all, you know, professional musicians, they need to have their own, you know, enthusiasm levels, and inspiration levels topped up and to have someone that they can, you know, they can work with or, you know, able to go to fabulous concerts or whatever it might be that process is invaluable. Otherwise, you start getting a little bit jaded, and I don't know, stagnant. And that's something I'm very conscious of avoiding. So Roland is a fabulous fellow, and larger than life. So if you ever get the opportunity to meet him to work with him, I highly recommend it.
Oh, great. He does sound very interesting. For what are you most grateful?
Ooh, look, this sounds really twee, but I'm probably most grateful to my Mum, she was the one that really pushed me to pursue music at a younger age, and at a time when I would much rather be kicking a football around than doing piano practice. But she insisted that I do my piano practice. I went to a different school in my first year of high school in Brisbane from the rest of my high school years. And mum saw that I was languishing in a lot of respects, musically in this school and did something about it. And it was really difficult financially for her at the time. But I know that if that hadn't happened, I wouldn't be doing music. And I'm forever grateful to have those opportunities, and to have had someone that could see the potential that was there. Even if it meant dragging me kicking and screaming to piano lessons, you know, when I was a bit younger, so yeah, thanks Mum.
Wonderful. That's not twee, that's beautiful. That's beautiful. But I know that this is my personal little bent as well, but it does tell you how important it is to have music in our schools.
Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
In all schools.
Yeah. Look, I mean, you know, we're sort of preaching but, you know, I mean, to have that as part of the curriculum, it's not expensive. It's in the scheme of things, it's really, it's really not expensive. And the difference that it makes on so many levels, not just creating a, you know, we're not trying to create a huge glut of professional musicians, that's not what we're trying to do. Music at a young age isn't about creating professionals. It's about having a balanced education and well being and the ability to work with others, and the ability to listen, and the ability to have goals. And, you know, all of these things that so often in other academic fields, there's so much pressure put on those individual elements that the kids feel so much anxiety around them. And in a choral context, it happens almost without them knowing it. And I mean, I didn't sing until I started high school, my primary school didn't have a choral program at all, and I went to primary school in Brisbane, but you know, I still have really good friends that I sang with, you know, in high school, and I strongly believe it does affect you in so many other ways. You know, you don't need to go on and be a professional musician, but yeah, you're absolutely right, crucial.
I agree. Now, would you like to give our listeners a couple of little nuggets of fabulous. A couple of little thoughts, advice, tips, tricks, repertoire? Anything you like that you think that people listening who work with choirs or in music classrooms could take away.
Look, I mean, one of them is and this is sort of based on a lot of experience that I've had working with different school choirs. So this is for music teachers that aren't necessarily choral specialists. You don't need to resort to singing bad music in your choir. There is so much good music that is specifically written for you, that doesn't have difficult piano parts, has backing tracks that are you know, not pop music, that doesn't have difficult choir parts, that are easily unhackable for a music teacher that really doesn't have a huge amount of experience. And the hard thing, I think for us is to make that music accessible to everybody. And to make them realise that this stuff is out there, and the kids will enjoy it, the kids will start becoming aware of, you know, composers writing music for them, you know, you don't have to sing Ariana Grande in choir. So that's, that's one thing. And I pride myself on on kind of adding to that choral cannon, because I do absolutely love writing music for very young people. And it's just, it's so rewarding. So that would be one thing. The other one that I would touch on is, and again, it sort of has a lot to do with working with amateur singers and not just necessarily just young singers, but also adult singers as well, this whole idea that people can't sing, and that I can't hold a tune, or I'm tone deaf. I strongly, strongly believe that that is bubkis. I've really, I think everybody can pitch match. You know, if I sing a note, and you sing it back to me, that is, you know, using your ear and actually making a musical choice to sing that note. And I think so often, choral conductors feel like it's too hard basket. And if they've got an audition choir, and they've got that one person that can't sing in tune, they'll bury them in the back corner, so that they're kind of, you know, as out of the way and as you know, unobtrusive as possible. And actually the complete opposite should happen. They should be right smack in the middle with great singers around them. Because it's more often than not, you know, just them being aware of what they should be singing and also just the physicality of making a tone, rather than speaking. Australians are very, very lazy when we speak, you know, we all speak very low in our voices. I'm totally, you know, I speak very low in my voice and if I was a good tenor, I should be speaking much, much higher. But I think it's just getting them aware that you need to use these muscles to sing, you need to breathe properly. And then, you know, with a little bit of work, they can do that. And I feel really sad for people that come up to me after concerts and go, Oh, look, I'd love to sing in a choir, but I just can't hold a tune. It's like well, come to my choir.
Yep. Gotcha. I could not agree more. It just everybody should sing. Yes, absolutely.
Yes. Oh, good. So good for you. Yeah, yep. And I mean, if it's a great, not analogy, but a really great story is that, you know, the singing revolution that happened in the Baltic countries, particularly in Estonia, when they separated from the Soviet Union, and do a bit of googling about this the singing revolution. And it's absolutely amazing. It's literally the the power of the human voice, you know, and this solidarity within Estonian to the motto of the Soviet Union, but have a look at that story. It's absolutely amazing. Yeah, and it's just one of the things, you know, it unites us. And I would love for the powers that be in this country to realise how important it is, you know, not just singing but you know, music across the board. It's so, so, so important. And I mean, the great thing about singing is it doesn't cost anything. Yeah, I know, you don't have to buy a $5,000 instrument, you've got your own instrument, you know, you can't lose it, you can't, you know, come to rehearsal and go, I can't get the head of my flute out of the, you know, your instrument works. And so yeah, I just think there's no excuse for us not to be doing it, you know, everywhere.
I agree. And I'm certainly doing my bit and rallying as many people as I can to do their bit to convince the power makers to just do it. Just do it. Give music to every child in Australia. We just have to do it. So that actually leads beautifully, talk about a segue leads beautifully into, at this time when music education, we have to fight for our programs in our schools. What advice would you give to us around advocacy, and I have a feeling part of your advice is going to be sing and get out there and sing for people to hear you. What what advice would you give to us?
I think one of the difficult things is trying to kind of demystify and de stratify if you like classical music in this country. You know, when people think about classical music, and they think about you know, going to the orchestra or going to the ballet or you know, whatever it is they think that that is something that rich people do. And so I feel like in a lot of people's mind, there is a very big chasm between the music that we hear on, you know, the pop radio station and the music that we hear on ABC classic FM and making that music accessible for a wider variety of people is going to be I think what saves us. I think this is a dilemma that kind of faces everybody. You know, you're looking at big organisations like Sydney Symphony really struggling with ticket sales. We're looking at, you know, I mean, my choirs here in Canberra where the numbers are kind of dwindling because the choristers are just aging and how do we get young people involved? How do we get people interested in? You know, in this music? And it's a question, I think that everyone is asking everyone else and I don't think anyone's really got the answer. But I think accessibility and making it less of a rich person's, you know, pastime is going to be really crucial. And I think part of that also is we need to have educated practitioners in far more schools, you know, it doesn't take a lot of work, it just, it just is a self confidence thing as much as anything. And for us, as choral specialists showing these people that, you know, you absolutely have the skills to run a choir at your school. You know, it's not about conducting technique. It's not about the having an amazing voice. It's just about inspiring kids. And, you know, sharing your inspiration with them so that it triggers their imagination. Yeah, it's our job to make that happen at a grassroots level, which is a challenge.
I so agree, of course, and I think that that's making that music more accessible is an interesting way to view that. And I couldn't agree more about like, everybody has, so many people have, those skills to get that started. But the other side of the coin, there's been a few coins in this podcast hasn't there, as the other side of that coin this time, is that it's a bit like when I started taking choirs, I did so enthusiastically, I did the best I could. But I was also aware that I needed to get more training and I upskilled myself, because I do think that you don't want people to go well I'm the enthusiastic amateur and I'm just gonna go ahead and do it, without trying to train yourself to be better at that and I feel the same about classroom music teachers, you know, I've been at it a long time and I'm still constantly trying to upskill myself to be better at my craft. So it's not just oh, you used to play piano when you were in primary school, you can be a primary school music teacher. Well, actually, you could certainly start and good on you let's try. But let's get some training happening. Let's make sure you've got some pedagogy, let's build some tools in. So I'm 100% with you, enthusiasm, energy, get in, do it, but get yourself training.
Yeah, absolutely. But I mean, I think that applies to everyone. Like none of us should stop learning. I constantly feel like I need to be learning new things. And, you know, I yeah, that's certainly not a process that has a ceiling, we just need to keep getting inspired, keep working with fabulous people and hopefully that creates a feedback loop whereby the people that we work with, you know, reap the benefits.
Yes, it's all about that great community. I couldn't agree more. And it's just, I come back to what I've always said to myself, and will say to anyone who will listen, so if anyone's listening, listen to me. Once you think you have finished learning, or once you think you know it all, I ask respectfully, please leave the profession because you're done, you know, we don't want you in if you really think you got nothing else to learn, go away. See, I can say that because I'm not saying it to anyone in particular. But you know, you can't.
Yeah, yeah, I haven't met too many people like that thankfully.
I haven't either.
Yeah, but I agree. I totally agree with you. That's, that's when you know, you start sort of hating what you do I think, deep down, regardless of what you kind of, you know, purport to feel on the surface. But anyway, it's probably a conversation for another time.
That's getting a bit deep. All right now we're getting to the end. It's wrap up time. It's been so nice to talk to you. I didn't really hear your favourite of your pieces. Is that too hard?
Look I probably do have one. I really have a soft spot for a piece called You, me and the wide open sky, which again, is not a complicated piece by any stretch of the imagination. It was written for the Moore and Miller festival back in 2006, which is this extraordinary festival that happens out in western New South Wales involves an enormous group of kids from a huge catchment area, right up, you know, Lightning Ridge, Walgett, White Cliffs, Barradeen, Coonamble, Dubbo, all over the place. And I was composer in residence for a few years and one of the most extraordinary women who was closely involved in the festival, sadly passed away from bowel cancer and it affected you know, everybody that was involved in that festival and I wrote a piece basically about you know, the, the beauty of that part of the world and the oneness that you feel when you're out there and you look up and the sky out there is just enormous. It just goes on and on and the colour is completely unlike the colour of the sky that we get you know, in the cities. And so I wrote this piece and it's a bit of a country song. It's my country song and I kind of hope you know, Lee Kernaghan if you're listening, have a bit of a listen, I don't know how you feel about doing covers, but I reckon you'd kill it. And it's just had a lot of popularity. It's very Australian, there was a documentary called Wide Open Sky that was made about the Moorambilla festival. And I think you can actually see that on Netflix. And that, you know, the title of that documentary was named after this song that I wrote, which was really, really exciting. So yeah, it's a bit of a winner.
Oh, that is a win. Do you know what? I think that would be a great place to finish. I think with wide open sky. Let's finish with wide open sky and the oneness and the beauty of the earth. And I want to thank you so much for talking to me and to the listeners.
You're so welcome Debbie.
It was so good to catch up.
Yeah, peasure. I'm glad I could share a few things with you.
Thank you for joining me for this podcast. Don't forget, you'll find the show notes and transcript and all sorts of information on crescendo.com.au. If you've enjoyed the podcast or found it valuable, you might like to rate it on your podcast player and leave a review. I'd really appreciate it if you did. All I can be is the best version of me. All you can do is be the best you. Until next time, bye.
As we know laughter relieves stress. Don't lose sight of the funny side of life. Why did the chocolate chip biscuit go to see the doctor? Because he felt crummy. That's bad, even for me that one's bad.