By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
I recently put out the call to my immediate musical network, to see who would be happy to share with Fever Pitch Magazine how they have adapted during this period of social distancing. The last few months have been disorientating and frequently exhausting, and stage three lockdown has recently been re-implemented in Victoria. Prioritising your mental and physical wellbeing is more important than ever.
This prompted me to start an ongoing series called Creativity Amongst Crisis. Today we will be hearing from educator and bass-baritone Nick Dinopoulos. Nick originally contacted me to have a chat about the work he has done as musical director of Australian Boys Choir, a veteran giant in the Australian choir world. I was surprised and heartened to see that the choir’s education team is predominantly made up of tutors in their early twenties. I imagine this would be hugely beneficial on both sides: it would provide fantastic teaching experience for those starting out on their ~musical career journey~, and a meaningful level of understanding between the tutors and the students due to the closeness in age. You can follow Nick’s work through his Facebook page and website, and learn more about the Australian Boys Choir here.
Can you give the readers a bit of background of your work as a performer and educator? Has it been a slow progression into education-based work with schools and universities, or were you teaching alongside performing from early in your career?
The words ‘portfolio career’ and ‘scheduling freak’ would definitely sum up my life! As a freelance opera singer and recitalist, singing teacher and university lecturer, all in addition to my work as artistic director of the Australian Boys Choir, no two days during the work week are ever alike. My diary is insane, but I love the variety.
I never thought I would become a singing teacher or a choral conductor, and never envisaged working at university. Honing my knowledge of music and understanding of the voice were key, but equally significant has been the desire to pass it on. Especially with my university voice students, I frequently say “Did that work for you? Great! That’s yours now.”
All of these various aspects have developed simultaneously and organically over time – I just wanted to be the best I could be. Being asked to be a founding core member of Songmakers Australia at age 23 was something that helped take my career as a singer to the next level. I’ve had to turn down some seriously great opera contracts over the past few years, which is always sad, but you can’t make everything fit.
Do you have any pointers for singers and musicians reading who would like to enter the field of choir directing, musical directing in schools, etc?
No matter how badly you do it, play the piano. Even if you can’t play the full accompaniment, come to understand the harmonic structure of the piece from the inside out. Always practice your repertoire at the keyboard – slowly and carefully – and know your limitations.
Work out how your voice functions and cultivate the strongest possible technique/best possible vocal habits. Gently build your stamina, take vocal rest, and try giving non-verbal instructions/feedback. Also, systematically warm-up and cool-down on a daily basis.
Lastly, no one really needs you to look like Toscanini. Having success as a leader of musicians comes as a result of listening. Singers and instrumentalists always do better as individuals when they perceive their conductor/mentor is actually hearing what they are doing.
What have you found to be some of the most rewarding moments in working intensively with choirs? Particularly as your time as Artistic Director as Australian Boys Choir.
Working with singers of any age and experience is incredibly rewarding, no matter the level at which it takes place. If you can help them be just that little bit better at something by the end of the rehearsal than they were at the start, you’ve done your job. If you can involve an element of rigour, share humour, and imbue a sense that the music is living and means something, even better!
My work with two great university choirs over the past few years, the 150-voice Monash University Singers and the 30-voice Melbourne Conservatorium Chamber Choir, has been incredibly edifying.
Preparing some of the largest choral-symphonic repertoire for orchestral performance has been a real thrill – watching the singers up on stage be committed to being in the moment (even when some of them might have resisted the process in rehearsal) is terrific to see. Also, working with outstanding voices with soloistic potential to help them take their musicianship and level of ensemble skill to the next level is wonderful. Seeing them rise up to what you know they can be is tremendously gratifying.
On the Australian Boys Choir, I should say that it is quite a particular organisation in the musical landscape of our country. It combines high-level musical literacy and aural skills with vocal training and performance experience. The choir tours internationally, records often, and seeks to collaborate broadly. The top singers are very dedicated to what they do, and spend years honing their craft.
Positive role-modelling is incredibly important, and our group of teenaged voices (called the Kelly Gang, after the Choir’s founder, Vincent. J. Kelly) and our very top changed male-voice ensemble The Vocal Consort provide a tremendous example for the younger singers. These groups also provide an important pathway for young men to continue singing on the other side of the voice-change.
I have many great memories of my time working at the Boys Choir, but a true “wow” moment was touring to Europe in 2018 and getting to conduct the boys in a performance of the great Bach motet Jesu, meine Freude in Bach’s own church of St. Thomas’ Leipzig. If you love Bach as much as I do, walking into that building is simply overwhelming, let alone seeing your name on the door! It wasn’t just the jetlag we were feeling, and I’m positive that the significance was not lost on the singers.
Among other staff, at Australian Boys Choir you employ an accomplished group of eight musical tutors in their twenties. Many of them grew up singing in the choir themselves. I started Fever Pitch last year at the age of 23, partially because I felt daunted at the prospect of forging a musical career after my degree. Many of the people following the blog are in a similar life stage and position, do you have anything you would like to reflect on for that audience?
Our staff are amazing. I don’t know how else to describe them. They are passionate. They are serious and funny in equal measure. Alongside their work for us, they are emerging as some of the brightest music educators, conductors, composers, pianists, organists, singers, speech pathologists (and even lawyers!) in the country. In many cases, they are also living their very best ‘portfolio career’ life but also do very much care about the organisation and what it means. They want to see the children and young people we work with garner the utmost from their time in training.
I actually had a Zoom meeting with a colleague of mine the other day, and she took the time to remark just how many talented people had gone through and maybe then even been on the staff of the Australian Boys Choir. The reality is that a musician is a musician. The only thing separating emerging musicians and more established professionals is the time spent on the journey honing one’s craft.
The Boys Choir auditions for new members several times a year, and we’re about to do that again soon – if you know anyone who might be interested, they can find the details at www.australianboyschoir.com.au/join. But even if you’re not a boy aged seven- nine years of age, there are so many benefits to getting involved with community/corporate/chamber music-making – and even better if it involves singing!
What have been the particular challenges in continuing to have rehearsals over this COVID-19 affected period? Have you learnt anything specific that you may not have been forced to learn, were it not for the restrictions and the flow-on effects?
I have had to tell the boys that their concert engagements with Victorian Opera and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra scheduled for August and October have had to be cancelled! That was devastating. The really had earned those opportunities, both as individuals and as a group. The Australian Boys Choir has 80 years’ worth of culture and tradition to preserve, and I’m absolutely committed to getting through this.
But in terms of the physical delivery of rehearsals, the boys have weekly online rehearsals, community singalongs and tutorials, and mostly sing on mute in their own homes when they’re not demonstrating things individually. We’ve had to suspend our expectations and do things in smaller doses. Focus on the little things. Read the Zoom room and go with the flow. Does that sound Zen? I’m not sure, but that’s all there is to it!
How do you sustain hope for the future, or overcome periods where you feel less motivated?
I think the best way to stay motivated is the thought that we must all simply strive to use our skills, whatever they may be, in the most beneficial way possible for others. None of what I do in my working life is actually about me. It’s about providing benefit to humanity in some small way. Do what you do and do it well. Don’t fight, just exist. Oh, and schedule things!
Schedule practice. Schedule chats. Know where your time goes. Know what takes up more time than it should, or than it needs to. The industry has been steadily changing over the past decade or so, but that change is now accelerating. As musicians, as artists, as creatives, what we do has worth. It is so very important. The arts make the world a place worth living in.