Dr. Jamie Spillane is Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Studies at the University of Connecticut. Widely admired for his charismatic leadership style, musical versatility, and commitment to educational excellence, he is in high demand as a guest clinician, adjudicator, and festival conductor throughout the United States. Dr. Spillane was the 2015 recipient of CT ACDA’s Choral Director of the Year Award, and he will be conducting the UConn Chamber Singers in a performance at the at the Fall Conference of CT ACDA on October 29, 2016.
I recently interviewed Dr. Spillane about his work, and he shared some fascinating thoughts about leadership, education, and the difference between a “crowd” and a “choir”, as well as advice for inexperienced conductors and reflections on his own journey as a musician. The following are some excerpts from that interview:
Please describe your musical background, current activities, and major influencers.
Growing up in a musical family that continually sang together, I was lucky to have early study through high school and beyond in cello, voice, and percussion and there were many patient mentors who helped guide me. Continuing on to Ithaca College I pursued cello and voice. I sang all four years in Lawrence Doebler’s Ithaca College Concert Choir and played in the Ithaca College Orchestra under Pamela Gearhardt. After a lucky summer spent singing and dancing at Walt Disney World I finally settled on a Vocal Performance degree with an eye toward a career in musical theater. After a not especially happy time in New York City, I decided to continue my education at UConn and received a Masters of Music Education. My first teaching positions were in Puerto Rico and Fairfield, CT, but then I was then lucky to be selected as the choral director at Ledyard High School. Seemingly in the place at right time, the job fit me and the program thrived. The Ledyard choral program is where I learned to teach and my success there brought opportunities to conduct many choral festivals as well as teach summer courses at UConn and CCSU. After 14 years, I decided to pursue further study and spent three important years in the doctoral program at the University of Arizona where I studied with Dr. Bruce Chamberlain and conducted the U of A Symphonic Choir. The most important aspect of this experience was the invaluable time spent with my twenty-two fellow choral graduate conducting students, many of whom now lead collegiate choral programs throughout the world. Following graduation, I taught at Iowa Wesleyan College for seven years and had great opportunities to tour with my choir throughout the United States and Europe and often conducted the Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra and chorus in major choral works. I taught for a year at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, NY which was a very rich musical environment and then I was selected for the position at UConn. At UConn I am Director of Choral Studies and oversee the choral program that includes eight choral ensembles and that currently has three doctoral and one masters student. Recent conducting activities include taking the UConn Concert Choir and Chamber Singers to Europe, conducting the MCP National Festival Choir in Carnegie Hall, and directing many all-state and festival choirs and providing clinics for school choirs and teachers. Major influences in my life include my high school directors Art Booth and James Sandahl, college professors, Lawrence Doebler, Pam Gearhardt, Peter Bagley, and Bruce Chamberlain, valuable further study with Robert Page and Helmut Rilling and especially time spent listening to and working with professional choirs, Robert Shaw, King’s Singers, Voces8, the Real Group, New York Voices, Chanticleer, and more. Important choral friends and colleagues include, Lee Nelson, Russell Hammond, Brandon Johnson, Scott Buchanan, Brian Lanier, Nicole Lamartine, Janet Galvan, and Aaron McDermid.
Please discuss your philosophy and values as a conductor and leader.
My basic philosophy of being a leader of any kind starts with, “Love more, spread joy.” All music begins with the people who create it. A leader has to believe in the value of their students and work to be a window into understanding the music itself. Exhibiting an enthusiasm for learning and having a deep-seated passion for creating excellence in the arts motivates students to have real interest for the concerted discipline it takes to study and succeed. The goal of choral performance is not just to just have audiences understand the music, the music must move and inspire those who listen.
What types of goals do you usually focus on when directing an honor choir, and how do those goals compare to the ones you typically have when working with your own ensembles?
In directing an honor choir, there is so little time to bring the collected group of singers from being a crowd to become a choir. A crowd is a large group of people without specific focus or like-minded goals; ideally, a choir is a group of people where music, text, and vocal production, all come together in a finely organized dance of expression. My goal in directing an honor choir is to reinforce all the important aspects of good singing the singers have been taught by their own dedicated choir directors and to inspire these singers to be even more diligent in pursuing excellence every day as they go back to those choirs. In directing my own choirs we more have the benefit of time. Time to rehearse, time to finely tune the choir as far as vocal production, diction, and organization of singers, time work on more challenging literature that could never be learned in one or two short days. The goals are the same, the time is different.
What advice do you have for inexperienced conductors?
Inexperienced conductors must find good mentors. I was lucky as a young teacher in Connecticut to find friendly colleagues in Scott Campbell, Michele Holt, Russ Hammond, and especially Tahme Adinolfi among others who all were so giving of their time and experience to help guide me and share thoughts in literature selection, vocal production, organization, and choir building. Peter Bagley has long been a strong mentor for all Connecticut choir directors and his enthusiastic support of my program was important and powerful. I also passionately encourage every conductor to become a member of ACDA. What I have learned at state, divisional, and national conferences is worth at least another graduate degree and the experience I received by being in many leadership positions has served me well. Most of all this organization has given me choral friends throughout the world that I can continually call on for advice and support.
What are some of your favorite choral works and composers?
There are too many to mention but – of course, I love the many large choral works including: Handel’s Messiah, Requiems by Brahms, Durufle, and Faure, Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, the Bach Magnificat and his Motets. I was lucky enough to do some of the earliest performances of Stephen Paulus’ Holocaust Remembrance Oratorio – To Be Certain of the Dawn and his music and his friendship remains very important to me. Contemporary composers, Aaron McDermid, Eric Whitacre, Daniel Elder, Paul Mealor, Morton Lauridsen, and provide some of my favorite new music. I am continually fascinated by the Britten War Requiem and it is forever on my playlist. Currently we are rehearsing the Frank Martin Mass with the UConn Concert Choir and the work just keeps on giving.
Please share something about yourself that is unrelated to music.
I am the son of a naval architect and I spend as much time on the water in a kayak as possible. I would happily be on the water every day. I am also passionate about photography. I love to catch people in action, especially in concert, and I love to photograph and share the beauty of this amazing earth.
This interview is also published on the CT ACDA blog.
A complete biography of Dr. Spillane can be found here.
Information about upcoming events in the UConn Music Department can be found here.