Serenade Team: What are your fondest memories of studying Music at Concordia University followed by a Master of Music in Choral Conducting at the University of Minnesota?
Alex Heetland: Concordia and University of Minnesota were two very different experiences. Since Concordia is a small liberal arts college, I had the opportunity to try a lot of different artistic experiences, and I took advantage of that. As a student, I could sing in choirs that toured around the US and internationally. I also got to direct and conduct musicals for the theatre department, and even wrote music for the theatre and choirs to sing. I loved conducting choirs and musicals, so I made that my work for the last ten years.
The University of Minnesota is a much larger school, so I could focus more on the specific skills I use to lead choirs. While I was there, I got to work with all sorts of choirs from first-time singers to other graduate-level singers. I also had a great time preparing the chorus for the University’s opera program when they did operas like Le Nozze de Figaro and Susannah. My favourite experience at the University was when we performed J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in collaboration with a music school in Germany. Half of the choir and orchestra came from Minnesota, and the other half from Germany. It was amazing to perform such a masterpiece with colleagues from the other side of the world.
ST: Tell us about your course structure both at the graduate and post graduate levels.
AH: Because I was young, I double majored for my bachelor degree in Music and Theatre Arts. My coursework included music history, theory and practical classes, but most of my time was spent studying voice and piano. I started my time at Concordia studying church music, eventually shifting to a broader music degree after one year. Much of my work has been in church music, but I could make singing, piano playing and musical theatre a large part of my time at Concordia.
Classes at the University of Minnesota also encompassed musicology, theory, and practical work, but at a more advanced level. In conducting labs, we worked in front of many kinds of choirs and instrumental groups to hone conducting gestures and rehearsal skills. In musicology and theory classes, I got to study opera history, 20th century Italian composers, and Bach… lots and lots of Bach, which I loved. While I was at the University, I taught music theory, and kept up my work at churches and theatres in Minneapolis. With writing papers, teaching, and playing shows most nights, I didn’t really sleep much for those two years!
ST: What was the motivation behind leaving your country of origin to work at Pathways World School Aravalli?
AH: After finishing my master’s degree, I was looking for an adventure, something I had never done before. A friend I met at school was working on building a Western classical music program at Pathways. She called me and asked if I would be interested in coming to start a Western-style choir and singing program with her. I was very excited to be a part of making something brand new at the school, and to explore India a little bit.
ST: Why is choral music important today?
AH: Any activity that brings people together in one goal is important in today’s environment, but singing together takes “community” to the next level. Singing in a choir requires you to breathe together with your neighbour, to listen to those around you more than you listen to yourself, and then sacrifice a little bit of yourself and ego to make the whole group succeed.
The music itself is also important. We sing in times of joy and sadness, or just to pass the time. I know people in India sing all the time. I hear everybody from my students in the hallways to the cab drivers singing as they go about the day. A choir is a little more formal, but the effect of the music is the same. Hearing and singing in a choir gives audiences and choristers the opportunity to share important cathartic experiences with each other. The Capital City Minstrels has existed in Delhi for more than 20 years, and I think it is this care for each other that makes it such an energetic, vibrant group who wants to share choral music with each other and audiences in Delhi.
ST: What challenges do you face as a young conductor?
AH: How we interact with music is changing so much right now, and it is easy for us to “disconnect” musically from those around us. We only have to put on earphones, and we can simply listen to whatever music we like, any time. I think conductors starting out today, like I am, have the task of convincing people that making music together is an important and worthy task, then convince audiences that they should come hear live music instead of listening by themselves at home. This seems to be a harder task today than it had been in the past. Finding the right position to fit into also seems to be some trouble, and leads to me taking on some duties I would prefer not to in order to do the music I really want to do.
ST: The Capital City Minstrels is Delhi’s most prestigious choir with various successful tours around the world. How has your experience working with them been like and what has inspired you most about them?
AH: I was so excited to find Capital City Minstrels, and really lucky that they were looking for somebody to conduct the group. CCM is made up of dedicated, passionate singers who may be lawyers, doctors, university students, or anything else during the day. When they walk into the rehearsal room, they are ready to forget about all that and focus on singing together for a couple hours.
The most inspirational part about CCM, though, has to be the community that is created in the choir. The separate singers become more like family, and people are ready to look out for each other in so many ways. If somebody is sick or at hospital, somebody from the choir is there to visit and help out.
ST: Please share some thoughts on the repertoire selection and debut performance with CCM’s upcoming Summer Concerts.
AH: Our program coming up is called “A Grand Night for Singing”. It is based on the joy of singing, and how we use music to express ourselves. The music ranges from religious songs to Bollywood, but each one has to do with music that permeates our lives. Part of our concert includes folk songs from around the world (Hungary, Korea, Kenya and Nepal) and acts as a little snapshot of how music has been an important expression of so many different cultures. We also use music as a call to action, treating others and our planet with care and peace. Of course, we end the concert with some songs “just for fun.” It is a concert with so much variety, and I’m sure everybody in the concert will come away with a song stuck in their heads for days.