By Emma Lancaster
High Notes talked to current MMus (choral conducting, graduating December ’16) student Frances Roberts (BMus’86), and her husband, Geordie Roberts (BMus’85) about their music (and life) partnership, which began at UBC as students when Geordie was assigned as Frances’ voice recitals and lessons accompanist. Currently, Frances also runs the choral program at Argyle Secondary in North Vancouver, and Geordie is Director of Music Ministry at Highlands United Church, teaches singing at Capilano University, and sings with the Vancouver Chamber Choir on top of their individual musical projects and family life.
How do you juggle or meld two busy music careers? Or do you?
Juggle is a good word. We take it day by day, and use a family calendar a lot. Both being musicians makes it a lot easier to be empathetic when one career or another takes one of us away from home for a couple of weeks at a time. We also understand the stresses that come in this line of work. It has been a test of our ability to cover for one another and it was very challenging when our children were small. Geordie took time off to be more of Mr. Mom after our second child was born so I could go back to teaching full time. Most of the time we have been able to juggle and cover for one another in a parent role and sometimes in a professional role.
What sparked your return to school, Frances?
I got interested in taking my Masters after 20 years of teaching secondary music and having three boys who were now at a stage where I might be able to get away without too much disruption to the family. I was in a secure position in the North Van school district, at the same school for 20 years, where my choral program was thriving and all was generally good. I was concerned about staying motivated and fresh as a teacher. While teaching at a BC Choral Federation Choral Directorship course in the summer with Dr. Graeme Langager, I spoke with him about the prospects of doing a Masters at UBC and how it might work for me in my current position, where I could only get a one year’s leave from my school district. I also spoke with some trusted colleagues and friends, Fiona Blackburn (BMus’82, BEd Secondary’02, MMus’10), Carrie Tennant (MMus’12), and Frank Lee (MMus’14), about the program and what to expect. Then it was a matter of timing with all the other elements of my life.
Has the Masters program presented any unique opportunities for you?
In this, my second year of the program I have learned and mastered the art of balancing two lives/jobs between my five choir classes at Argyle every morning and my three choirs, TA work, and Choral Literature course at UBC, which take place over four afternoons and evenings per week.
I have also re-examined my conducting gestures and connect more physically with all aspects of singing, breathing, and hearing. It’s heightened all my senses and been a very inspiring, soulful experience.
It has also made me re-examine how I work with and treat my students. There is nothing like being a student again, sweating about midterm exams and doing your first presentation before your peers and professor. It has helped me renew and bolster my vocal technique and inspired my own personal singing, as well as given me the opportunity to sing some major choral works. I was able to organize the tour to New York for the members of the University Singers and UBC Choral Union, who sang the Berliner Messe by Arvo Pärt at Carnegie Hall in March of 2015 with Dr. Langager conducting. The MMus program enabled me to go to the Canadian Rocky Mountain Festival in Banff to participate in their Professional Development program, as the U Singers were in a showcase concert the first night of the festival. Working with Dr. Langager has also led to other professional opportunities as we started a summer choral directors workshop, “Inspirare”, that we held for the first time at Highlands United Church in August of 2015. Dr. Langager led the workshop and I, along with two other colleagues (Janet Warren and Natassja By), organized the event for choir directors who came from around BC, Washington state, and Saskatchewan. It has also been a treat to sing in the choir with the VSO and Bramwell Tovey a few times now—Britten’s War Requiem, Faure’s Requiem, and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.
What are some recent highlights of your working life in music?
Frances: Seeing how music transforms people’s lives and the incredible lasting memories we take away from sharing our music in practice and performance. I have been doing two or three tours for music groups at Argyle every year for the past 25 years and a few have been EXCEPTIONAL. The most interesting cultural tour that was full of new experiences was our tour to China in 2010 (125 musicians and 10 teacher chaperones); the most musically exciting and eye opening tour was to the Baltics in 2012 (Finland, Estonia, and Latvia).
I just returned from a 10-day tour of Netherlands and Germany with five concerts for the Argyle Secondary Concert Choir and four for the school’s Concert Band. We were in Amsterdam, Valkenburg, The Hague, Delft, Maastricht, and Cologne, Germany, with 70 student musicians, primarily grade 11 and 12, and seven teacher/chaperones—a 53-piece band and 24-voice choir.
We performed at NedPho in Amsterdam, where the Phillharmonic regularly perform—a wonderful concert hall and acoustic space, an old renovated church. We also connected with an inner city school with a vibrant music program, we had an afternoon of sharing with them and they hosted us to a dinner after our concert. It was delightful to make these connections and be a part of a school day in Amsterdam. Singing in a mid-day prayer service at Cologne cathedral was a highlight for the choir also. We were met with gracious words of welcome from the priest after climbing the 507 stairs to the bell tower of the cathedral and assembling to sing.
The town of Maastricht was full of Romanesque structures and is a University base for two thirds of its population; a wonderful place to be a student. While on tour we visited Anne Frank House, Kroller Mueller museum, the International Flower market, the Canadian War cemetery, Air Force museum, and the Delft factory along with visiting working windmills. It is a holistic educational experience when you go on an Argyle Music Tour.
Each tour has its own character, provides many learning opportunities for the students, and leaves a long, lasting impact on them.
Did your undergrad at UBC prepare you for the reality of a life in music?
Frances: My undergrad degree gave me some good foundations for what I still do as a music educator. My first conducting classes with James Fankhauser sparked my passion for choral directing. My passion for singing in choirs came from him and Cortland Hultberg. Organizing my first European choir tour with fellow U Singers & Chamber Singers student Ramona Luengen (BMus’83, MMus’86) in 1985 made a huge impact on me. The relationships with other musicians was also instrumental (no pun intended) and are the professional connections that Geordie and I still use today.
What I figured out on my own was then the story of my life as I evolved as a music educator. I picked up leads from all the mentors I met along the way. I also participated in every professional development opportunity that came my way.
Geordie: UBC in the ‘80s definitely prepared me for the reality of life in music, because it provided me with a comprehensive education in voice, piano, arranging, orchestration, languages, and ensembles that has been the ABCs of my career ever since. The thing I had to un-learn was judging myself whenever I was in performance—I had to re-learn the fun of music-making.
You are both educators. How do you feel music education has changed/adapted since your undergrad days?
Frances: The biggest changes in music education is that music educators have to be a music advocate, fund raiser, and fighter for the life of your music program. Being in public education, the music advocacy and support for the arts is a part of life. We have to continually be out in the public displaying the great work our students do to reinforce the value of music education. We need to be leaders in our communities to rally the support to keep music an integral part of every child’s education.
What do you think the future holds for music students in general, and singers in particular?
Geordie: The internet means EVERYBODY has an audience of one kind or another. The big challenge has always been, and will always, be finding someone who will PAY you to make your music. I think the days of being a niche singer are not necessarily numbered, but I do believe that versatility will be a much bigger selling point in the future, where specialization has been the making of careers in the past. I think that is a result of the globalization of voice culture—there are as many genres of teaching as there are cultures in the world, and we have access to all of them now.
What advice would you give young people studying music today?
Geordie: No matter how boring you might find music theory, ear-training, sight singing, suck it up and learn it. With a lack of arts funding, the musicians who will be hired are the ones who can learn music on their own, including style, language, musicianship challenges, collaborative skills, and ensemble skills—and be concert-ready without hours and hours of paid rehearsal. Go to piano class too.
Frances: For students pursuing music at the post-secondary level, it is so important to be versed in all styles of music. The more diverse and flexible, the better. The more intelligent and skilled a music reader and interpreter you are, the better also. Keeping doors open, being positive and respectful with everyone you encounter and work with makes a huge difference. Create your own destiny, be an entrepreneur… dream and go where it takes you.