Going the Distance

Looking back, I’m sure that most (sane) people would say that coming out to New Mexico was the zaniest thing I’ve ever done. It’s the question I get asked most: “What in the world brought you out here?” Okay, maybe it’s not asked QUITE that way, but that is usually the intent behind the question. Journeys are funny. You put one foot in front of the other, sometimes without being able to see what’s around the bend… and you just go. Because going feels like the right thing to do.


You are entering the Pecos Wilderness…

The spring of 2010 was not that long after the financial troubles that came with 2008. University jobs, in general, are not the easiest for ABD candidates to come by, and at that time that was infinitely more true. But an even more pressing matter was impacting what jobs attracted me while I was finishing my doctorate- that it was very likely that I was something else. Something outside the traditional mold of pursuing one’s doctorate to qualify for university teaching positions. While I was an assistant conductor at Grace Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, I had a visiting Bishop tell me that I had “church musician written all over me” and that he was surprised that I might consider a career in academia. My time at Ingleside United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge confirmed that I was happiest connecting with amateur singers, committing to social action, serving as a Music Minister and/or teacher, and putting together services or programs that were meaningful in a spiritual way. I have, however, always done it in a slightly more academic fashion, a habit brought to full fruition by my education at LSU. I endeavor to be what Dr. Kenneth Fulton calls an “evolutionary teacher”- teach the singers to teach themselves. Give them tools so that they don’t have to sit back and wait for instruction. And, in my book, don’t expect less just because they are a “community” or a “church” choir. Push them as far as (and maybe even a little farther than) they can go. Encourage them to do things they think they can’t do and guide them through doing it. Someday I may decide to slug it out in Academia, but for the moment I am predisposed to working with community choirs.

Mini-version of the United Church Sanctuary Choir

Mini-version of the United Church of Santa Fe Sanctuary Choir. Photo by Ursula Marrolli.

So it was with that mindset that I began pursuing way more Music Minister positions than Assistant Professor Positions, and I was getting responses. By the end of my search, I was getting many, many responses. But I was lured by a progressive church to join a dynamite staff at the United Church of Santa Fe in a part time position as Director of Choral Ministries. I’ve examined the path to this decision and extolled the obvious virtues of United in a previous post, “The Road Not Taken.” It began something like this:

Throughout my various experiences with using music as a source of healing, it has gradually become clear to me that my ultimate goal is to put myself in places where I can do the most good. To me, this is more important than building a resume or national reputation as a conductor… My preference is to program music that ministers to others or helps them in some way. Otherwise, I really don’t know what I’m doing or why I’m doing it.

In addition to working part-time with the choirs at United, I decided to accept an offer to work in Student Affairs at an area arts college to ease my transition into Santa Fe. I hoped to make connections in the music world while helping to mentor the arts students that studied there. I had almost always worked in Student Affairs to some degree, and I had an outstanding talent and passion for it, so this was a natural fit. And at the outset it all went very well.

But as time went on it became clear that I needed to spread my wings as a musician in Santa Fe. Slowly but surely, in a way I had never seen in all of my experience working in Student Affairs, I started to see an unhealthy amount of overreach that could only lead to burnout in such an emotional and time intensive job. Fortunately I had come from several wonderful experiences working with live-in staff, and I knew that my conditions were a) not normal and b) not sustainable. So I decided to remove myself post-haste. Fortunately, as all of this was developing a local Women’s Choir, The Zia Singers, approached me to audition to be its new director. I resigned my Student Affairs position exactly one day before I even auditioned for The Zia Singers, not knowing what the outcome would be. What I did know for certain  was that I would never be permitted to conduct the Zias while in employment at the college. So I jumped. I took the audition. And that evening I got a phone call saying that The Zia Singers wanted me to be their Conductor.

The Zia Singers at Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel

The Zia Singers at Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel. Photo by Keith Swartz.

Life changed… and remained chaotic. I moved from the college campus to a little apartment downtown. I helped in the church office while they searched for a new office administrator. I guest conducted Coro de Camara, the chamber choir of Los Alamos and Santa Fe. I started my tenure with the Zias. In the spring, I was approached by a member of the Santa Fe Men’s Camerata, asking me to audition for their Conductor position. And so I did, and became the young female conductor of the men’s chorus of Santa Fe, in addition to my work with the Zias and the Children’s Choir and Sanctuary Choir at United. Things were happening.

Full disclosure: This is a Monty Python Singalong. Santa Fe Men's Camerata

Full disclosure: This is a Monty Python Singalong. Santa Fe Men’s Camerata- Photo by Ursula Marrolli.

Late in the fall of 2012, the Cantu Spiritus Chamber Choir was but a gleam in the eye of its now-manager and former Men’s Camerata singer, Charles Reyna. For some reason I was looking at Craigslist (research to see what voice teachers might charge) and saw a call for a conducting applicant. I responded, not realizing that the ad was posted by a Cameratan. The rest, as they say, is history. We began the work of putting together an all-acappella chamber choir, which gave its first full concert last November. Ockeghem to Othmayr, Morley to Marrolli. That’s how we roll.

In Love and War: The Cantu Spiritus Chamber Choir

In Love and War: The Cantu Spiritus Chamber Choir. Photo by Ursula Marrolli.

And all the while, I have been writing music- both choral music and songs. Two pieces, “Let Us Come” and “O Dayspring,” have been picked up for publication by Morningstar Music. Perhaps most interesting is that I gained the confidence to write not only the music but also the texts of these pieces because of my songwriting. I try to periodically do live “singer-songwriter” performances- my next mini-performance will be at Ravensong, a singer-songwriter showcase at Iconik Coffee, on March 12, and I will be participating musically in some of Vevo Contemporary’s Gallery Happenings this summer.

Could all of this have happened anywhere else? Probably not. As I’ve said before, during my interview at United I was told that people come out to Santa Fe and “become who they are.” That has certainly happened in my case. I think the moral of the story is, sometimes you just have to jump, to take an uphill and/or obscured path. Some of my pathway has been bloody, but I do know now that I wouldn’t be writing the things I’m writing, wouldn’t have perspective to put together the powerful programs the choirs have presented, wouldn’t have the edge to conduct some of the aggressive works that I’ve conducted, had I not walked through some thorny patches. Every time a new, meaningful piece gets birthed, every time my formerly timid self manages to pull off leading a piece like Jocelyn Hagen’s “Moon Goddess,” every time I get an email that a piece has been accepted for publication, I always reflect on what brought me to that point and the rough circumstances that pulled out that strength, that text, those emotions. And it brings to mind the words of Jeffrey Jones’ rendering of Emperor Joseph II in Amadeus:

“Well. There it is.”

Atalaya Summit: A Good Uphill  Climb

Atalaya Summit: A Good Uphill Climb

And things are still happening.

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