Name: Brandon Elliott
Current Project: From Wilderness at Choral Arts Initiative
Recommendations: Right now, if I had to pick two, I'd want people to know about two books that resonate with me almost daily. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery / Pursuit of Perfect by Tal Ben-Shahar.
If you enjoyed this interview with Brandon Elliott visit his website www.brandon-elliott.com to find out more about his work.
When did you start conducting, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I came into choral music by accident in high school. I was kicked off the cross-country team, and my vice principal put me in the Bass Chorus so that I could maintain a full course load. I was extremely hesitant at first but soon fell in love with music and the profound experience of unison and harmony. I became the quintessential choral nerd—purchasing every choral recording I could, buying single scores of music to see what it looked like, etc. Unlike most teenagers blasting the current pop song of the week, I was almost always listening to choral music. I could not get enough of it. The first time I ever conducted was as a senior in high school. My choir teacher at the time knew I was interested in conducting. One day, he announced to the class that I would be conducting a song in rehearsal and at the performance. I didn't know a thing about conducting or rehearsal technique, but I jumped up and seized the opportunity. I remember feeling on top of the world after the performance, and I knew then that I wanted to be a conductor-teacher.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as a conductor and the transition towards your own approach?
As artists, we must remember that one of the earliest ways we learn is through mimicry. It only makes sense that artistically we look to other musicians and try to emulate or duplicate them. Our authentic artistic voices come as we build the confidence to expand on the ideas from those we study or look up to and start to forge our path.
As for me, I looked up to so many other conductors and what they did with their ensembles. There certainly was a time when I would merely emulate. But I realized that when only doing that, there was a certain sense of restriction. I was duplicating and not staying true to my artistic identity. My most creative moments came after I worked on identifying, clarifying, and refining my artistic path and vision.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
My concept of identity has undoubtedly influenced my creativity. Just as identity is fluid and ever-evolving, my creative approach has evolved and changed.
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as a conductor and in which way have they changed over the years?
At the most basic level, one of my first challenges is that I'm left-handed. In my first conducting class, I learned quickly that you don't get to use your left hand as your primary conducting hand. So, the first hurdle was becoming right-hand dominant for all musical conducting. Now I feel like I have an advantage in conveying quite different things with my right and left hand while conducting.
A broader challenge I faced was that it took me a while to access a more emotional or artistic perspective when studying pieces of music. I used to approach score study with a very analytical mind, and I wasn't intuitive or perhaps sensitive enough to tune in to the emotional inspiration of the piece.
Another general conducting challenge that I faced: I was never one to instinctively use my entire physical body to express myself. It was foreign to me, as I naturally used writing or my voice as a means of expression. I had to become comfortable with using my whole body as a means of expression. To overcome that, I took a dance class. No one wants to see me dancing, but it helped me feel more in tune with my body. I also began doing yoga and practicing breathing exercises, making me feel more connected with my body.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first instrument to becoming a conductor?
Very often, musicians may find that their technical abilities define the span of their creative potential. This is why there's standard advice for composers to avoid writing their music at the piano. Why? Because their technical proficiency on the piano—or lack thereof—will determine the creative reach of their composition. As a conductor, educator, and leader, I have had "arrival points" where I realized my current technical knowledge or skillsets no longer met the needs or aspirations of the artists I serve or my creative goals. And in those moments, it was time to learn and develop new tools or knowledge. As a lifelong learner, I constantly engage with and consume information to grow and develop new means to access creative potentiality.
Tell me about your "instrument", the baton, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? How does conducting influence the musical results of the ensemble?
Depending on the ensemble I'm in front of, I may use a baton or my hands. A conductor, from a physics standpoint, is something that transmits sound or energy. A musical conductor acts as a conduit from what's written on the page to actual human expression. My role is to hold us all accountable to the composer's musical intent as an ensemble. But I also want to infuse the piece with artistic interpretation, whether within the performance in relation to how that piece fits in and the overall program. Many think that the role of the conductor is to keep time or "beat" the music. I reject that idea. I believe it's all about channelling human intention, especially with human voices.
How would you describe your approach to interpretation? Where do you start and how do you develop your view on a piece, what are some of your principles and what constitutes a successful interpretation for you?
There's great satisfaction and challenge to being a conductor that almost exclusively approaches new music. While I often do not seek out recordings during my score study process, there are rarely recordings of the pieces I conduct due to the recency of the scores. This fosters two essential aspects in my interpretive approach: truly relying on the score and resisting the temptation to impose my approach or aesthetic; deeply studying the text. As the curator of programs, I almost always start with text to find narrative threads, select music which is relevant yet accessible to our listeners, etc.