Susan Swaney: Choral Conducting With a Mission
Our March Entrepreneur of the Month, Jacobs School of Music alumna Susan Swaney, is a choral conductor, music director, teacher, vocalist, and arts entrepreneur determined to make a change in the Bloomington community and the world through her art.
Swaney has been music director of Voces Novae since 1999 and artistic director since 2004. The Bloomington-based community chamber choir uses music to explore ideas that enrich and inform our daily experience. A lot of what Voces Novae does is “exploring the nexus of art and real life,” she said, by “taking the music into unexpected concepts, and then bringing the music into conceptual programs”. Swaney also serves as music director for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, where she has built a fine 65-voice choir and made music part of an active social justice outreach program.
In addition to her career as a choral conductor and music director, Swaney teaches voice in the musical theatre program of the Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance; and taught choral conducting at the IU Jacobs School of Music for a number of years. Formerly director of the Indiana University Children’s Choir, her choir’s performance on Paul Hillier’s Carols of the Old and New Worlds CD was called “amazing and diction-perfect” by a USA Today reviewer. She has commissioned and/or premiered over 50 new works, many by local composers.
In her collaboration with the Cardinal Stage Company, Swaney has music directed productions of West Side Story, Les Miserables and My Fair Lady, as well as Indiana University Ballet’s production of Twyla Tharp’s Sweet Fields, and Indiana University Theatre’s Pirates of Penzance. She was vocal coach for the midwest tour of John Mellencamp and Stephen King’s Ghost Brothers of Darkland County and Cardinal’s productions of The Wizard of Oz and Next to Normal.
Come meet Susan Swaney in person in our Citizen Artist Conference!
March 24, 2018 | 1:00-3:00pm | MA452
PJ: This month Project Jumpstart is focusing on the theme of “the Citizen Artist”. The Aspen Institute Arts Program has defined “Citizen Artists” as: “Individuals who reimagine the traditional notions of art-making, and who contribute to society either through the transformative power of their artistic abilities, or through proactive social engagement with the arts in realms including education, community building, diplomacy and healthcare.”
What does the term “Citizen Artist” mean to you?
SS: I think I would hold up the musical skill of Listening as central to artistic citizenship. Listening leads to engagement, which leads to relationships, which leads to communication – which is hopefully what we’re trying to do. It’s easy to forget that performing is a two-way relationship. Otherwise, it’s not citizenship, it’s charity.
PJ: It would seem from your roles with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington and Voces Novae that you feel a responsibility as a musician and leader to socially engage with the arts and your community. Why is this important to you, and how do you strive to make this a part of your career?
SS: I love this quote from Thich Nhat Han: “The world is full of suffering; and the rose on the wall is beautiful.” Artists are rose gardeners (sometimes I tell my church choir, “Be the rose!”) – but we have to see the world, too, or we don’t know who we are engaging with.
Voces Novae very consciously uses the arts to engage with the world – that’s our mission. One way we do this is by creatively program our concerts to be about more than just the music. For instance, my first project with Voces Novae was the two-CD book Meditations on Life~Death. It was conceived by Voces Novae founder Aaron Kerchevel as an opportunity to pick the brains of artists, poets, and musicians who have thought about this enormous topic. Our audiences, who are not necessarily fluent in the language of music, enjoy the opportunity to think about larger issues in the company of beautiful, complex, diverse music.
n another program, feeling behind on gender issues, I programmed a Voces Novae cabaret “Gender 101” to learn about it. The choir clarified the differences between biological gender, gender identity, gender expression, and attraction, with songs, signs, and costume help from a former Broadway hair stylist. I was passionate about that project, because I have gender non-binary students and choir members and wanted to understand them.
Some other examples of recent programs: Team Spirit (Who do we choose to stand with, and at what price?), Supporting Players (the many unsung shoulders upon which we stand), The Ignorance Map (Do you know what you don’t know?), The 7 Scientifically-Proven Habits of Happiness, etc.
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Sometimes we take our programs, as we like to say, “to the people.” We have performed walking tour concerts of Columbus’s architecture, Rose Hill Cemetery, and the B-Line Trail. I’m becoming more interested in infusing the public sphere with music. We have sung at the polls, and we have talked about responding musically during the comment period in public meetings. We once sang in the hospital parking garage (great acoustics!) for the people walking in and out. The choir was very energized by people’s reactions.
The results of a concert are fairly ineffable – we hope the audience goes home transformed, but there is no way to know. But one of our concerts had a concrete result; when we did our walking tour program through historic Rose Hill Cemetery, one of our singers, Sally Gaskill, a baseball fan, became interested in one of the sites: the unmarked grave of a very fine Negro League baseball player named George “Rabbit” Shively. She spoke with sports writer Bob Hammel, who wrote about it in the paper, and together they raised enough funds to erect gravestones not only for Rabbit Shively, but for his entire family. I am proud that Voces Novae had role in that.
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At the UU Church, we don’t so much sing at people as hold space to be together. Hopefully the music in the service allows moments of reflection and uplift, time to think about a thought-provoking text, an opportunity to sing with others. Almost every week I get choked up watching the congregation sing hymns. People are so beautiful when they sing! And it is so good for mind, body, and soul.
I am working with a group of people to get a choir started for senior citizens, which will take the idea of Universal Design from architecture, which accommodates a variety of accessibility issues, and apply it to the choral rehearsal. Our hope is that this group will keep people singing when they find that their usual choir moves a little too fast or asks them to sing uncomfortably high. Or if they have not used their singing voice for a while. Singers living with dementia can attend with a care partner – something fun to do together. And I hope other choir directors will join me in wanting to learn those Universal Design ideas that will make our own church choirs more accessible.
PJ: How do you feel that musicians can use their art to build diplomacy? How have you used your art to encourage diplomacy?
SS: A choir is Citizenship 101. You have to find your voice. You have to listen to others while holding your own part. You have to tolerate, even relish, dissonance, and resolve it properly. You can neither dominate nor shrink from doing your part. You have to balance your own desires with the needs of the ensemble. You recognize that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You engage with unfamiliar languages and cultures. And again, you have to listen.
Perhaps because they have learned these skills, people of widely disparate backgrounds and lifestyles are able to sing together. To sing with someone is to see them and hear them. Just that can create a lot of positive change in the world. And choral singing doesn’t require years of training or an expensive instrument. There are choirs available to nearly everyone.
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In Voces Novae, we sometimes collaborate with community organizations in creating program for diplomacy across social, cultural, and religious spectrums. I have made a lot of nice friends that way. Several local unions helped us with program about Eugene V. Debs. We collaborated with Community Justice and Mediation on a program called The Proper Resolution of Dissonance, and with Middle Way House and United Way on a program that asked whether Bloomington’s social fabric would survive an onslaught equivalent to Hurricane Katrina. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian dialogue groups helped us with a program about the Convivencia era in Spain, when all three religions lived together in relative harmony.
We also add our voices to community events occasionally, especially if it gives us a chance to sing with other choirs. The UU Church choir went with the IU African-American Choral Ensemble for many years to the Medium/Maximum Wabash Valley Correctional Facility for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday. It was beautiful to see eyes brighten and defensive postures melt away as we all sang together, and we had an opportunity to discuss on the bus home. We’re currently working on resurrecting that program.
PJ: You hold, and have held, many positions within the realm of arts education. How have these positions kept you connected with future generations and gain a better understanding of the transformative properties of music learning?
SS: This week I asked my freshman voice students in the Theatre Department to write a mission statement for their career. I have been tickled by how many mentioned life-long learning and the power of storytelling. I hope they heal the world.
PJ: For students who want to be involved with their community but don’t know exactly how to go about building connections, what would you suggest?
SS: My suggestion to students would be to look for meaning, rather than recognition, in their work. Be a citizen first. Take an interest, actively inform yourself, open your focus. If you are truly interested in something, you are already involved, and then it is easy to become actively involved in ways that use your musical training. Projects powered by love are more sustainable. And it’s nice if it’s fun, too!