Dr. Caroline Carson is Director of Choral Activities at The University of New Orleans, Director of Music at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and is Louisiana ACDA R & S Chair for Ethnic/Multicultural choirs. She has worked with the New Orleans Civic Symphony and members of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. Caroline sings professionally with the NOVA Chorale, Jefferson Chorale, and Inconspicuous 8. A motivating clinician, she is considered a “mover and shaker” in New Orleans, connecting and informing the choral community as well as creating New Orleans’ first Brazilian music festival. She has traveled to Bulgaria seven times, participating in conducting workshops, teaching, observing in the schools and interviewing conductors. Caroline has a 14-year old kitty named Sasha and is considered a pun queen in at least three states.
PC: Can you tell us about each of these very interesting music jobs you hold? And please tell us what makes each one fun and/or challenging.
CC: My full time position is the Director of Choral Activities at The University of New Orleans (UNO). I love this job because I am the choral expert on board, I get to challenge myself and my students with regard to programming, I love teaching at all levels, and I respect my colleagues and the support they show all of our music students. UNO, as many universities, is troubled by budget cuts and politics. I’m often frustrated by the lack of choral awareness by faculty outside of music and the amount of commitment in general from the state and the university with regards to all of the arts. I am more frustrated that I have seen little civic and media support for the university and I feel that locals often truly do not grasp the importance of having us in their midst. Nonetheless, I am encouraged that I have been able to bring back the select ensemble and have full choirs since I have been on board and that the department as a whole is above pre-Katrina numbers of music majors! The students are definitely hard-working and come from all walks of life. There are very few attitudes of entitlement at UNO. Students often have two jobs, family, and pay their own tuition. I have been able to give them many different experiences as well as strengthen my own abilities. I have also been able to work with the New Orleans Civic Symphony which rehearses at UNO. This is a lot of fun!
My next job is as Director of Music Ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in the Lakeview area of New Orleans. I love every moment of this job and I love the mysticism and freedom within traditional structure of the Episcopal Church. I am not an organist so I feel extremely lucky to be here. When the position was split into two people, I immediately applied. When I bought my Choirmaster cassock and cotta, I cried when they came in. It was truly a dream to work within this denomination. I feel have been able to maintain a good choral program from my predecessor and I am taking my choir on an 8-day residency in England next July! I feel this is a noble job and I relish interacting with my Episcopal music colleagues locally and across the country. I personally feel and say that I am “Cathedral-trained” and my voice is capable of sounding clear and almost like a boy chorister. I have sung in residence myself at several major cathedrals and had life-changing experiences. There is nothing quite like lining up for Evensong in Salisbury Cathedral, with the afternoon sun allowing long shadows through the towering glory of Medieval stained glass, knowing that you are part of a long-standing tradition of excellent music and the whole communion of saints.
Two years ago, I worked at the Baptist Theological Seminary and had several conducting students. That year was extremely hard with all the extra work, but I am still being rewarded by those connections and students.
Like most choral directors, I adjudicate and occasionally work with groups. It’s outside both jobs and keeps me busy, but I love it. I work hard so I also play hard.
PC: Who has been the most influential teacher in your career?
CC: Hmm…,that’s a good one! There have been several people. First, Dr. Larry Wyatt at the University of South Carolina is my mentor and friend. He’s like a father to me and we’ve known each other for 22 years. I feel as if he saved my life when I was going through extreme depression as an undergraduate – simply by taking an interest in me and what I was about, caring about my welfare, and sharing my sense of humor. Ms. Emily Remington, retired director of the Charleston Symphony Singers Guild is another great role model. She is FULL of spirit and spunk and when on my 18th birthday, I received an acceptance letter to her Singers Guild, my life changed for the better. She showed me that women can be conductors and that it is actually ok to be a little crazy : )
Next, I’d say Robert Shaw was a strong influence. Singing for him was like another graduate degree. I learned more about the depth of music from him. My favorite quote is attributed to him and is part of my philosophy: Regarding choral singing ... "I believe that joy should sound like joy and pain should sound like pain. I don't want to hear voices -- I want to hear souls!". Lastly, I am going to be vain and count myself. The amount of self-teaching I have done is significant, as is overcoming debilitating performance anxiety (which I work on almost daily). I also consider myself a survivor for other reasons, but mainly….I continue to teach myself new things and truly view life as a hopeful journey.
PC: Were there any a-ha moments for you in regard to a teacher you studied under?
CC: Yes! I remember when I learned that conducting didn’t always have to be in a pattern….that one could be “out of the box”. It is rather humorous now, but I still remember Larry Wyatt laughing at my face when I realized it. I will never forget when the ASOC (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus) was performing Brahms’ Nanie after Mr. Shaw’s wife had died and he became so moved that he slowed down and lowered his baton and put it down and just let the sound wash over him. I learned that even when we are in control….we aren’t and that sometimes, you must listen to your soul speak without ability for words.
In Bulgaria, conducting in a workshop with Maestro Marin Chonev and Larry Wyatt, I was berated for being facially expressionless and I discovered that without darkening my eyebrows, people could not see them and that I was really being expressive. I think it was more of an “a-ha” moment for the orchestra.
PC: What has been the most amazing musical experience in your life, either as a singer or director?
CC: Wow, there are so many, it’s hard to choose. Being in a frozen cathedral in Poland with the Emory choir singing and seeing people weeping and kneeling on the stone floor. Being in Padua at Saint Anthony’s basilica and finding myself in a pilgrimage line to touch his tomb when a Spanish choir began to sing. When they went from unison into polyphony, I think the heavens literally opened. Hiking in Italy and coming across a castle monument with a 7-second echo in a 3-story rotunda and seeing no one else around, chanting the Divinum mysterium and being in polyphony with myself! Being onstage with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, directed by the late maestro David Stahl, and singing the “et lux” portion of the opening mvt of Verdi’s Requiem.
PC: What three pieces have you still not conducted that you look forward to doing someday (and elaborate a bit please)?
CC: I would love to perform Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem or Verdi’s Messe di Requiem at some point. Verdi’s Requiem is so dramatic and I find this attractive. Brahms’ work is both healing and rewarding. I feel I know them so well that I could “be” the music while working with it. That is appealing in itself. I would very much like to do a Bach passion. I feel that everyone should be touched by these works and the life of Bach.
PC: What are your three most favorite choral pieces, either a cappella or with orchestra?
CC: THREE?! Verdi Requiem, Bogoroditse Devo from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, and Beati quorum via by Charles Stanford......and there are way more than three favs!
PC: I know you do some in depth research into Bulgarian folk music and church music. Could you tell us more about that, including your travels to do research onsite?
What future research do you hope to do in this area and what attracts you to it?
CC: I truly love Bulgarian folk music and other “world musics”. Bulgarian folk choral tone is strikingly different than bel canto singing. Sometimes criticized for being flat and harsh, Bulgarian music is full of vitality and vibrancy. It is significant in that it is one of the voices of peoples long-silenced, as is the music of places such as Estonia. I am amazed at how old Bulgaria is and how ancient civilizations there had one of the first agricultural societies as well as the world’s oldest gold, found in the Varna necropolis. I first paid attention to Bulgaria when my mentor Larry Wyatt went to lead a workshop and then returned with a business card to give to me. He came running up “I found you a husband….I found you a husband!” and gave me a card for “The Bulgarian ELVIS”….sigh. I then laughingly listened to the grads who had taken the workshop and decided that in spite of the fact that I wasn’t an Elvis superfan, but that I should see this country. I went and was immediately entranced by the people unique folk music styles and this huge body of unknown choral music written in a more “Western” style. I created a proposal to return the following year and teach a week after the conducting workshop which I took as a student. It was accepted and so I went back another two years to teach smaller classes / workshops after I took my own workshop. One year, I just went to visit and another year, I brought my UNO students to participate in a workshop on the Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem. I have not been back in a few years, but I hope to go again in the next few. I hope to put out a choral study related to my dissertation and also a photography book and a cookbook now that I have learned the ins and outs of self-publishing books.
PC: Your website is so filled with great choral and musical resources- I think everyone should know about it. And of course there are fun and funky things there as well. How does your website reflect your personality?
CC: You are so nice to have visited my website and to say that – thank you! : ) I feel like the website reflects me - in that I have many interests and try to have something for everyone. I’m a little bit crazy so my site is too. I am fascinated by unique things. I felt that there was not anywhere out there that collected info on Voodoo, Hoodoo, and Gullah so I’ve tried to collect info and resources. Being from Charleston, SC and now New Orleans, LA, you hear more about those subjects than the average person. I’ve updated it from last year to have separate pages on different subjects – including a lot of info on overtone singing. It’s meant to be a resource site and my students use it for quick links to the local music scene. The site is both personal and professional and that’s the way I am too. I’m not afraid to be myself anymore.
PC: You live in New Orleans, can you tell us how living there influences your life? Could you give us some tips on what a first time should do in New Orleans over, say, a three days visit? And, if you choose, talk about the recovery of New Orleans from Katrina
CC: I LOVE living here! I moved here the year after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans was broken - in many ways and I also felt broken. I felt like I could make a difference somehow with academic rebuilding and I was ready for a change from land-locked central Georgia (though I loved it there too). Living here, I’m quite sure my cholesterol has gone up from all the fabulous foods. I have a lot of friends and I am slightly less self-conscious than I have been (this could be age though). Occasionally, I am frustrated with the laid back nature of so many things here, but it has its charms too. I am once again able to sing in ensembles under different directors as well as direct them. To be a good leader, one must be able to follow.
Jazz is an obvious influence here and is all around you. I didn’t really listen to jazz much until I moved here, but I do love it and have been very lucky to make several friends in “the scene.” I regularly attend jazz performances….just not as much as choral concerts. I live on the border of the French Quarter so it’s great walking and close to several venues. Unfortunately, the wonderful choral, symphonic, and opera opportunities aren’t highlighted by local media very much. I have heard people say time and again “This isn’t a choral town”, but I go back and forth about that.
The city has made remarkable strides back to its former self (before Katrina) in the past five years. When I first came, many people were still in immediate shock. There was something missing in their eyes. Now, people have gotten over it to a certain extent, and certainly with the Superbowl win last year, it felt like a city that was connected and hopeful. There are still problems: people living in gutted houses, delayed road home funds, insurance battles - different from one house to the one next door, road signs missing, HORRIFIC road conditions, oil spill damages (and troubles for the next 200 years environmentally) and a host of other issues. The population is still well under what it was formerly. Nevertheless, it is a fabulous place to live and with tremendous opportunity for anyone considering moving here. The city is similar to Charleston, SC in many ways. I feel as if I have come home.
I think visitors on a three day visit should NOT come in August. If you’ve never been here, you might consider having beignets & café au lait at the Café du Monde in the French Quarter, eating a muffaletta (if you like them and I don’t), and bumming around the Quarter. Go and see “Beyond All Boundaries” at the National WWI museum – it’s VERY well done. Go to City Park and enjoy the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Botanical Gardens. Take in an evening of fine jazz at Snug Harbor jazz bistro, go to Mulate’s for Cajun dancing or Kerry’s Irish pub for some folk music. If you’re here over a weekend, you may catch the symphony or opera and you’ll of course want to come by St. Paul’s to meet me!
PC: What advice would you give undergrads who have really been bitten by the choral music conducting bug- what things do you really wish they will keep in mind and make sure to develop?
CC: I hope they will keep in mind that the desires to conduct and make music must be present and not simply the desire of glory from a conducting career. Learn to play the piano. Let go and love what you do…don’t become bogged down in beats – conduct the MUSIC! Be effective, not wordy. You are often faced with a job that won’t give you the experience you desire. YOU must get out and make your own experiences: get that church job, create that ensemble, go and sing for someone else after you graduate, take a workshop in the summer, read books.
PC: Thanks, Caroline!
To the readers
7 years ago