In conversation with Michael Zaugg

A blog post from INCANTO - the Student Chapter of the Association of Canadian Choral Communities (ACCC)

By Irene Apanovitch

Last Sunday, Pro Coro Canadaperformed a concert titled Path of Wonder - a fantastic event led by Swiss-born, Montreal-based conductor Michael Zaugg. It was a great concert, one that brought spectacular repertoire our way. Actually, that afternoon that I discovered what is now my current favourite piece of music, Joby Talbot‘s Path of Miracles. Michael programmed the last movement of the work, Santiago, to conclude the concert with and boy what a conclusion is was! The week of Michael’s rehearsals with Pro Coro I met with him to talk ask him a few questions about his career and his views on teaching and studying – things relevant to us, students!

IA: Hi Michael. Thank you for meeting with me today. 

MZ: You are welcome. Glad to be here.

IA: To start at the very beginning, so to speak, can you talk about how you became interested in conducting? 

MZ: Well I started out conducting back when I was in teacher’s college in Switzerland. I was about 21 when I started teaching music in elementary school. Later I went on to teach in secondary school so all in all, I spent about 10 years teaching. Throughout that period I sang in many choirs – I remember, at one point I sang in 5 choirs at one time! I basically had a rehearsal every night. In these choirs we sang all kinds of repertoire – from gospel, to jazz, to oratorio and of course a lot of classical music. So I just sang, sang, and sang!  So there came a point when it was logical for me to go from being a pedagogue and loving to sing to being a professional conductor. That’s when I started my studies in conducting in Basel (Switzerland). I pursued studies in conducting, music education and voice and came out with 3 diplomas in the end. 

While attending school in Basel, I got involved with World Youth Choir. WYC is a fantastic program. I would recommend any young singer or conductor who has a good voice to try out for this ensemble and go and meet with other young singers from all over the world, and work with great conductors. I mean, some of these conductors include Frieder Bernius, Tonu Kaljuste, Robert Sund, and even Eric Ericson in the earlier days of the program. Although I participated as a singer, my observations were always from a conductor’s standpoint. I was always watching what the conductor was doing. Many years after I participated in World Youth Choir, I put on different productions in Switzerland where I would invite singers from WYC to come and work with me – alike to the Canadian Chamber Choir here in Canada. 

In general, I just did a lot of conducting in Switzerland. I conducted all types of choirs: girls’ choirs, mixed choir, oratorio choir; I was chorus master of a big symphonic choir. Then came a point when I had to ask myself – do I just go on and continue to do all these various jobs and having all of these various hats on, or do I just focus on conducting? And that’s when I went to Sweden. 

IA: Now, in case our readers don’t know, you’ve attended the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, which is hailed as one of the best music schools in Europe. Can you talk a little bit about your experience there during your postgraduate work?

MZ: You know, much of the school’s reputation was built because of the exposure that choirs like Eric Ericsson Chamber Choir, Swedish Radio Choir, Voces Nordicae and so forth, Stockholm have given it. These choirs have been in the spotlight in the recent years and their affiliation with the Royal Academy brought the institution in the spotlight too. But actually Finland has a similar calibre of a program at the Sibelius Academy and so did Denmark, when Dan-Olof Stenlund was teaching at the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music. So there are various programs like this in existence in Scandinavia. 

But back to the Royal College. What was special is that we had a choir of 16 professional singers to work with every week. Those were not just 16 professional singers, those were 16 select members of the Swedish Radio Choir, which is one of the top choirs in the world. We had a production every 4 weeks, so we had 4 weeks of rehearsals plus an hour for a dress rehearsal and then a concert.

IA: How many students were in your class at the time?

MZ: We were 3, sometimes 4, so each one of us programmed 25-30 minutes of repertoire every 4 weeks. So every week we had least an hour of rehearsal each and the concert was conducted by all of the students. So just that situation – where you were working with professionals on that level, where you do not have to tell them how to sing an interval – was a really fortunate and unique situation. One of the revelations for me was coming to the audition, starting a piece, and hearing that everything was already there! So I had to think, okay, what’s the next step? What else do I have to say as a conductor? And that was a big shock at the beginning, but that’s what the school is for, to get you to that level. 

IA: So the program is very performance-based.

MZ: Oh yes, just performance. 

IA: So what type of academic writing requirement did you have to fulfill while there?

MZ: This is what I did (picks up written essay and shows it to me). I had to write an essay on Thomas Jennefelt and it was the only thing I had to do. So the rest was performance!

IA: That’s amazing!

MZ: There was a lot of individual instruction. For example, for two years I had individual lessons Per-Gunnar Alldahl, the author of one of the leading books on choral intonation.

IA: Were these ear-training lessons?

MZ: Just ear-training – listening and analyzing and trying to sing all the different intervals at different cent increments and things of that nature. I also had voice and composition lessons. Then twice a week we had seminars on choral literature where the conductors who were in the program would get together and just talk repertoire, look at scores, play through things, listen to music. Our professor Anders Eby was there during the seminars. In a way those years were somewhat like being in a ‘choral bubble.’

IA: How many years did you spend there?

MZ: Two and a half years.

But still, even though it was a ‘choral bubble’, so to speak, it was really real-life oriented. I remember for my first concert, I rehearsed a piece by Hindemith. I was going through somethings and Anders Eby told me to stop. He said “There was a mistake”. I replied, “I didn’t hear it.” That’s when one of the tenors said “You have to.” So I realized that hey, you can’t fake it here. (laughs). So to have such an instrument – this spectacular ensemble of 16 singers – well, I basically felt an improvement every week. So that was part of the experience at the Royal College.

The other part to studying at the Royal Academy was just being in Stockholm and hearing many different choirs. I also sang in a couple of ensembles just to learn more repertoire. Also, being at the Royal Academy allowed me to travel to Denmark and Norway to hear groups there and observe. As a class, the four of us travelled to England to hear the BBC Singers and see John Eliot Gardiner and others.

So the third part of my experience in the Royal Academy was being with my colleagues – these other young conductors who I spent so much time with exchanging ideas and so on. Our world really rotated around choral music – that was all we had in those two and a half years. The time at the Academy laid the groundwork for my next 40 years because it was a very extensive, detailed, in-depth base that I have which allows me now to work in any choral field. So that’s what my experience at the Royal College was like. But as you say correctly, it was performance-based, so you don’t spend hours in libraries. It’s already expected that you know how to do all that research, writing, etc. They don’t teach you how to score study or how to research about Bach. It’s expected that you know that when you get there because the singers that you work with already know all of those things. So in fact, it’s expected that you as the conductor know a little bit more (laughs).

IA: And in terms of repertoire, what would you say were the primary genres that you focused on during your studies? Was it mainly Scandinavian choral music that you learned?

MZ: Yes, in general. I would say it was about 50% of my focus. Another 25% was given to Poulenc, Britten, Hindemith, Reger, and other twentieth-century composers. There was very little early music and I think that it was because of the fact that the school was very performance-based, and it was all about rehearsal technique and gestural vocabulary. I believe that when you come to say, Bach motet, what you know intellectually is more important that what you show because there is a very clear tactus in a motet or in a chorale. The background information that you know about that chorale is more important in that instance. How you convey that information to the singers and how they portray it is what’s significant. By contrast, when you come to music by Britten or anything more contemporary then yes, then your technique is really tested for you have to hear the 12-tone scale and adapt to the constantly changing meters. That’s when your gesture will carry you through the music. So in that regard, that’s the type of music we worked with and those were the teaching tools that we used.

IA: Who would you say is your most influential mentor and why?

MZ: I want to answer this question by recalling an incident, rather than a person, that affected or influenced me.

In 1994 I heard the world premiere of Die erste Elegie in Denmark when it was performed by the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir. That was a life-changing moment when I decided: Yes. This is what I want to do. At that point I set out  to reach that goal. It took me quite a while, 10 years actually, to get to that goal in 2004, when I got my diploma from Sweden. What was unique was that I had the opportunity to work with Eric Ericson’s singers then. I said to them, “Do you remember that concert? You sang and I was in the audience and that’s when I decided to become a professional choral conductor and now I’m here, finishing this degree with you.” So that’s kind of significant moment, not a person per say.

Still I have to mention that Anders Eby in Stockholm was the person that helped shape me in what it is to be a professional conductor and work with professional choirs. Just how he was himself a professional – his artistry – how he brought us, his students, where we had to be and then was able to let us go. And his integrity. His integrity is what I think I appreciated the most.

IA: So when you look at your own teaching style and your experiences as a pedagogue, how much of it is guided by what you learned in Stockholm. Referencing the Montreal Choral Institute, of which I was a lucky participant, how do your experiences as a student transfer into your methods as a teacher?

MZ: To answer this question I have to go back to talking about Stockholm and maybe even compare Stockholm with Basel. In Basel, the set-up was similar to here in University of Alberta, where the students conduct an ensemble of singers that also has some students in it. There you reach a limit at one point because you can’t push those singers or students any further even if you were able to because they have limits in experience and in vocal skill. So that was the situation in Basel – the people we worked with were not capable of singing all chords in tune. Alternatively in Stockholm tuning was not an issue. There were no limits with the singers that we worked with. So it really all came back to you as a conductor.

IA: So do you then try to re-create the Stockholm scenario in your Conducting Institute in Montreal?

MZ: Yes, that’s the idea. I want to re-create but also to give a real life experience and not in a setting that is protected by a professor or mentor. I’m sure you can relate to it when you came and worked with the St. Lawrence choir. I mean, you have 60 strangers in front of you and they know what they are doing but you still have to lead them. So it always comes back to, “what can I contribute to that?” And that is where, in my opinion, we have to give a lot of education.

Another purpose of the Montreal Choral Institute is also to give an idea of what it could be. We want to give these students who come the opportunity to not be bothered with intervals or vocal technique. Everything is already there and so the students have to think about what else they can get out of the ensemble.

IA: Well I think that you definitely succeeded in accomplishing that mandate when I participated in the institute – the choir was exceptionally prepared and despite the terrible ear infection that I had that weekend, it was one of the nicest sounds I have ever heard coming from a choir!

MZ: Well thank you. I think that the vision in that regard, and I always say, is educating the leaders of tomorrow. We have to teach conductors what they can reach – the potential they have as leaders in front of choirs. But also they need to know what the potential of the choir is – how much more there is to do. Overall, if you discover those things, you will elevate your level of conducting and choral singing.

You know, once you get out in the real world, it doesn’t matter what degree you have. The most important thing is that you can work with the people in front of you. You have to be able to sustain your artistic work over a long period. Personally, I respect someone who has either taken over a choir or built a choir and if after 15 years that choir is still around, and for at least 10 of those years the choir has been doing great artistic work, well, I see that as something very valuable for today’s arts scene. That’s what society needs – choral groups that are self-sustainable that create good music and perform great concerts.

What a lot of young conductors don’t have is a plan for their next 40 years and I think that one’s mentor or professor should be responsible for helping their students figure that out. Whatever the plan might be – whether it is to conduct a community choir for 40 years, or to do it for 10 and then move on and get more experience elsewhere – it has to be a conscious choice. Conducting teachers out there need to help their students develop strategies as how to work in this field long-term. The idea of self-reflection, for example, when is that addressed in conducting studies? I mean, it’s so important because you’re a leader and you have to reflect on your work as a leader and make the necessary adjustments as time goes on. In my opinion, self-reflection has to be a concept that is ingrained in you as a human being. If it is, you will find more value in the work that you do with your singers, choirs, or whomever.

IA: You bring up a very good point and one that I think many of your student readers will hopefully think about.

Now as our conversation comes to a close, I wanted to ask you one final question – my favourite to ask.

If you weren’t a choral conductor, who would you be?

MZ: I would be a chef or a photographer.

IA: Very interesting! Both are very artistic occupations!

MZ: Yeah, I think that what allures me is the idea that you have to create something artistic from common ingredients. You know, like if you open the fridge and see 3 ingredients from which you have to make a 2 course dinner, stuff like that. Or if you walk on to the street and see every day life but then you can shape it into an artistic framework. I really enjoy that.

IA: Very cool. Well Michael, thank you very much for speaking with me today!

MZ: You’re welcome

© Michael Zaugg 2019