I grew up in a very musical household. My mother has made quite a name for herself as a local flautist/flutist (she opts for “flute player” rather than taking sides in that debate!) and, at one time, flute teacher, and also dabbled in piano. My dad played in the band in high school. They’ve both been singing in choirs for at least that long and got me started when I was about 4. I had my moments of dissent, but by high school I had claimed choir as my own and started taking voice lessons. My parents effectively introduced me to my college choir thanks to our frequent trips to Bucknell when I was in high school, especially for its annual Christmas candlelight service, which always blew me away. (Yes, I chose my college for its choir and conductor. Don’t tell the college counselors!) I am now to the point where going for too long without a place to sing just plain doesn’t feel good.
Because of my choral leanings, and because music presents its own creative challenges, I’d like to introduce you to Christopher Loeffler. Chris is, among other things, the artistic director of the Central Jersey Choral Society, which is the choir that took me in almost two years ago when I was out of practice and in search of a choral home. Chris is quite a character, and always brings out our best even when we’re not sure that it exists. If you’re in New Jersey this weekend and would like to come hear us, we’re giving our spring concert, An Afternoon of Ralph Vaughan Williams, on Sunday, June 3, and you can find the details here.
Chris, tell us a little about yourself and how you chose to become a choral conductor.
As my mother back home in Kentucky likes to tell it, I decided I wanted to spend my life in music when I was nine. I started off singing like most young people, with formal training in every choir that would have me. When it finally came time to leave for college, I was drawn to the performance opportunities available at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ. I was a young man from southern city in the middle of the country drawn like a moth to the flame the the glowing lights of the East Coast. After graduation, I found my home teaching other students to sing in much the same way that I learned myself . . . as a high school choral director. I continued performing in local opera productions for years before more seriously turning to conducting as my primary musical outlet. Currently, I conduct the Central Jersey Choral Society, the Pinecone Singers at the Pines at Whiting, and all of the choirs at Toms River HS North in Toms River, NJ.
Last week, the choirs at TRN hosted their first Music for Change concert and raised $1000 for Providence House for Domestic Violence Services of Catholic Charities. On Sunday, June 3rd, I’ll be conducting the CJCS in selections of pieces by Ralph Vaughan Williams including Dona Nobis Pacem and Toward the Unknown Region.
How did you become interested in music?
I honestly don’t remember not wanting to make music. When I was a kid, my parents were members of a Celtic dance band that practiced in our living room every Thursday like clockwork. Music has always been there and I just can’t imagine life without it.
Tell me about an important teacher/mentor, and how s/he helped you.
I feel that every artist is a synthesis of all of the people with whom they’ve shared their art. There can’t be a single influence. From my mother I learned that music is hard work that must be approached with perseverance and respect. My father gave me the love of making others smile and laugh. I learned my craft from James Jordan, Andrew McGill, Joseph Flummerfelt, Charles Walker, George Gray, Mark Johnson, Frank Abrahams, and Larry C. Pittman. My greatest teachers will always be my students and choristers, from whom I learn more and more about making music by the day.
How has your creative dream evolved over time?
For years, I thought my goal was to bring classical music back to the general populace. I desperately wanted the public to love the music that I love. I’ve recently come to the understanding that the public has already embraced the music of the popular culture and I need to find a way to come to them instead of trying to bring them to me. I’ve got lots of ideas regarding this running around in the back of my head that’ll be put into practice in the near future.
What’s the biggest or most surprising thing you’ve learned from your students, or through the process of teaching?
The hardest thing to do is to teach a large group of people what they think they want to learn. People don’t always know what they want. What’s great about education is that the end product should never really be the goal since all of the learning is done during the process.
I certainly agree with you there! What are your favorite ways to defeat procrastination/overwhelm?
If someone knows how to “defeat” these devilishly insidious emotions that plague us artistic types then they have greater minds than mine. I usually just wait them out and the next inspiration comes along before too long to send me into a flurry of activity.
What inspires you?
Smiles . . . laughter. People taking a moment away from their grief or pain to rediscover their lost spirit. Working with others to inspire joy.
Have you ever collaborated on a creative project? tell me about that experience and what you learned from it.
That’s really hard to isolate because I feel as if I’m asking questions all of the time. I have a number of excellent artists around me with whom I work to ply the craft. What is a choir if not a collaboration of minds and spirits?
What’s your favorite way to get in touch with your inner kid?
I never let my inner kid out of my sight. If anything, I work to hold him down from time to time to try to focus on “being an adult.”
How do you deal with perfectionism in yourself or others?
Perfectionism is great. It drives us to do the best we can possibly do. I don’t think perfectionism is the problem. Where perfectionism become problematic is when the artist becomes paralyzed by fear of failure when comparing all of their work to an impossible standard. Perfection is by definition unattainable, which is what I think makes it great. Unattainability keeps you on a constant journey to discover more about yourself. I think there is nothing as sad as someone who has accomplished all of their goals and retreated from active engagement with life. When a performance is not perfect, and none of them are, you make notes, adjust, grow, and move on.
Any tips for others not getting to their creative projects?
Make a list of what’s really important to you in your life. Sometimes you don’t get to things because they just aren’t inspiring enough to merit the allocation of time. Exciting projects will grab you and demand your time. You’ll worry about getting to sleep or finding time to eat . . . not your creativity. I’ve found for myself that “scheduled” creativity turns out to be not that creative. It’s better to find out what you can do to help yourself relax and alleviate stress, then your creativity will kick in.
Have you ever felt like you were “in the zone” while you were working? Can you describe that feeling?
“The Zone” is a place of altered time. You never know you were in it until 6 hours have passed in the blink of an eye and you realized you haven’t eaten.
How do you take care of yourself and celebrate your successes?
Steak. Every good show comes with a good steak.
I hope that means there’ll be steak on Sunday, then! Thanks so much for sharing your process and insights with us, Chris!