This week's installment of 5 Questions with a Musician features an incredible choral conductor, Dr. C. Paul Heins!
I know C. Paul Heins from the University of Maryland when he was receiving his DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) in Choral Conducting. I know him to be a kind, energetic, joyful, and excellent musician, with a positive spirit that brings light to all those around him.
C. Paul Heins has found great success his field: he is the Associate Conductor of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington and leads the GenOUT Chorus (the D.C. area's first-ever vocal ensemble for LGBTQ+ and Allied youth) which has performed at venues such as the Kennedy Center, Library of Congress, Washington National Cathedral, the White House (for Pres. Obama), and many others.
C. Paul Heins has also held positions as the director of the Lesbian & Gay Chorus of Washington, the Concert Choir at Georgetown University and Assistant Conductor for the Washington Master Chorale. He is also an accomplished pianist and flutist.
1) After reading a little bit more about you, I realized that you have extensive training as a flutist! How did your journey take you from flute to choral conducting?
Actually, my journey to choral conducting has more to do with my background as a pianist. Piano was my first instrument: I have been playing for 40 years now! In high school, I started accompanying for choirs and soloists. I continued accompanying throughout college, where I double majored in piano and flute. After undergrad, accompanying remained a steady source of income. As an accompanist for choirs, I gained experience leading sectionals and full rehearsals, and in two instances, I succeeded the music director when that person moved on. In those positions, I found I had the right mindset to lead choirs, and I seemed to get good results from my singers. Leading choirs wasn't my planned path, but it turned out to be my calling! I've been conducting choirs for 20 years now.
2) How do you stay motivated in your dedication to excellence in music?
I consider my work to be in service to music and to people, and I owe it the music and to my singers to invest all I have and all I am to bring out the best in both.
3) Your role as the Associate Conductor of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC is not just about making incredible music, but it’s also about being an activist, a leader of young people, and a role model for those in the LGBTQ+ community. How does your role as a conductor and a role model overlap to serve such an important cause?
GMCW and GenOUT are distinct from other choruses in the reasons why we sing: to inspire social activism, to change hearts and minds, to give a voice to the voiceless. Music is our vehicle for sharing messages of affirmation and love. In my role as conductor of GenOUT and for GMCW, I am not just shaping phrases and balancing chords; I am facilitating self-expression and community growth. I am helping a young person learn to live authentically. I am helping someone come out to coworkers. I am teaching people what family really means.
4) What are the important qualities and skills someone must possess to be an excellent choral conductor? What qualities and skills do you possess that serve you as a conductor?
Choral conducting is all about communication, so first and foremost a choral conductor must communicate well. A conductor's communication skills include interpreting a composer's intent, teaching technique, translating technique into artistry, and connecting the audience to the musical event. Communication is a back-and-forth relationship; listening critically to your singers - in what they sing and in what they say - is essential. Both the conductor and singer should communicate in a way that demonstrates inquisitiveness, vulnerability, clarity, and trust - in each other and in the process. Being "in conversation" with each other requires speaking the same language and having the same goal: to create a meaningful, and possibly transformative musical experience.
5) Can you tell us about a specific piece of music that you have conducted to which you have a special, sentimental connection?
For my doctoral thesis, I studied Lukas Foss's oratorio The Prairie. It's one of the only large-scale (i.e., 60:00 or more) choral-orchestral oratorios written by an American composer to a setting of American poetry. (The poetry is by Carl Sandburg.) In recent years, it has been unfortunately neglected; I had never heard of it before my study of it. I conducted two performances of The Prairie for my DMA dissertation: it was the most challenging work I had ever prepared and the most ambitious project I had ever managed. The ensemble involved 70 friends and colleagues from various communities in my life: all of whom came together to support me and to bring The Prairie to life. The dissertation work connected me to scholars and to resources that shaped the way I look at and listen to music. So, the experience of producing the piece has heightened its resonance for me. Putting that aside, though, it's a terrific work. Foss's writing in The Prairie resembles Copland's Americana music; it is accessible and tuneful, albeit intricate and unabashedly modern. Sandburg's poetry poignantly connects us to aspects of beauty and ugliness in American history, and imbues us with optimism energized by collective resolve. It's a piece we need to hear today.
**Bonus Question: Any advice for choral conductors living in this new, post-COVID world?
Stay connected to your singers and be open to change in what you do and how you do it. The isolation of the pandemic has made all of us especially fragile. This is not the time to be demanding; it's a time to be nurturing. Zoom and FaceTime are poor vehicles for chorus rehearsals, but they work fine for individual instruction, or for non-performance lessons on history, theory, and social justice. Consider learning a song in ASL, or teach sight-singing, or invest in leadership training, or commit to a study of racial justice. On the other side of this pandemic, we will have work to do to rebuild the ensemble sound, but with some creativity (and with grace to yourself and your singers), we can arrive there with our choral community intact, stronger than ever, with vigor and a shared mission.
Thank you, C. Paul Heins, for sharing your wisdom with 5 Questions with a Musician!