The UConn Concert Choir is standing tightly together in four rows inside a rehearsal room in the Music Building, having just concluded “Ihr aber sied nicht fleischlich” from Bach’s “Jesu Meine Freude.” Jamie Spillane ’87 MM, associate professor of music and director of choral studies in the School of Fine Arts, reminds the 65-member choir of the complexity of the program they are rehearsing.
“A lot of times I’m going to be a metronome,” he says, noting how he focuses on the sheet music before him as he conducts the choir. “But I’d rather be a cheerleader. I want you to enjoy the music; I don’t want to confuse you.”
As he moves the choir through various sections of the program that they will perform on Sunday, Oct. 28 at von der Mehden Recital Hall, Spillane asks for opinions from his students, reminds them about specific points in each work, and often uses humor to reinforce his message.
“This is a challenging program, but we’ve got it,” he says.
When he stands before the UConn Concert Choir for the first time as its conductor this weekend, Spillane will be leading a program of music that has a fitting title: “Journey Home.”
A native of Mystic, Conn., he spent 16 years teaching music at Ledyard High School before pursuing a doctoral degree in choral conducting at the University of Arizona and launching a new career as a university professor teaching graduate choral conducting and choral literature in Arizona, Iowa and New York. He returned to Storrs earlier this fall as associate professor of music and director of choral studies in the School of Fine Arts.
“Connecticut is really home, UConn is home,” says Spillane, who once served as president of the Connecticut chapter of the American Choral Directors Association and is already renewing past friendships by traveling each week to high schools to conduct workshops to talk about the Department of Music. “My message to the rest of the state is that we have something very special here. If you come here, academically you’re going to be surrounded by very strong students and then musically, we have a music school filled with brilliantly talented people.”
Spillane brings a lifelong experience in music to his teaching. His parents, an engineer and a social worker, both were singers and there was always music in their home. He began formal music lessons in fourth grade with the cello. From that point, he says he knew he would follow a path toward teaching music. There was, however, a brief diversion along the way during his undergraduate days at Ithaca College.
“I went to college as a music performance and music education major,” Spillane recalls. “After my sophomore year I auditioned to sing and dance at Disney World. They auditioned 5,000 and they chose 12 from my group. For us it was a big honor. I went down [to Orlando, Fla.] and sang for almost four months.”
Many of Spillane’s friends from that time moved on to successful Broadway and television careers, but he decided to return to his original path toward teaching, which led him back to Connecticut and to Storrs, where he was a student of Peter Bagley, who established the academic program that has produced hundreds of choral musicians. He says one of the attractions of returning to UConn is to continue expanding the program he experienced under Bagley’s leadership, embracing all segments of the University’s music community, including the opera and orchestral programs.
“This is where I want to be to create that connection with high schools through the state, community choirs so people see UConn as a hub of choral music for the state and New England,” Spillane says. “I want to see this as a community of choral music.”
Spillane is working with seven distinct choir groups, ranging from the Concert Choir to the Voices of Freedom, which may consist of between 16 and 65 members each. Many of these students also participate as members of the University’s popular a cappella singing groups.
He says the challenges of working with choirs have not changed all that much during his long teaching career. A group of diverse young people with different talents and skills are brought together to pursue the same goal of making good music.
“If you create choral music well, you’re going to draw people in. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You just have to do it well,” he says. “If we’re good it’s going to be more fun for us and more fun for your conductor and especially more fun for the audience. The work always pays off. But you have to start with work and you have to start striving for excellence every second. We talk about that in rehearsal every day. It’s just like with our basketball teams. You can’t practice at a 50 percent level and expect 100 percent results. We have to expect excellence every second. It’s not just that we have to work hard. We have stand for excellence in our rehearsal. We have to mark our music like professionals. We have to rehearse in such a way that we get it right every time.”
In planning a program of music, Spillane says a conductor tries to balance three parts – developing a program that makes sense so he or she can present it powerfully to the choir and the audience; providing music to the choir that is educationally sound and motivates them to want to sing; and the audience, which should enjoy the concert.
“I want to touch all those bases,” he says. “I want audiences to think there was something powerful in that time they were in that space. Then you choose music that reinforces that. We’re going to make great, great music every day. Hopefully there will be something for everybody, no matter if you are a choral snob or a man in the street, there’s going to be some music that moves you and you’ll feel that the trip to our concert was worthwhile.”
The “Journey Home” performance will take place on Sunday, Oct. 28 at 3 p.m. in von der Mehden Recital Hall. Music will include works by Bach, Byrd, Fissinger, Haydn Rheinberger, Vaughan Williams and Paulus. Performances will be by the UConn Concert Choir, UConn Chamber Choir, Collegium and Collegiate Singers. Conductors will include Jamie Spillane; Eric Rice, associate professor of music; Jonathan Harvey, a graduate assistant pursuing his doctorate in music; and Sarah Kaufold, a graduate assistant pursuing a master’s degree. Pianist for the UConn Concert Choir will be Allan Conway, adjunct faculty specialist in instrumental music.