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April 4, 2010

10 questions with ULM's Deborah Chandler, choral director

Deborah Chandler, assistant professor and director of choral activities at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, has inspired hundreds of students to push their performances to the next level in her six years at ULM.

Chandler earned her bachelor's degree at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Ga., and received both her masters degree and Ph.D. in music education at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla. She worked 18 years in the Presbyterian Church (USA) before coming to northeastern Louisiana.

An avid and lifelong performer, Chandler recently sat down to answer 10 questions about her musical influences and the community involvement of which she is most proud of since coming to Monroe.

Question: Where were you raised and how did that influence you musically?

Answer: I was raised in Tifton, Ga., a small town in the southern region of that state. Mainly I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church, and fortunately it was a church that offered excellent musical opportunities. I started working with the music directors at church as a young girl.

Back then we didn't do the contemporary music that we find in today's churches, but we did perform a lot more of the classical style music. I would not say it was "highbrow," but just good, sacred music. I eventually became a drum major for our high school band, sang in the chorus and was a student conductor, so even for a small southern Georgia town, we had a lot of great music, and I was fortunate to be exposed.

Since we only had one high school, everything was concentrated. We had a huge band, a large choir and both the choral department director and band director were simply phenomenal. I really wanted to be like them. I started in my early teens conducting at church and it carried over into high school, so even then I knew that was what I wanted to do.

Q: Who was or is your all-time favorite composer?

A: Bach is my favorite composer. I was first introduced to him in high school, when we performed some Bach chorales. I remember loving it so much even then. His work is intricate — he makes you think and his work is almost like a puzzle that you have to figure out. Why he used certain compositional techniques is always so compelling.

As a church musician, I'm in awe of what he was required to do and what he was able to do.

Q: What types of community activities are the most rewarding parts of your life beyond the boundaries of your job at ULM?

A: I'm lucky enough to be in a very wonderful church (Northminster Church.) We have such excellent musicians who have always been known for their music and love of the arts, and for the past three years I've been their music minister. The church's reputation is one of quality and ability to produce excellent music — I'm very fortunate to be a part of that.

When I moved to Monroe, I asked about a community chorus. I've always sung in one and believe in lifelong learning and doing. I heard Monroe used to have a wonderful masterworks chorale, and I knew we could build it again.

I met with the Monroe Symphony Board right away and we started talking about forming a Monroe Symphony Chorus, and we did so in fall 2005. In fact, we are about to do a full program at 7 p.m. April 24 at First United Methodist Church. It will be a combined concert of the Monroe Symphony Orchestra and the Monroe Symphony Chorus. I'll be conducting the first half of the concert. (Tickets will be available at the door).

I also have a radio show on KEDM that is my own little niche and I had never done anything like that before coming to Monroe. It's on every Wednesday and it is an hour of vocal music called "Vocal Vibes."

This is something I really enjoying hosting and producing. I love going in there and putting on my headset and talking to the community. It's so fun to share my passion for music with the audience; it is something I love and hopefully know a little something about.

I also like working with Strauss Theater and have done a couple of shows there. I enjoy it when I have the time. Community theater is, again, just a great place where we all can come together and show off a whole different side of the arts.

Q: What do you do to stay inspired given your full teaching and volunteer schedule?

A: I think the music itself inspires me to make more music. When I work with my choirs I see the outcome, that is inspirational. I just got back from a choir tour where we performed five concerts in two and half days, and seeing the progress the choir made excited me beyond belief. I knew our home concert was going to be fabulous. When I see them get excited, I get excited. When I hear them getting better that inspires me.

Also, I go to a lot of conventions and hear wonderful choirs. I hear and see what's possible, and you know, I would put my choirs right up there with the best of the best. I know their intentions and abilities are there.

Everything I do kind of feeds everything I do. The passion, interest and quality of some of our area schools inspire me to be sure that at ULM we have something to offer students who are ready to pursue their musical passions.

Q: What would most people find most surprising about you, either personally or professionally?

A: I'm a history nerd, especially the Civil War and American history. My favorite channels are the History Channel and Discovery Channel. In my free time I'll rent videos of PBS specials, and anything biographical.

Professionally, most people who don't know me would think I could play piano really well. Truth is, I just surround myself with wonderful pianists, but I'm not much of one myself. But I was a pretty good trumpet player and singer back in my day.

Q: What are you most grateful for?

A: Family and friends and the support I continually get for what I love to do. You have to be very understanding of the life of a performer, the long hours, not many weekends or nights free, and all of my friends and family are so supportive of that.

Q: Who are your greatest sources of musical inspiration?

A: My students. Nothing thrills me more than teaching them and seeing the light come on ". . .to see them 'get it'." To help them see or realize their potential really does inspire me.

My professional inspiration is the late Robert Shaw of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. His attention to detail, his meticulous ways of teaching, and his ability to get such an incredible, near-perfect performance each time. One can always aspire.

Q: In your free time, what do you most enjoy doing?

A: I do love gardening and working in the yard. I also enjoy traveling. I've been to nearly every Civil War battlefield there is and I am a licensed European tour coordinator. I used to take my choirs out of the country two or three times a year. I wish I had the time to do that again.

Another passion is boating. I had almost qualified for a captain's license before I left Florida. Maybe I'll finish that some day.

Q: How do you try to inspire passion in the performance of the students you work with?

A: For some reason I know I have it, the passion, I mean. I have the passion for presenting the best of the best, and opening doors for my students. Realizing they can do more than they thought they even wanted to do inspires me to continue. I want them to be able to experience quality and how important it is to strive for excellence. The ability to do so just lights my fire. When I see that they have pushed themselves to move beyond their comfort zone, I just love it.

Q: What key piece of advice would you try to pass along to an aspiring musician or performer?

A: There is a quote, which I believe came from Teddy Roosevelt, and he said, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."

That's probably what I want my students to realize. You know, not everybody's going to have the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to conduct. Not everyone can be the next American Idol. But if you do your best with what you have where you are at, well, there's no chance for failure.

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