“I have a responsibility to pass on to the next generation what I learned from my teachers… It keeps me young, and reminds me where I came from. Teaching young artists is like giving water to a flower.”

Isaac Stern

Susan Zemlin

Susan Zemlin

Legacy is not only about honoring the past, or even just the people. Legacy is the gift we pay forward to future generations of artists. A colleague shared the above quote with me, and I was struck by the gardening analogy. Legacy is about compiling the seeds our mentors and experiences have given us and growing them into opportunities for blossoming singers.

There are heirloom seeds — the staples of choral literature past — which are so musically gratifying that we plant them over and over again. I cannot resist Schubert’s Mass in G, Renaissance motets and madrigals, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and many great works of previous centuries. I use them in the same way I plant my favorite tomatoes every year. I also add new seeds and varieties each year, making end of summer salads more interesting and enjoyable. I experiment with new gardening techniques and organic soil preparation methods. In the same manner, I look for newly composed choral music to share with my choirs – and new approaches to teaching. The old music and methods nurture me through nostalgia. The new music and ideas keep me young and relevant.

Important to my gardening is the part that is less glamorous: the cultivating and constant maintenance. Sometimes it is not my favorite part of the job. At other times, however, I cherish the opportunity to roll up my sleeves and make a tangible difference. The same is true of the daily work with my choirs. Cultivating an ensemble requires us to carefully nurture and feed our singers. They need basic skills to develop as independent musicians. They need us to help them weed out bad habits. Some of those habits involve vocal technique. Others are about how they interact with each other and the world. We fill our tool sheds with the things we need to help them develop independence. We thank our mentors for showing us some of those tools. Others, we have to either seek out or invent on our own. All are part of the constant growth that keeps our profession new and exciting in every stage of our work.

Finally, we have learned that sustainability is a key to producing successful crops year after year. So it is with choral music. What we do to plant and cultivate the seeds of musicianship and artistry in our choirs is critical to the quality of life for this and for future generations. I challenge you to remember the heirlooms, try some new varieties, roll up your sleeves, and make your choir community grow. This is the legacy each of us can pay forward.