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Career Q&A with Cynthia Johnston Turner, Mus'85, Ed'86

Career Q&A with Cynthia Johnston Turner, Mus'85, Ed'86

As a companion piece to "Exploring Musical Boundaries," we asked recent grad Alana Sergeant, Mus'13, Ed'14, to conduct a career Q&A with Cynthia Johnston Turner, Mus'85, Ed'86. 

Alana, a voice major, has also served as conductor for the Queen's University Chorus and the Sydenham Public School primary and junior choirs. On campus, she served as vocal director for a number of Queen's Musical Theatre productions. Alana is in demand as a liturgical vocalist, pianist, and guitarist in a number of churches throughout the Ottawa valley. In addition to her local musical endeavours, in 2013, Alana travelled to Ghana to study West African music and dance. Alana looks forward to further work and studies in music education and choral conducting.

Alana: You are clearly very passionate about music education. If you were to explain the fundamental aim of your education philosophy, what would it be?

Cynthia: Educational philosophy? It has changed over the years. I'm including a link to an article recently published in Music Educator's Journal, which will give you an idea of where I'm coming from (and going) as an educator. (Or, you can go to the library and find it...Vol. 100, No. 2 (Dec. 2013) "Another Perspective: Crowd-Sourcing our Ensemble Rehearsals.")

Alana:  In your opinion, what are the most significant rewards and challenges of touring with students or an ensemble?

Cynthia: Touring: Nothing like it. A lot of the best education happens outside the classroom/rehearsal room. I don't think we teach subjects, we teach people. And they teach us. Touring allows the student to push their boundaries. That's what it's all about.

Alana: Have you been faced with any challenges in your role as a female conductor? If so, how have you overcome them?

Cynthia: You mean sexism? Of course. All over the place and in every country in which I've conducted. It's alive and well today, just more subversive. We have to be twice as good at what we do. So be it. Eventually it might get better and there are small signs that it is improving. Like any 'ism-' it takes time and patience and education. There are still men (and women) who think women shouldn't be on the podium and there are others who don't see gender in music. But don't kid yourself, gender biases are there. I try to just do my best and focus on the music. In the end, it's not about anything other than that.

Alana: What strategies have you used to successfully “market” yourself, in order to become a sought-after guest conductor and clinician?

Cynthia: Hmmm...well, you can have a great webpage and tweet all you like, but the best marketing is, has been, and I think will always be, word-of-mouth. You have to develop a network of "sneezers." People who spread your good work and who also have important connections. Don't be afraid to introduce yourself to important and connected people.

Alana: Conducting jobs aren’t necessarily listed in the classifieds! How do you suggest aspiring conductors go about finding outlets through which to put their musical leadership to good use?

Cynthia: Sometimes you have to make things happen on your own. Don't expect things to happen TO you or FOR you. If nothing is presenting itself, start your own ensemble. Invite yourself to guest conduct other ensembles. Then invite the newspaper (even if it's the student newspaper) to your rehearsals/concerts and invite them to write a review).

Alana: There are many opportunities that exist for professional development so it is often difficult to know where to begin. What essential skills would you recommend that young conductors develop and practice?

Cynthia: You MUST hone your technique and musicianship. But the technique must always serve the music, not the other way around. I practice every day. And I dance everyday too. Then, work on you. Know who you are. Take body awareness classes (like Laban or Alexander) and get therapy if you are brave enough. We are all dealing with s**t. Be strong enough to know what that s**t is, deal with it, and embrace the total package.

Alana:  To conclude, what overarching advice do you have to offer to young people like myself who are pursuing careers in music education and conducting?

Cynthia: Overarching advice? If you love what you do, the money will follow. Make opportunities happen. Don't settle. Be a trail blazer.