Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Interview with Rory McLeod

Check out Rory's Kickstarter Campaign for Pocket Concerts here.

I first met Rory when I was born.  I wasn't sure what to think of him at first...

Me and Rory, circa 1986

...but over time we grew to be friends as well as siblings.  I'll make no bones of it – I think Rory is awesome, both as an older brother and as a mentor.  Over the last few years our friendship has strengthened over common ground as we've both pursued freelance music careers.  He often provides me with invaluable advice and perspective on my chosen line of work.  A few months ago, as we walked through Toronto's High Park, Rory talked to me about his career path, and his new chamber music series, Pocket Concerts...

Rory McLeod (photo by Bo Huang)

We grew together up in a musical family, but you didn't immediately pursue a musical career.  How did you eventually come to be a professional musician?

When I was 17 and applying for university, like most 17-year-olds, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.  And I hadn't really taken music all that seriously up to that point, so I honestly didn't think of it as a career option.  I applied for bachelor of arts programmes and some arts and science mixed programmes, because I wanted to keep as many doors open as possible, because I had so many different interests.  And then when I was living in Montreal I was paying for my own violin lessons and I just – as I got more and more serious about practising and worked harder at it, over time I realised it was the most interesting and fulfilling and challenging thing in my life, and that was what made it so attractive to me.  So that's when I decided to study music and try to make a career out of it.

You were originally a violinist.  What made you switch to playing the viola?

Alex, our older brother, was a violist.  So I always knew that it was possible to switch from violin to viola.  And I'd always been a bit curious about it, but I didn't really try it until I was 19 and my violin teacher went away for the summer.  I wanted to take some lessons because I had more time than when I was in class, so I called up a viola teacher and borrowed a viola from the shop I was working in, and I really fell in love with the sound.  Then I started playing some chamber music on viola, and I really enjoyed playing the role of violist – the middle voice.  I had always played second violin, so the role of playing viola came naturally to me.

Rory playing his viola (photo by Vuk Pantovic)

When I was living in Montreal, there was this strange and very upsetting event when my violin was stolen from a car.  I thought it was safe and that nobody would see it covered up by a blanket in the back seat, but it got stolen.  And at first I was really upset, of course.  But then eventually the insurance money came through, and I had been playing enough viola at that point that I started to consider maybe I should replace my violin with a viola.  And I started trying out violins and violas, and I discovered that I liked the sound of every viola I tried better than every violin I tried.  So I figured that was probably a sign.

After finishing your musical studies, you got a job with Symphony Nova Scotia.  You left the job after two seasons and came back to Toronto to freelance.  What motivated your decision to leave the orchestra job?

Well there was a combination of factors that led to that decision.  One is that Toronto is home for me.  My girlfriend lives here, and we were doing long-distance for two years, and I was starting to get tired of only seeing Emily once a month.  Also, Halifax is really far away from a lot of other places, and it starts to feel isolated after a while.  The musical community is full of wonderful people there, and the Symphony is a very good orchestra, and I really enjoyed my job.  But the job alone was not enough to keep me there.  So I decided to try my luck in Toronto and keep stretching myself artistically, and have a bit more of a varied career combining chamber music and teaching and orchestra.

And how are you finding it now, working as a freelancer?

Overall it's great.  For the most part I've been pretty steadily employed since I came back.  I've been really lucky with the combination of coming back at a time when work was available, and knowing the right people who could get me that work.  And I'd done well in a couple of auditions – that helped me to secure some orchestra sub work.  The first year I came back I knew by the beginning of the season I would have enough work to survive on, so that was quite a relief.  I had thought it would be much harder than it was, to be honest.  And then over the course of that first year, I started to realise that just subbing in orchestras was not enough for me.  I wanted something that I could connect with more.  I’d always loved playing chamber music and wanted to play more chamber music, and I wanted to find a way to make that happen.  That was when I came up with Pocket Concerts, a home concert series.  I also started teaching during my second year in Toronto, and so now the combination of teaching and running the chamber series and orchestra sub work provides a really good balance of different kinds of work… and it pays the bills!

Tell us about Pocket Concerts.  How did the idea first come up?

Well it started really by doing a couple of house concerts through people that I knew.  I had done a couple of concerts up in Owen Sound through a personal connection, and I went up there with my brother's quartet – the Ton Beau Quartet – and performed a concert there.  And Alex (our brother) and I got talking about how it would be great to make more house concerts happen.  Because we loved playing them so much and we could tell that the audiences loved it as well.
There's sort of a funny story around the beginnings of Pocket Concerts as well.  I was undergoing a steroid treatment for my inflammatory kidney condition.  I was on Prednisone – a high dose of Prednisone – for six months.  One of the side effects of Prednisone is that you become incredibly energetic.  And so I was an insomniac for five months.  Not only was I waking up in the middle of the night, but I was waking up with this feeling that I gotta do something, I need to make something happen.  So I just started sending out emails and brainstorming like crazy.  And I had a lot of face-to-face meetings with people who I thought would be interested in the idea and could help me develop it.  And I spent a lot of sleepless nights sending emails to artists to see if they would be interested in performing, and trying to make connections with potential hosts.

It's been a year now since you started Pocket Concerts, and it's already turned out to be quite a success.  What do you think the appeal is of this concert format?

I think there's a combination of factors that are appealing to people.  The first is that this is really how chamber music was meant to be heard.  Most of these pieces that we play were written to be played among friends in a small room – hence the name "chamber music".  So we're really bringing chamber music back to its roots.  And there's something really authentic about that.  But there are a few other factors as well.  I think there's a movement nowadays back towards live music and live performance, because people have realised that sitting at home and watching videos on YouTube just doesn't give you the same feeling.  But also the involvement of our hosts – by basically asking them to donate their homes and food and wine and chairs for our concert, we're involving them on a much deeper level than we normally do in the classical music world.  It takes away that artificial separation between performers and audience and the people providing the venues.  What we've discovered is that we're building up a community as we go, and those connections last.  People who've hosted become devoted fans of the series.

The audience applauds a Pocket Concert featuring Rory, Rebecca MacLeod (no relation),
and Rory's girlfriend Emily Rho - photo by Vuk Pantovic

How do you see Pocket Concerts fitting into the musical scene in Toronto and in Canada?

I think it has the potential to really change the way that people relate to classical music.  I think people, when they experience chamber music in that intense environment, they feel a deeper connection not just to the music but to the performers and to each other.  And by strengthening that sense of connection, I think we make it possible for people to find a new passion for classical music.  So I see us as part of the overall landscape of the classical music scene in Toronto.  You know, the symphony is there and the opera is there and the ballet is there and we've got many great early music groups and other chamber music series going on – but we're offering something a little bit more personal, and something that might be more appealing to young people who haven't heard a lot of classical music.

What are your future hopes and ambitions for Pocket Concerts?

We have several ideas in the works at the moment.  We'd really like to expand our private concert series, so we're working on a targeted marketing campaign to try to get the word out to our potential customers.  But we're also talking about outreach programmes, one of which is to offer little mini lessons online, called Pocket Lessons.  Three-minute lessons done by our performers, just giving tips on how to practise, how to work on certain technical aspects of their instruments.  And we would offer that as a resource and also as a way for people to find out that we're around.  We're also talking about starting an office concert series.  We'll probably call it something like Pocket Concerts: Music at Work (our tagline now is Music at Home, so it's sort of adaptable).  We want to offer either early morning or noon hour concerts to people in their offices who just want to fit something in to their day.  So we're really trying to incorporate music into people's daily lives.

What one piece of advice would you give to a young freelancing musician?

Say yes.  Say yes to every opportunity that comes your way, and try everything until you find what really resonates with you.  Don't be afraid to take a risk and do something you've never done before.  Because that's how you learn and grow as a person.  And if you have an idea, do it!  If you think something could be great, don’t just sit there and say "wouldn’t it be nice"... Every musician I know has an extensive personal network that can help them if they actually tap into it.  One of the things I've realised while doing Pocket Concerts is that people really want to help you.  If you're passionate about something, it's really easy to get people on board.

Thanks for chatting, Rory!

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