Rising Stars Debra Silvert & Paul Bowman of Duo Sequenza On The Five Things You Need To Shine In The Music Industry - An Interview with Edward Sylvan
Duo Sequenza is pleased to participate in this interview with Authority Magazine
“All concert artists need to double as teaching artists.” I am reminded of the picture that shows a classical music performance as being analogous to an iceberg; you see the tip of the iceberg sitting above the surface of the water, but below the waterline, you see this colossally massive base. If we don’t take the time to educate our listeners to what that enormous base consists of, they will never develop as deep an appreciation for this art form as they would otherwise. They need to know about the process of composition, practice, and rehearsal. And they want to know.
As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Debra Silvert & Paul Bowman of Duo Sequenza.
Debra Silvert: Critically acclaimed for her “full and sunny, golden tone,” flutist Debra Silvert has performed throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia, delighting audiences with her consummate interpretive ability and warm, engaging stage presence. An enthusiastic champion of American music, she has both commissioned and premiered new literature for the flute.
Paul Bowman: Classical guitarist Paul Bowman is one of today’s most passionate avatars of new music for the guitar. Paul Bowman won 1st Prize at the VIth International Competition for Classical Guitar (“Casa España”) in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and was a Finalist at the Guitar Foundation of America Competition in Milwaukee.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in Depew NY, a suburb of Buffalo and Paul grew up in Chesterton IN, a small town nestled in the Indiana Dunes just a short drive from our duo’s home base. We are just 10 months apart in age, and both of our families were decidedly ‘blue-collar.’ No one in my family was musical at all, whereas Paul’s mom was a devoted classical music listener with a huge recording collection and a subscription to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. His older brother played the electric bass in rock bands.
In the second grade, I had a few weeks of flute lessons in school but stopped because the teacher had bad breath! My family was alcoholic and incredibly dysfunctional. In addition, from age 8 to 12, I was in and out of hospitals with a necrotic, septic hip. My juvenile delinquency started at about age 13 and landed me in foster care. At age 15, I picked up the flute with the encouragement of my foster mom who paid for my lessons. I fell fast and hard for its sound, and almost immediately decided I would become a flutist.
Paul’s involvement in classical music was more gradual, beginning in middle school with his participation in what still is one of Indiana’s best public school music programs. He got serious very quickly the summer he was 16. He had recently heard Andes Segovia live in recital and then had a diving accident in which he broke his neck at the fifth vertebrae. One more millimeter would have rendered him paralyzed. The accident was cathartic for him, and he became passionate to master the classical guitar from that point on.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Paul had completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in performance at the Manhattan School of Music during which time he’d done a good bit of work with various flutists. He thoroughly enjoyed the literature for the flute/guitar duo, so when he relocated back to Chesterton, having burned out on the hustle of freelancing in NYC, he started to ask around for a flutist he could form a duo with. I was recommended to him, so he called me, and we set up a time to meet and play. I was a bit intimidated by Paul initially as he brought along personal letters of recommendation from Lukas Foss and Elliot Carter! (Or maybe it was Charles Wuorinen!) I’d also never played any of the flute and guitar repertoires, so I was sight-reading. We immediately dug into some wonderful pieces he’d brought with him. Honestly, it was just magical, as we had an awesome musical rapport right from the start. There simply wasn’t any question in either of our minds after that first rehearsal that we should establish ourselves as a professional concert duo. We played our first public performance just six weeks later.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
We’ve been around a long time, since 1988, so even though there were 21 years when we didn’t concertize as a duo (1993–2014), there are a lot of interesting stories. One oldie that really stuck with me was when we were out in New Mexico on a tour. We were to do a performance at a lodge in Los Alamos. We drove and drove but could not find the location. This was years before GPS. I remember driving up a mountain and then back down, up again, and back down again. Several times. We finally located the turnoff we’d been missing and arrived just five minutes before the curtain! The presenters were frantic! We quickly changed and played one of our best performances ever. Go figure. It may just prove that preparation is everything.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The way you ask that it seems like we only made mistakes when we were first starting! Truth is, that after all these years, we’re still making them! That’s fine with us if we learn from them. Most recently, we made a huge mistake which wasn’t funny AT ALL, in trying to save money by acting as our own producers in the recording booth. This was for our first commercial release, “Yes…It’s a Thing!” (Navona Records, 2019) It’s a very fine recording and we’re pleased with it but its post-production phase was very rough!
When we’re performing, we are literally “making” music, and that requires a very specific sort of headspace that’s elusive and difficult to describe in words. We are still listening but in a very different, sort of anticipatory, reflective, and responsive way. When acting as a producer, you need to listen analytically, and either make notes or remember specifics about what you are hearing in each individual take. And if you’re the performer as well as the producer, you need to do that analytical listening continuously: simultaneously or immediately after you have played from your music-making headspace. It’s about as impossible to do as it is to explain. The unavoidable result is that both kinds of listening are somewhat compromised, and the cost is that you’ll be spending a lot more time in post-production than is necessary; the monetary savings are really an illusion.
Recording our second album was a completely different experience because we used a wonderful classical music producer throughout the three days of recording. This freed us to remain in that elusive music-making headspace the entire time we were recording without ever needing to analyze anything. It was an absolute joy to record this way, and we’re delighted with the post-production process so far. We expect the album, “Yes…It’s STILL a Thing!” to release on the Navona Records label in early 2022.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
We have several great projects described on our website (www.DuoSequenza.com) but probably the most unusual one is our third commercial recording-to-be, “Yes…It’s a FRAGILE Thing!” In collaboration with PARMA Recordings/Navona Records, we issued a Call for Scores asking composers to submit their inspired ideas for new music they’d like to write for the Silvert 1816 Laurent Crystal Flute and classical guitar. We had 31 composers from all over the globe submit more than 40 fascinating ideas! We have completed the first elimination round to select the composers we will use. The completed works will be recorded by us with me playing this rare, historic flute. We still need to raise a minimum of $26,000. to bring the project to fruition. The flute is a true rarity, with just about 150 in existence globally, most of which are in museums. They are virtually never heard in performance; to my knowledge, there are only five flutists worldwide that have performed on them in recent years.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in classical music? How can that potentially affect our culture?
Before addressing the topic of diversity, we should look at a few other things we in classical music have perhaps allowed to go sideways. It is our absolute belief that classical music in all its forms has something magical to offer everyone!
Especially in the U.S., Western classical music in the European tradition has long suffered from a perception of being elitist with little to no “popular” appeal. We must admit that much of the classical music canon consists of music written by “dead, white guys!” It is important to realize this because if any potential new listener has already decided that they don’t care for, or cannot relate to the 3Bs (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms), they tend to opt out of listening to anything else labeled as “classical,” even though “classical music” is a vast and exciting musical genre encompassing so much more!
Another problem the classical music world faces is the perception that “new music,” “modern classical music,” and “contemporary classical music” is “avant-garde” music. Again, if the potential listener has already decided that they don’t care for “avant-garde,” they tend to opt out of listening. I remember a casual acquaintance asking me what we’d be playing on an upcoming program, and I responded that it was a program of music by living American composers. I was shocked when they reacted, “Well, I’m NOT coming to THAT!” They had no idea that only a small percentage of works being written by today’s living composers would be classified as “avant-garde.”
Classical music, no matter its sub-genre, is qualitatively different from popular music in that it demands active, engaged, and focused listening. The extent to which any listener can do this with concert artists that are themselves well-anchored in their music-making process will determine the impact of the experience on all parties. The gestalt of a satisfying classical music listening experience defies description in words. In contrast, popular music is the ideal medium for episodic listening. You really don’t need to pay much attention to popular music to thoroughly enjoy it.
Today’s classical music scene is blessed with an abundance of composers of diversity, and we are seeing more and more diversity in our concert artists. It seems to me that classical music listeners are somewhat less diverse, but I think that’s changing. Surely, as more and more composers and artists of diverse backgrounds become prominent in the field, potential listeners of diverse backgrounds may become more interested in the genre. Also important to mention is the fact that classical music has always ‘borrowed’ musical material and inspiration from popular, ethnic, and indigenous musical traditions. It follows logically that the more diversity we have represented in our composers especially, the richer and more sumptuous will be the classical music that results.
Duo Sequenza has been interested in the development of new audiences for classical music since its inception. This may be the natural outgrowth of Paul and I being so intrigued by how we, two people from such typically ‘blue-collar’ roots, ever found their life’s passions in the classical music world. To us, that proves that classical music can be transformative for anyone who is willing to take the time to listen with an open heart.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. “This will be the hardest job you’ll ever love and NO ONE (except for your classical music colleagues) will EVER understand why you’re doing it.” Every classical musician and composer has close friends and family who, try though they might, cannot understand why we persist at what is always an uphill battle. Classical music venues, presenters, and series are fewer than they were years ago, probably due to aging and shrinking audiences, making the competition to book tours fierce. With well-entrenched public misperceptions about classical music, it’s challenging to recruit new listeners even when we self-produce. Classical music is expensive to produce either live or in recorded form, and the revenue generated by the box office, album sales, artist fees, and royalties simply does not cover expenses. Lastly, our culture favors activities that provide immediate gratification, but classical music demands not only a commitment of time but of undivided attention during that time. And there’s a lot competing for our attention out in the world!
2. “There will never be enough practice time. Or rehearsal time. And there’s no such thing as perfect.” The process of truly heartfelt music-making, especially as concerns classical music, involves the complete subjugation of everything written on the page as well as the technical challenges of the musical instruments. The problem is that to be able to do that, a great deal of practice is necessary, and that takes a great deal of time. It’s essential that the needs of the music be met regardless of any challenges it presents. Eventually, much like a visual artist, a concert artist decides to simply stop their “process,” which is practicing/rehearsing the piece. Interestingly, we come back to our process repeatedly every time we prepare that very same piece for a new performance. It is not that we are trying to achieve perfection in our practice or rehearsal; we recognize perfection as unattainable. But, while we chase it all the same, we experience the music evolving and changing along with ourselves: the continual revision of ourselves is an essential part of the human condition and this means the music will change if it’s coming from our hearts. I always laugh when someone in my family interrupts my practice with, “Are you almost done practicing?” The honest answer is, “No, I will never even come close to being almost done!”
3. All concert artists need to double as teaching artists.” I am reminded of the picture that shows a classical music performance as being analogous to an iceberg; you see the tip of the iceberg sitting above the surface of the water, but below the waterline, you see this colossally massive base. If we don’t take the time to educate our listeners to what that enormous base consists of, they will never develop as deep an appreciation for this art form as they would otherwise. They need to know about the process of composition, practice, and rehearsal. And they want to know.
4. “Establish a non-profit entity immediately to support your musical mission, once you’ve defined it.” Let’s face it; classical music listeners still comprise a small percentage of the populace, and that small audience is not able to adequately support all of its composers, musicians, presenters, and venues with a revenue stream that does not include a large donor base. You will need to raise money, and lots of it, if you hope to be successful in delivering your music to the listener. Becoming a non-profit corporation makes effective fundraising possible.
5. “Like it or not, you must function as an entrepreneur, and you will need to have all the skills that go with it.” For me, this is the thing I wrestle with the most, especially the fundraising aspects. I have developed my entrepreneurial skills through the school of hard knocks, and it hasn’t been easy, nor do I feel I have all the tools in my wheelhouse I should have. In today’s world, if your calling is to make this music to share with your fellow humans, you’d do best to make peace with this early on.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Always remember how blessed you really are just to be able to share this music with your listeners. As Paul once said, “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it!” The alternative is to simply not perform but, if performing classical music is your life’s calling, you will soon find that not doing so is just not an option.
Waking up knowing I’ll be able to practice that day is literally what inspires me to get out of bed in the morning! If that describes you, know that no matter how difficult a day you may be having with the myriad administrative duties that go into running a professional chamber music ensemble, if you prioritize your practice time and your music-making process, you will be living inspired. If that’s NOT you, I think it will be difficult for you to make classical music your day job for very long. I believe most of us in classical chamber music would agree.
Additionally, I think it helps a lot to see your daily work, whether it be practicing, rehearsing, recording, fundraising or administrative tasks as being ongoing, ever-evolving processes. Thinking in terms of ‘finishing’ things is not especially useful except for specific projects and grant writing. There’s simply too much work to do!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Paul and I remain convinced of the profound positive influence classical music can have on individuals as well as on the world as a whole. None of us are getting off this planet alive. We owe it to ourselves to enjoy all the wonders of what we have together while we are here. We hope that people will have some sort of a spiritual experience through our music — transcendent, inspiring, meditative. People talk when leaving classical music venues. The buffs are more technical with what they say, but many others are like “Wow!” Classical music speaks powerfully to people, yet people can’t easily talk about it. We want people to come to hear our music and not just to hear us as personalities. The focus should be on the music; it’s true that our music is an essential part of us, but it’s really not about us. Don’t get focused on us, be focused on our music. It’s bigger than us!
We aren’t nearly as important as our listeners; listeners represent the culmination of our music. It’s the same idea as, “If a tree falls in a forest, but no one is there to hear it, did it make a sound?” We ask, “If we make beautiful music, but there’s no audience to hear it, was any music really made at all?” Our music is meant to be heard by listeners, not just played by us. We love to hear our audiences’ reactions to our music, but they often don’t express themselves because it’s so personal.
Creativity is always changing and growing; it never ends. As long as creatives have creativity, there is going to be more impact we can have on the world. We change the world by opening up vistas that people may never have known even existed. The human mind is incredibly vast and classical music can light it up as nothing else can.
We would love to inspire huge numbers of new listeners to embark on a new path… of classical music listening! Our duo offers a great place to start; what’s not to love about the flute or classical guitar? Our music is not overwhelming to new listeners as a full-sized symphony orchestra might be. Our literature is often thematic, and individual pieces are generally not as lengthy as orchestral works can be.
Our music will provide you with the opportunity to listen actively and deeply in an engaged, focused way. With so much polarization and reactivity happening in our world today, people are often formulating how they should respond before they ever even listen. Careful listening is an essential skill for today’s society. We need to slow ourselves down, stop to smell the roses, listen, and have a spiritual experience — we need to sit down and be quiet. Classical music allows people to do this in such a pleasurable way — to revel in the healing vibrations of the music. Engaging deeply with the sounds themselves creates a profound whole-body experience. Music creates emotion while it helps people process their own emotions in a healthy way. Music offers a safe space and refuge for emotions that can otherwise feel frightening. Human beings are the only life form that engages in artistic creativity of this sort, using it as a means to connect with others.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It goes without saying that Paul and I are most grateful for our musical collaboration with one another. Beyond that, we recognize how blessed we’ve been by the many contemporary composers who have been inspired to write such wonderful new music for us to share with our listeners. Without those ethereal ideas that started deep inside their heads and which they were ultimately able to commit to paper, we wouldn’t have the basis on which to create the transcendent listening experiences we want to share with our audiences.
We’ve received generous support from South Shore Arts, the Indiana Arts Commission, Arts Midwest, the National Endowment for the Arts as well as private foundations for our various projects.
Our individual donors have been the lifeblood of our organization as their support has made it possible for our music to reach listeners throughout the U.S. and in a dozen foreign countries. Paul and I also recognize the profound influence of our talented teachers. We are forever in their debt.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Leonard Bernstein said, “Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable.” There are many terrific quotes about music, but this one distills for me not only why we do what we do as an ensemble, but why what we do is so very important. As human beings, we have an innate sense of awe and wonder at the world around us. Our experience on the planet is fleeting and perhaps not as appreciated as it could be. Maybe we don’t grapple with the mystery of life as often as we should. I think Bernstein’s words here are so succinct in expressing our endless fascination with all things “music;” that most elusive, ethereal arts genre of all.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Right now, for me, that would have to be Kent Nagano. He’s the very gifted conductor who wrote the book, “Classical Music: Expect the Unexpected.” He wrote the book I wish I could’ve written. It’s such an important read and addresses many of the topics we’ve talked about here. It’s a truly brilliant read and I can’t recommend it enough. I would also love to meet Daniel J. Levitan, the author of “This is Your Brain on Music” and “The World in Six Songs,” both of which are in-depth treatments on the phenomena of music and its connection to our brains. I find it so difficult to talk about music, but these two gentlemen have made music with their words!
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!