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News and Views from the University of Redlands

A King’s Singer finds his place at the U of R School of Music

Internationally known baritone Christopher Gabbitas (center) of The King’s Singers joins award-winning U of R choral directors Nicholle Andrews (right) and Joseph Modica (left) as founding faculty of the new Master of Music in Vocal Chamber Music program. (Photo by Coco McKown '04, '10)

Music students seeking a professional career as choral musicians can soon apply for the one-of-a-kind Master of Music in Vocal Chamber Music at the University of Redlands School of Music. The program will tap internationally known baritone Christopher Gabbitas of The King’s Singers, who will join award-winning U of R choral directors Nicholle Andrews and Joseph Modica as founding faculty. Members of the Bulldog Blog sat down with Gabbitas to talk about his career and why he is excited about the new U of R program. 

Bulldog Blog: Why are you coming to the University of Redlands?

Christopher Gabbitas: The first part of that question is really "Why am I leaving The King’s Singers after 15 years?” I have been touring 200-plus days a year since 2004, performed nearly 2,000 concerts, and recorded over 30 albums. I've achieved everything I wanted as a touring musician. It has been great and I've had amazing opportunities, but, as I approach 40, I want to do the next big thing in the second half of my career. I want to come off the road and have a lifestyle and a job that allows me to be more present for my children and my wife. 

The King’s Singers work in a collaborative way. There are six members and we don't have a leader or a musical director. We're equal partners, both on and off stage. So the performance is formulated by committee and business decisions are made by committee as well. That's hugely advantageous in many ways. For a couple of years now, though, I’ve felt that I am at the point where I have enough knowledge and experience to take that and pass it on. 

Now I want to take my knowledge, experience, and excitement, come off the road, and have students to teach. I’d like to be able to say, “This is my vision. This is how you should sound. This is how you could do this best.” I want to see a group of students grow and create music and performances through what I've learned over the past 15 years. In addition, I’d like to be part of a professional ensemble, which will be symbiotic with teaching. 

BB: So the teaching is a huge draw? 

CG: Yes, the teaching is a huge draw. The second part of your question is really “Why Redlands?” It’s about the people. Over the course of my career, I've taught at many places around the world. The King’s Singers give 30 to 40 master classes a year; a quarter to a third of our performances are attached to master classes. In February 2016, we came to the University of Redlands and did a master class. It was one of those moments where something clicked, and I thought: “Oh, this is really good; this is really quite special.” It was the relationship between the students and directors. Nicholle Andrews is a conductor who doesn't like to conduct; what I mean is she doesn't see herself as being the focal point of the performance, as so many conductors do. The students want to sing for her. When we saw the treble chorus, they had the same feeling toward Joe Modica in performance. That relationship really spoke to me. It is so uncommon to have a flow of energy between the director and students that felt so universally positive. Admittedly, I had not heard of the university before, but I was blown away. It was such a diamond in the rough. When we worked together, the students wanted to learn. There was a really positive feel to the whole process. All of us in The King’s Singers felt it and found it inspirational.  

BB: How did you move from hearing and working with U of R’s ensembles to becoming a U of R faculty member?

CG: Shortly after that experience, it became clear to me that it was time for me to move on from The King’s Singers. I thought, “What am I going to do?” I sat and wrote notes. I spoke to my wife, Stephanie, and we talked about the possibility of coming back to the States. She's from Kentucky, but she lived in Saratoga, California, for a few years, working as an actress for California Children’s Theater. I said I would try to try to find something that would give us options as a family. I thought about it for six months, and then it became really clear. In my life, I've never carpet bombed applications. I've just narrowed things down to where I want to be. I'm an attorney as well, and, when I qualified with my law degree, I applied to one law firm. I don’t mean to sound arrogant; if I think, “That's where I want to go next,” and it doesn’t work out, I move on to the next option. With the encouragement of a friend of mine, I picked up the phone and called Nicholle. From the word “go,” she said, “I think we can make this happen.” It was like a snowball. Within two weeks, we had emails and she’d spoken to [School of Music Dean] Andrew [Glendening], [College of Arts and Sciences Dean] Kendrick [Brown], and [President] Ralph [Kuncl]. It was amazing. It was like it was meant to be.  

BB: What makes you excited about working on this program? 

CG: The thing is it’s a team. When we have auditions, prospective students won’t be auditioning for me, they will be auditioning for us. I rely on Nicholle and Joe for huge parts of the program—the body mapping, the ear training, the papers, units, credits. I couldn’t do that without them. I connected with Nicholle and Joe right away. It’s the three of us. That’s what is exciting.  We are going to be saying some of the same things, in three different ways. We will complement each other.

BB: How would you describe your three areas of strength? 

CG: Students are usually taught by Joe before they’re taught by Nicholle. According to Nicholle, Joe fosters students’ confidence and is really patient; for discipline, they go to Nicholle, who aims to train a professional-level ensemble. For me, I expect a certain degree of self-sufficiency; they come for polish. My skill set is the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake in lots of ways. Our starting points are different. The value is equal.

BB: Talk about the graduate program. What is your vision there?

CG: We want to send out chamber singers who not only have the highest musical caliber, but who also have the skills to create organizations that service their communities. There's a huge disparity between Britain and America in this regard. We have 17 million people in Great Britain, with something like 2 or 3 million who sing regularly. We have dozens of professional ensembles throughout the whole country. Here, you have more than 300 million people and something like 60 or 70 million people who sing, usually in churches or community choirs, but there aren’t even 20 professional ensembles. You could sustain more, if you had good people coming out of graduate programs who were entrepreneurial. 

The vision for the course was to bring in the business and legal sides with the music. That’s what’s unique, along with the body mapping taught by Nicholle. Other degrees will teach you lots of repertoire, but they aren’t teaching how to put it together, in what order, and how to write program notes about it. We can teach students how to do posters, programs, bios, headshots, budgets, 501c3 set up, fundraising. This is real life. If you are a musician, monetize it. We want to turn out fully rounded 360-degree musicians who can monetize and commercialize technologies and create something, some art, to enrich their communities and to enrich their cultural landscape. 

The course is low-residency. We are trying to attract people who are already professional singers, but who may want to branch out and create their own ensembles. We've got two six-week on-campus summer programs, which are intensive and involve rehearsing and performing. We'll teach students how to program and produce a recording. Students can take turns being in the box, and they can learn what that process is and learn how to listen—no other degree does that, as part of a larger program. It's going to be awesome.  

BB: What will the admissions process look like? 

CG: Applications are due in fall of 2018. There will be a pre-screening of candidates by myself, Nicholle, and Joe and then we’ll decide who will be invited to campus to audition, which will happen in February 2019. All candidates will be invited for the same day. They will have prepped material, and we will watch them audition as soloists and as chamber musicians. There has to be the right chemistry—between us and them and among the students themselves. And, of course, they have to be stellar musicians. 

To learn more, visit the U of R Vocal Chamber Music Program web pages.