An Interview with A NYC Ballet Star

BY LINDA EGENES

Megan Fairchild

“What makes a great performance is when you are free to dance to the music in a way that feels fresh and spontaneous and isn’t contrived. You are in the moment and reacting to the music as the orchestra plays it.” –Megan Fairchild

It’s not often that a fifteen-year-old girl from Salt Lake City finds herself auditioning for the School of American Ballet. And even less likely that the aspiring ballerina gets accepted, graduates, joins the New York City Ballet corps de ballet at age eighteen, becomes a soloist by the time she’s nineteen, and a principal by age twenty. Rarer still for this talented dancer to take the leap from ballet to Broadway star, dazzling crowds and critics alike.

It doesn’t sound real, yet this is the life of Megan Fairchild, age thirty, who is starring in the current revival of the Broadway musical On the Town to great acclaim.

Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post writes, “The bell-bottomed boys traditionally dominate this show, but the brightest star in this new revival isn’t one of them: It’s Megan Fairchild, a New York City Ballet principal now making her Broadway debut. That she’s graceful and strikes breathtakingly beautiful lines was a given.…But it turns out the elfin ballerina’s also a nimble, effortlessly funny comedienne. The show explodes with unfettered joy every time she’s onstage.”

My level of pushing my body was up so high that, basically, a fuse would blow. With TM I turn my stress dial back a little bit every day instead of letting it constantly turn up and build on itself.

My level of pushing my body was up so high that, basically, a fuse would blow. With TM I turn my stress dial back a little bit every day instead of letting it constantly turn up and build on itself.

When I mention the rave reviews to Megan, she says modestly, “Yes, it’s been crazy.”

Megan has agreed to an interview one morning after performing the evening before. Here she talks about technique, artistry, and her life as a ballet dancer and Broadway star.

Linda Egenes: What made you take a year off from your successful career with the New York City Ballet (NYCB)?

Megan Fairchild: I think it’s no coincidence that my little opportunity happened after I learned Transcendental Meditation almost a year ago. Just five months after starting TM, I got a text from the casting director of On the Town, wondering if I’d be interested in auditioning.

And I’m like, “I am not a Broadway performer. This is crazy.” I laughed about it for a day, and then something happened. The next morning I woke up and I thought, “Why not?”

That was a really important moment for me. Normally I would have been too shy, or would have thought no, that is not me and stayed in my little bubble. Instead, I was thinking that I am at a point in my career where I am ready to try new and different things, and this could be an exercise in jumping out of my comfort zone. I honestly believe that TM had something to do with that decision.

Linda Egenes: How is performing on Broadway different from ballet?

Megan Fairchild: It’s more fun than I expected. Not that there isn’t pressure on Broadway, but there is a little bit more of an “it’s just entertainment” kind of attitude, as opposed to ballet where everything has an ideal or perfect line that you are trying to create. There’s a lot more freedom when dancing on Broadway.

Linda Egenes: Would you say it’s less stressful? I mean, there’s a popular perception that ballet is a stressful profession.

Megan Fairchild: I love my job at the NYCB because I love the people I go to work with. I love the jokes that we share and the sense of community. It’s a loyal company, as they only hire graduates of the School of American Ballet, so there are people that I have known since I was fifteen. It’s like family.

I think TM helps you be a little more fearless. Before, I would hold on to trying to be really perfect and also was kind of obsessed with certain technical steps. Now, it’s more of a bigger picture. I am enjoying my own performance more and taking every step and every movement to its fullest.

I think TM helps you be a little more fearless. Before, I would hold on to trying to be really perfect and also was kind of obsessed with certain technical steps. Now, it’s more of a bigger picture. I am enjoying my own performance more and taking every step and every movement to its fullest.

But now that I’m stepping away from ballet for a year, I see how much pressure we are all under. We are never done working on being perfect. It’s never, “Oh, that’s great.” It’s always, “Oh, you need to get your leg higher; I need you to turn around one more time in that pirouette; or, wouldn’t it be better if your feet were pointed more?” It’s endless.

Also, the ballet has a deeper meaning, and there is a lot of stress for the ballet dancer to uphold this legacy that is weighing on you every time you step on stage.

Linda Egenes: I understand that it was stress that brought you to TM in the first place.

Megan Fairchild: I would have panic attacks where I would pass out and be rushed to the emergency room. They were so intense that, literally, when I was regaining consciousness, I heard someone screaming, and it was me.

This happened every two years since I was eighteen. Life would get stressful, and one little thing like going to get a shot at the doctor’s office would trigger my whole system to shut down. Then it started happening more often, just six months apart. I had to miss some performances. So I thought, “OK, this isn’t cool. This is affecting my job. I need to figure out how to manage my life in a way that is going to be a little more relaxing.”

One of my ballet masters at NYCB, who did TM, suggested that I try it. She was the consummate professional and always in the moment and ready to get her job done. I felt like, well, if she does it, and she swears by it, then I’m going to try it.

Linda Egenes: So these episodes have subsided?

Megan Fairchild: Yes. The last one was before I started TM. There have been moments that, in the past, would have caused me to get light-headed and possibly go into an episode, but now I watch the moment pass by without any big event. My level of pushing my body was up so high that, basically, a fuse would blow. With TM I turn my stress dial back a little bit every day instead of letting it constantly turn up and build on itself.

Linda Egenes: How do you reconcile your own creative interpretation with the way the dances have been done in the past?

Megan Fairchild: Even if you get to a point artistically where you are feeling free with your technique, you are also trying to uphold the tradition while you put your stamp on it. I am lucky to work with wonderful ballet masters who are supportive in making me feel like I am the artist here and now, and it’s OK if what I do is a little different from the way ten other really special ballerinas have done it in the past to great fame. My ballet masters tell me the steps, and I feel how my body wants to do it and what feels true to me.

Linda Egenes: Does transcending in your daily TM practice help with balancing artistry with technique?

Megan Fairchild: I think it helps you be a little more fearless. Before, I would hold on to trying to be really perfect and also was kind of obsessed with certain technical steps. Now, it’s more of a bigger picture, being completely in the moment of each step as it’s happening instead of worrying about that technical step coming up. I am enjoying my own performance more and taking every step and every movement to its fullest.

Megan Fairchild

I used to feel that things would stick to me like Velcro, and now, things just roll off. I still recognize moments happening that would normally frustrate me, but they just don’t irritate me as much as they used to. I am more able to deal with the stresses that come with my job.

I think what makes a great performance is when you are free to dance to the music in a way that feels fresh and spontaneous and isn’t contrived. You are in the moment and reacting to the music as the orchestra plays it.

In general, I have more patience with myself.

Linda Egenes: In what ways?

Megan Fairchild: Say I do a bad turn or I don’t feel my best that day, or maybe I don’t feel like always being in a leotard or something. TM helps me to let the little stresses that come with being a ballet dancer just roll off a little easier. I am a lot more resilient. I am not getting obsessed over the difficulties of working with this partner or that. It’s just a little easier.

I used to feel that things would stick to me like Velcro, and now, things just roll off. I still recognize moments happening that would normally frustrate me, but they just don’t irritate me as much as they used to. I am more able to deal with the stresses that come with my job.

Linda Egenes: I understand that your brother is also a ballet dancer and is also taking a year off to star in the forthcoming Broadway musical, American in Paris?

Megan Fairchild: Yes, my brother, Robert Fairchild, is three years younger than me, and he is in the NYCB and so is his wife. And I am married to a principal at the company, Andrew Veyette. So we have a little family.

Linda Egenes: So your brother, Robert Fairchild, is following in your footsteps?

Megan Fairchild: Actually, in terms of Broadway, I am kind of following in his footsteps. He was always more into tap and jazz than I was. I got him to do ballet to work on his technique. He ended up in the NYCB and loves it. But he also loves the musicals, and he’s a great singer, actually. Who knew? [Writer’s note: After this interview, Robert Fairchild was nominated for a Tony for his leading role in American in Paris.]

Linda Egenes: I’m curious about the influences that made you and your brother both become professional ballet dancers?

Megan Fairchild: My mom always liked musicals, and because I was dancing around the house, she took me to tap class when I was growing up. There was never any pressure to become a dancer. I’d be thinking, “Oh, wow! I like this!” Then “I like ballet,” so I would be in the Nutcracker; and then “Oh, this is going well. I am going to do ballet full time.” So it was always, “Oh, I enjoy this. Let’s go to the next level.” It was never a grand plan.

 

(I originally wrote this interview for Enlightenment Magazine, Issue number 22. Reprinted with permission.)

BY LINDA EGENES

nineanniversariesFor a writer, finding your personal voice is one of the most important parts of mastering the craft. It turns out that this is also important for visual artists such as Mindy Weisel.

An oil painter who in recent years has turned to glass as a medium, Mindy Weisel has shown her work in solo shows in prestigious galleries and is the recipient of numerous awards. Her art appears in the Hirshhorn Museum, the National Museum of American Art, the Israel Museum, the U.S. Embassy, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Archives of American Artists at the Smithsonian Institution.

Yet despite her success, Mindy says she struggled emotionally with each piece to discover what she wanted to say. She feels this struggle has its roots in her unusual childhood.

Born in 1947 in Bergen-Belsen, Germany, in a displaced persons camp, she was one of the first children born to holocaust survivors after the war.

“Growing up as the only daughter of holocaust survivors, I don’t think I had a clue what it meant to live my own life,” she says.

Digging Into Personal Experiences

Mindy WeiselMindy did know she liked her art and literature classes in high school in New York City, where the family moved, and decided to major in art in college. But finding her place as an artist was daunting.

“It was during the time when my kind of art, which is a very emotional, expressive, abstract expressionist painting, was not taught,” she says. “I really struggled with my professors, but despite a lot of crying and frustration, I stuck with it.”

Mindy continued her graduate studies at American University, and with the help of mentors she found there, she established her own studio by age 27 and launched her first solo painting show.

But it wasn’t until she dug deep into her own personal experiences that she found her own voice and gained recognition in the art world.

“Basically after I learned drawing and painting through all the rigorous study—I understood that you could learn all the technique in the world, but if you don’t feel it, no one else will feel it either.”

In 1978 Weisel started a series using her father’s number at Auschwitz, which was tatooed on his arm. Weisel says, “the paintings started out colorful, but I wrote his number all over them and they became blackened out, dealing not only with the destruction of beauty, but to my surprise there was light coming through the paintings—so it became the survival of beauty.”

Created long before there was a holocaust museum, before Schindler’s List, Mindy’s paintings of 1978 were well received by art critics and laypersons alike and were shown in a traveling exhibition in museums around the country.

For someone whose art is so personal and expressive, it’s hard to imagine that Weisel has ever struggled to find her artistic voice. Yet she identifies this to be her main challenge as an artist.

Working in the Moment

Mindy has noticed that practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique has made it easier for her to be in the moment. “It seems to me that the last eight years, since I started meditating, that’s what’s changed. If the art is not coming, I don’t even struggle with it. I simply put myself in a place where it’s possible to make art.”

She’s also more at peace. “I was very much a holocaust survivor’s daughter, running to stay ahead of everything, to fill up the loss,” she says. “And that running had made me very, very sick. Since meditating, I can just be. I take better care of myself, I take the time to meditate, and I love the experience.”

Another dramatic shift for Mindy Weisel is that she is now using glass as a medium. Her colorful, light-filled glass wall paintings are a feast to the eyes.

“This is amazing to me, because I never knew anything about glass,” she says. “I walked into this glass studio, I recognized something, I was ready to learn, and I didn’t doubt it. I can attribute this switch in materials to practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique, because it kept me open enough to try it and enough in the present to make it.”

Mindy took classes at Pilcher Glass School in Seattle to learn her new medium, and just a year and a half later, her vibrant, colorful works appeared in a solo exhibition, “Words in a Journey of Glass,” at Katzen Art Museum, American University.

Describing her experience in meditation as a deep, profound, meaningful rest that is beautiful, easy, and simple, she says, “You are in a state of being, of being in the moment, and somehow that lasts—it accumulates.”

Mindy says that this experience of awareness carries over into the process of making her art. “I’m being more present in the creative process as well,” she says. “Work doesn’t have to be so hard. Work can come from a place of flowing, of openness, of responsiveness, of hearing, of listening. You don’t have to fight so hard to get to that work.”

Somehow Mindy finds time to express herself in writing as well. The author of five books, she recently completed her memoir, Making Marks, in which she writes about making marks of longing, of loss, of survival, of beauty.

“I think that’s what my work is about. It’s very emotional, and I’m always thrilled that somebody feels something when they look at it. You can change your mind about things but you can’t change your feelings about things. You really have to understand them. They won’t go away until you understand them.”

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

(I originally wrote this post for Transcendental Meditation for Women Blog, August 19, 2014. Reprinted with permission.)

BY LINDA EGENES

In comic strips a light bulb turning on inside a character’s head indicates a brilliant idea. For Dutch artist Jeroen Stok, a light bulb was the idea that set him on his career path as a sculptor and installation artist. Trained as a painter at the Royal Academy of the Arts at the Hague, he spent a year studying art and consciousness at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa (then MIU).

“My dorm room had only one overhead light and I needed a desk lamp,” he remembers with a laugh. “I took a yogurt cup, stuck a light bulb in it, and created wooden base.” From there he started making lighting fixtures from tubes and other found materials that attached to the walls. “In the end I exhibited them in a student show of about 30 lighted wall pieces,” he remembers. “The painting I had studied became three-dimensional.”

Back in the Netherlands, he took a step further into the realm of sculpture. “The pieces that I’d designed for the wall suddenly were standing by themselves,” he says.

Fast forward 20 years, and Jeroen Stok, now 54, is a sculptor in demand, having created dozens of commissioned stainless steel sculptures for cities, villages, and universities, from Amsterdam to the California wine country. Using the medium of stainless steel, his designs evoke the beauty of nature, ranging from flowers to animals to the abstract, from one foot high to 20 feet reaching to the sky.

Sculpting Steel into Art

In his early, uncertain days as an artist, Stok’s sculptures were made of bamboo and paper. Stok recalls a friend advising him, “Why are you working with such unstable materials? You should work with something like steel.” The idea resonated with Stok—his father owned a steel factory. Soon he had learned how to weld and bend the steel to match the images in his mind.

A quiet man with a willowy build, Jeroen says that while working with steel, he has imbibed some of its power and strength.

“In the art world I meet a lot of different people, and I can’t help but notice that artists tend to reflect the quality of the materials they work with,” he says. “People who work with wood are a little softer than people who work with steel. Working with copper can make you feel warm and solid.”

Stok finds that his concepts usually take place around a story, and end up with many levels of meaning. “When I designed a sculpture for Vrije University in Amsterdam, it had a kind of feather shape. It wasn’t until I finished it that I realized that it was an abstract depiction of the wing of the gryphon—the logo for the university. Other people see it as a staircase, the academic ladder in which one scholar stands on the shoulders of the scholar before him or her.”

For Stok, who has been practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique since 1979, conceiving the design is the easy part. “When you start to design something it’s a process of silence, you’re in silence,” he says. “There’s an effortless flow. That’s one side of the coin. The other side—you go into the realm of realizing the art, making it physical, and that is hard labor. You have to bend the steel to your will.”

Going with the Flow

While stainless steel is a rigid medium, in his own life Stok is known for “going with the flow.” He credits his flexibility to practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique.

As an installation artist working with government and civic committees, Stok has to create a design that will satisfy the disparate desires of the committee members, become a symbol of the organization or city, and appeal to the public for generations to come.

This requires a certain understanding of psychology, he says. “You have to first identify who the gatekeeper is, the one who is making the decisions, and then figure out what he wants, what is of interest to him.”

For instance, in creating the three-story steel tulip design for the Netherlands township of Avenhorn, Stok realized that it was the mayor who was driving the project in the last months of his term. Jeroen had the insight that the mayor wanted above all to leave a lasting legacy and therefore would give him greater monetary and creative leeway in designing the project.

“When you meditate, you have a clearer view of what someone is really wanting or meaning,” he says. “Often people have hidden agendas.”

After the committee approves the design and budget, craftsmen cut, weld and shape the raw steel into a refined sculpture. This stage also involves working with craftsmen who may have never fashioned steel into something this complicated before. Stok takes care to meet the workers and their families in their homes, and further motivates and befriends them by posting pictures of the project’s progress on a website.

“Sometimes their families never see the work that they create in the factory, so when they see the sculpture developing on the website, it becomes something they can share, a source of pride for the craftsman,” says Stok.

In the many months it takes to realize the massive sculpture, there is a point where the workers get frustrated and tempers flare. “When you meditate you have less of a tendency to give way to your negative emotions,” he says. “And you can clearly see when someone else is in the grip of negative emotions. You realize that he is not himself at the moment, so you can stay calm and wait until that ends. Then you can talk again.”

A Personal Journey

Despite working with others to create public works for generations to come, in the end, Stok’s art is deeply personal.

“Practicing TM is not only good for my art, it’s good for me,” he says. “I don’t really see my art as separate from my personal life.”

Stok notes that even if you try differently, you end up expressing your own inner state in your art. “What happens in art has everything to do with what happens to you. If you’re in a troubled period, you can see that in your art. If you’re in a blissful period, that’s what is reflected.”

As an example, Stok and his wife were expecting their son when he designed the Avenhorn tulip sculpture. “It was about the blossoming of life,” he says.

Today their son is ten years old, and loves to climb on the public sculptures in town centers, gardens, and malls that his father has created. Living in Lelystad, a village in the Netherlands created for people who live together and practice Transcendental Meditation and the advanced TM-Sidhi program in a central meditation hall, the Stoks find that meditation also helps them to lead a more balanced family life.

In recent years, Stok has received commissions from the U.S., such as two giant steel tulips for the city of Temecula, CA. They were looking for a tulip for their Duck Pond and Veterans Memorial park and found his work on the Internet. Stok attended the unveiling ceremony last September.

In addition to his commissioned sculptures, Stok has also directed a considerable amount of his artistic talent to create better living conditions for handicapped people, and to urban developmental planning.

“Art is a way of giving,” he says. “It’s not about glorifying your ego. It’s a way to touch the hearts of people, to create a good feeling, to make people happy.”

Linda Egenes is co-editor of Enlightenment: The Transcendental Meditation® Magazine. She is the author of five books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

(I originally wrote this interview for Enlightenment Magazine, Issue number 17. Reprinted with permission.)

BY LINDA EGENES

Mindy Weisel

For Mindy Weisel, art is about feelings. Take the time she was driving to New York City one winter’s day in 1995 and heard a radio report of the devastating Kobe earthquake in Japan. That day she started an immense painting and collage called “The Day the World Ripped Open” because, as she says, “I’m sure for those people it did.”

An oil painter who in recent years has turned to glass as a medium, Weisel has shown her work in solo shows in prestigious galleries and is the recipient of numerous awards. Her art appears in the Hirshhorn Museum, the National Museum of American Art, the Israel Museum, the U.S. Embassy, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Archives of American Artists at the Smithsonian Institution.

“My process is about what I’m feeling most, what I respond to, and it isn’t always about my own story,” she says. “I care about what is going on in the world.”

For someone whose art is so personal and expressive, it’s hard to imagine that Weisel has ever struggled to find her artistic voice. Yet she identifies this to be her main challenge as an artist.

Drawing from Personal Experience

“I have an unusual background,” Mindy says. “I was born in 1947 in Bergen-Belsen, Germany, in a displaced persons camp, one of the first children born to Holocaust survivors after the war. Growing up as the only daughter of Holocaust survivors, I don’t think I had a clue what it meant to live my own life.”

She did know she liked her art and literature classes in high school, and decided to major in art in college. But finding her place as an artist was daunting.

“It was during the time when my kind of art, which is a very emotional, expressive, abstract expressionist painting, was not taught,” she says. “I really struggled with my professors, but despite a lot of crying and frustration, I stuck with it.”

Weisel continued her graduate studies at American University, and with the help of mentors she found there, she established her own studio by age 27 and launched her first solo painting show.

But it wasn’t until she dug deep into her own personal experiences that she found her own voice and gained recognition in the art world.

“Basically after I learned drawing and painting through all the rigorous study, I understood that you could learn all the technique in the world, but if you don’t feel it, no one else will feel it either.”

In 1978 Weisel started a series using her father’s number at Auschwitz, which was tattooed on his arm. Weisel says, “The paintings started out colorful, but I wrote his number all over them and they became blackened out, dealing not only with the destruction of beauty, but to my surprise there was light coming through the paintings—so it became the survival of beauty.”

Created long before there was a Holocaust museum, before Schindler’s List, Weisel’s paintings of 1978 were well received by art critics and laypersons alike and were shown in a traveling exhibition in museums around the country.

Mindy Weisel: Following Her Heart with Art

Working in the Moment

Yet as her art evolved, Weisel says she continued to struggle emotionally with each piece to discover what she wanted to say.

She quotes the German artist, Hans Hoffman, and the Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who both said that an artist should not have a memory.

Weisel explains, “What that means is that each time you approach your work it should be as if for the first time. So you’re not thinking, ‘How did I make this painting before?’ or ‘What color did I use?’ as that takes away from the immediate experience of making the art. For me, creating art is not premeditated at all. It’s literally surrounding myself with my materials and going right into it.”

“I really struggled a lot to find an honest voice to say what I want to say,” says Mindy. “I noticed that after I started the Transcendental Meditation technique, my TM practice has really helped me be in the moment.” Weisel continues, “It seems to me that in the last eight years, since I started meditating, that’s what’s changed. If the art is not coming, I don’t even struggle with it. I simply put myself in a place where it’s possible to make art.”

She’s also more at peace. “I was very much a Holocaust survivor’s daughter, running to stay ahead of everything, to fill up the loss,” she says. “And that running had made me very, very sick. Since meditating I can just be. I take better care of myself, I take the time to meditate, and I love the experience.”

“Art is the skillful expression of life. The artist, constantly utilizing his creative impulses, continues to draw from the reservoir of creativity present in his own being. This is how his consciousness, bathing in the fresh springs of creativity, rises to the prodigious brilliance of natural creation. Exposed to the beautiful process of unfoldment, an artist, when he opens his awareness to the fullness of pure creative intelligence within, draws together the strokes of inspiration and ultimate achievement and enjoys them in the oneness of freedom.
—Maharishi, 1975

Another dramatic shift for Weisel is that she is now using brilliant-colored glass as a medium. “This is amazing to me, because I never knew anything about glass,” she says. “I’m doing things creatively that I never ever would have imagined. I walked into this glass studio, I recognized something, I was ready to learn, and I didn’t doubt it. I can attribute this switch in materials to meditating, because it kept me open enough to try it and enough in the present to make it.”

Weisel took classes at Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle to learn her new medium, and just a year and a half later, her vibrant, colorful works appeared in a solo exhibition, “Words on a Journey of Glass,” at Katzen Art Museum, American University.

Describing her experience in meditation as a deep, profound, meaningful rest that is beautiful, easy, and simple, she says, “You are in a state of being, of being in the moment, and somehow that lasts—it accumulates.”

Weisel says that this experience of awareness carries over into the process of making her art. “I’m being more present in the creative process as well,” she says. “Work doesn’t have to be so hard. Work can come from a place of flowing, of openness, of responsiveness, of hearing, of listening. You don’t have to fight so hard to get to that work.”

Somehow Weisel finds time to express herself in writing as well. The author of five books, she is currently working on her memoir, Making Marks, in which she writes about making marks of longing, of loss, of survival, of beauty.

“I think that’s what my work is about. It’s very emotional, and I’m always thrilled that somebody feels something when they look at it. You can change your mind about things but you can’t change your feelings about things. You really have to understand them. They won’t go away until you understand them.”

(I originally wrote this interview for Enlightenment Magazine, Issue number 3. Reprinted with permission.)

 

BY LINDA EGENES

James Meredith is not your typical classical musician. For one thing, he’s had a multifaceted career. As an accompanist he is a musical partner with mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and dramatic soprano Olivia Strapp.

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 10.45.35 AMHe is the founding director of the celebrated Sonos Handbell Ensemble, which has brought audiences to their feet twice on Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” show; given sold-out performances in multiple tours of the U.S., Asia, and Europe; and is widely acclaimed by music critics as the top handbell ensemble in the nation.

He dons a third hat when he creates arrangements and original compositions for the group—all while maintaining a roster of piano and vocal students, 10 of them gifted students from the Young Musicians program at UC Berkeley, where he is a faculty member.

Being accomplished in so many areas is not the only unusual thing about him. He is famous for handling the pressure of performance with grace, humility, and ease.

Meredith says his secret is, ironically, the hours that he spends away from his music, closing his eyes to practice the Transcendental Meditation technique.

“Being a concert musician touring and performing is highly stressful,” acknowledges Meredith. “Just to be able to get some rest when going through those stressful experiences was the first benefit I noticed after I started the Transcendental Meditation technique as a young musician. And now my colleagues notice that after years of performing, they are tired, while I’m still going strong. I can’t imagine having the career I’m having without it.”

Searching for Transcendence

While talking to Jim in his cozy Oakland home, I get the feeling that his life is composed of many moments of being in the right place at the right time.

As luck would have it, his Greenville, North Carolina grade school was located in a college town and near the hall where the state orchestra performed, so he heard many concerts and had lessons from master musicians as part of his early education.

He recalls his first performance experience as a class when his fourth-grade music teacher rolled a piano into the room and asked someone to volunteer to sing a solo stanza. “I raised my hand, and it was one of those thrillingly exciting yet petrifying moments,” he says. “I sat down and immediately wanted to do it again.”

Meredith started playing clarinet that same year, and inspired by a seventh-grade school friend, soon was teaching himself piano. Noting his gifts, his parents eventually agreed to pay for piano lessons and, lucky again, he was able to study with a gifted teacher who was a graduate of the music conservatory in Riga, Latvia.

In college, he majored in piano at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and took his master’s in piano at Tulane University, both on scholarships.

It was during his undergraduate recital at Chapel Hill that he had his first transcendental experience. “Everybody in music seeks for those experiences that are transcendent, when you are out of your limitations, when you’re completely in the moment,” he says. “I remember sitting at the piano to play the fiendishly difficult second movement of Alberto Ginastera’s ‘Sonata for Piano’ and thinking ‘Oh God,’ and somewhere between those two words I performed the entire piece.”

After graduation in 1969 he was drafted and found himself playing the clarinet in an army band in Germany. As luck would have it, a fellow piano player mentioned that he did something called Transcendental Meditation.

It wasn’t long before Jim was instructed in the TM®technique. He noticed that he not only had more energy for performance, but he was able to understand the music at a deeper level.

“Musicians have to constantly be digging deeper and deeper into the music,” he says. “With great composers, there is something in their music that transcends everyday life, and that’s why we listen to it today. Practicing meditation helped me to find more of that universal experience in the music and bring it out when I play.”

Drawn to the transcendental experience, Meredith became a teacher of the TM technique and taught full-time in Birmingham, Heidelberg (Germany), New Orleans, and Berkeley for 10 years.

“I still performed some, and I always knew my music profession was on the back burner,” he said. But with a musician’s skill in timing, he wanted to wait until the desire “bubbled up more and more.”

It wasn’t until 1983 that Meredith decided to return to music as a full-time profession, teaching private students and master classes at universities, performing as a solo pianist and accompanist, conducting the Oakland Symphony Chorus, and becoming chorus master of the Festival Opera. His work has taken him to Europe and Asia, and has brought him into contact with such artists as Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, one of the most renowned opera singers of the 20th century.

A Gift for Synchrony

Then in 1990, he became the founding artistic director of the Sonos Handbell Ensemble. “I knew from the start that I wanted it to be professional musicians playing classical music, with the tours and performances handled professionally,” he said.

Sonos Handbell Ensemble

Playing the beautiful, flowing music of handbells is an exercise in synchronicity. Using over 56 bells, the twelve musicians of Sonos Handbell Ensemble have to create the sound of one instrument. As Meredith says, “Instead of one pianist with ten fingers sitting at the piano, it’s as if you had ten pianists, each playing only one finger at a time, trying to play a Bach fugue.”

Such syncronicity requires intense rehearsal. “It’s a collective effort. There’s a lot more group rehearsal than with other ensembles,” notes Meredith. “You have to coalesce as a group. The individual ego has to get out of the way.”

Jim is known in the profession as someone who doesn’t allow his ego to get in the way. Instead, he bends and flows with the harmonies around him.

“Particularly while accompanying a vocalist, you have to anticipate what is going wrong,” he says. “You have to be in total synchrony with that person. There are many performances where a performer has skipped a bar or jumped from the first to the second line. Often times it’s not even conscious on my part, but just a split second before they skip that bar, I feel that they’re going to go there, so I move with them. And it happens so automatically, so spontaneously, no one knows that it happened.”

Meredith says that later, the singer might ask, ‘Did we skip a bar?’ and in Meredith’s unassuming style, he’ll say, “I think so. It happened so automatically, I’m not really sure.”

It is this humility and skill that endears him to his fellow musicians. “I cannot assemble enough kudos to do justice to our beloved Jim,” says the world-famous mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade.

“He has a heart as big as California, great talent and a generosity of spirit and caring that shines light on everyone that knows him. He has truly mastered the art of making music and, more importantly, sharing it with everyone he knows. His enthusiasm and humor enrich every situation on and off stage.”

Intuition and Creativity

Growth in intuition is something Meredith attributes to his years of Transcendental Meditation practice. He also feels it has opened up his creativity, making it possible to compose music.

“I was never trained in composing—I never felt I could compose a fugue like Bach or a sonata like Beethoven,” he says. “But after I started Sonos, the handbell ensemble, it was obvious that the kind of music I wanted to perform had not yet been created. Then we were asked to perform a contemporary piece at an important concert in Spokane, and I felt we had to jolt the handbell world out of its safe style. We didn’t have the money to pay anyone to compose a piece, so I said I’d write it. I can only attribute the courage and desire to do that to all these years of meditating.”

Since then Meredith has become a published composer, riveting audiences with his handbell pieces performed by the Sonos Handbell Ensemble internationally and on several DVDs. He also arranges most of the music the group performs.

Sonos Handbell Ensemble

Meredith notices that his intuition functions in a similar way in both teaching and composing. “I find the experience of having the right response to a student come increasingly more from intuitive levels,” he says. “In the same way, I used to have to consciously think about how to approach a problem in composition, and over the years the right approach seems to come more spontaneously. It surprises me sometimes and I often ask of myself, ‘Where did that come from?’”

He finds this ability to be comforting. “I remember composing a work that went very smoothly until the end. I was just not sure how to end the piece. It had to be right or it would negate all that was good before it. After a few days the solution just popped up. I look back at it now and I can’t remember how it happened. It’s as if ‘I’ didn’t do it.”

Noting that it is through repeated experience in meditation that one gets one acquainted with these more subtle levels, Meredith says with typical humility, “I have not had many memorable experiences in meditation, but the results in activity have become welcome friends.”

Giving Back to the Community

It’s late afternoon when we finish our interview and Alisa knocks on Jim’s door. A tall girl for just 13, she’s part of the Young Musicians Program, which gives gifted high school and elementary school children whose families could never afford it the opportunity to study with professional musicians in the San Francisco Bay area. For 15 years Meredith has taught, coached, and accompanied vocal students with remarkable results—all have attended top music colleges and conservatories, many on scholarships.

“You seem quiet today,” Meredith says. She nods and says she is tired. Like every good teacher, he notices things about his students. Then he sits down at his Mason & Hamlin, a grand piano sitting beside a Bechstein grand that he once hauled across the country in a trailer along with a collection of potted plants, and starts to play scales while Alisa sings. After warm-ups, he reads a summary of Clair de Lune, a French love-song by Gabriel Fauré, and starts to play.

Alisa opens her mouth and sings like a lark. It’s astonishing to hear such sophisticated music coming from a thirteen-year-old.

As the lesson progresses to an Italian song by Rossini, Meredith asks her to assess her own singing. She says her voice is not as clear today, and he reminds her of certain breathing techniques, explaining how a performance musician would address a problem like that. When he asks her what some of the French words mean so she can create the proper feeling she’s right there with him.

At one point he stops to talk to her. “You’re talented. You can move people with your voice. You must know this. And how does that make you feel?” he asks.

“Good,” the girl says and smiles. She’s quiet and shy. Yet there is no doubt that at 13 she is already, thanks to Meredith, thinking of herself as a pro.

You can listen to the music of Sonos Handbell Ensemble, conducted by James Meredith, at http://sonos.org/

(I originally wrote this interview for Enlightenment Magazine, Issue number 9. Reprinted with permission.)

BY LINDA EGENES

Sharon IsbinSharon Isbin is considered, quite simply, the leading classical guitarist of our time. Among her many honors, she was named “Best Classical Guitarist” by Guitar Player magazine and is the first guitarist in over 40 years to receive two classical GRAMMY Awards (in 2001 and 2010). A former student of Andrés Segovia and a graduate of Yale University, she has performed to sold-out audiences around the world—from Carnegie Hall to London’s Barbican to the White House. As head of the guitar department at the Aspen Music Festival and The Juilliard School, she has developed an original technique for teaching classical guitar. Yet she doesn’t limit herself to classical music—she has mastered a musical palette that ranges from bossa nova to jazz to folk, collaborating with other guitarists in new ways. Here she explains how she has been able to combine her virtuosity, her technique, and her passion in order to create music that reaches into the heart and touches the soul.

Sharon Isbin Best Classical Guitarist Transcendental Meditation and Music

 

What do you feel has made your music stand out from the crowd?

I explore a variety of genres, from my home base in classical to unusual collaborations in jazz, bossa nova, folk, country, rock, and even film music, performing on Scorsese’s The Departed. But most important to me and to listeners is the emotion, lyricism, sensuality, and passion.

What is your process of interpreting the music that you play? How do you go about it?

I choose music that I love and which speaks to me, and that makes it easy to be expressive. The more I play a new work, the more I discover in it. My goal is to enter the mind of the composer while feeling and expressing the emotion from within. In a way, I explore different characters of a piece much like actors do with a script. And when I choose dynamics and shadings to delineate the different layers and levels of voicing, architecture, and structure within a work, it’s much like a director staging and guiding actors in the foreground, middle, background, etc.

Are there any principles of creativity that you employ when you create an album such as Sharon Isbin and Friends or prepare for a concert performance?

Developing an album is a varied process. For example, my solo disc Dreams of a World (2001 GRAMMY Award) came together from a pile of scores I’d assembled over time, which I’d found to be particularly beautiful and which happened to be all folk-inspired. Journey to the Amazon has music from countries bordering the Amazon, and evolved from making several trips to the rainforest and then performing with a composer/organic percussionist from a tribe in the Amazon, Thiago de Mello, and saxophonist Paul Winter. J.S. Bach Complete Lute Suiteswas a natural after ten years of study with the great keyboard artist/Bach scholar Rosalyn Tureck. When I was invited to make the New York Philharmonic’s first and only guitar recording, I chose Latin music from Spain, Brazil, and Mexico. Other collections include Baroque concerti, American concerti, Latin Romances, etc.

My recent Journey to the New World (2010 GRAMMY Award) is an exploration of folk music beginning in the 16th century British Isles, Ireland, and Scotland and crossing the ocean with the immigrants to the New World. Its centerpiece, “Joan Baez Suite,” was written for me by John Duarte and inspired by music Baez made famous in the early part of her career. When Joan heard it, she offered to sing on the album and performs beautiful renditions of “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Go ’Way from my Window.” Virtuoso country fiddler Mark O’Connor concludes the journey, joining me in the folk suite he wrote for us.

My latest, Sharon Isbin & Friends: Guitar Passions (Sony), pays tribute to my guitar heroes and includes guest rock stars Steve Vai, Steve Morse, and Nancy Wilson (from Heart); jazz virtuoso Stanley Jordan; bossa-nova singer/guitarist Rosa Passos; and more. The Latin-flavored disc also honors past heroes like Andrés Segovia, with whom I studied; Joaquin Rodrigo, who wrote the famous “Adagio”; and Tom Jobim, with whom I had collaborated.

Do you feel different when you perform a piece by Joan Baez versus a classical piece? Is the creative process any different?

Though I explore a different kind of rhythmic and stylistic freedom when playing with Joan Baez or Steve Vai than I do playing Bach (though Bach’s music, with all its improvised ornaments and embellishments, was the jazz of its time!), my goal is always to make the music sound fresh, imaginative, and heartfelt.

You have been called “the Monet of classical guitar—a master colorist.” Why do you think people have such an emotional reaction to your music?

I love to be expressive on the guitar with lyricism, dynamic contrasts, nuances, phrasing, articulation, and a panoply of colors and timbres. I cultivate these techniques to serve the music and to communicate it with feeling and emotion. For example, I can make the guitar sound like a human voice by connecting notes of a melody with nuances of sound while shaping the contour of the line as a vocalist would do. This also creates a three-dimensional quality and depth.

Sharon Isbin Classical Guitarist Transcendental Meditation TechniqueI understand that you have written a teaching guitar book. Are there new techniques that you have developed and are passing on to your students? What was the process for developing those?

Among the topics I explore with my students at Juilliard and in my Classical Guitar Answer Book are techniques I’ve developed of preparation, memorization, and visualization to encourage peak performance. These are the secrets and methods I’ve discovered and refined over years of performing which I am able to share with others. I find it particularly effective to practice these techniques at the end of a session of meditation when the mind is especially stress free and receptive to suggestions and learning. The end of a meditation is an ideal time, in fact, to plant any suggestion about a goal or task you wish to achieve.

I read that you have been practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique since you were 17. Do you feel that transcending on a regular basis has had an influence on your artistry and work, and if so, how?

Practicing TM has inspired heights of creativity for me on many levels: as a musician, arranger, educator, writer, and artistic director. Because TM is so effective at eliminating stress and distraction, it encourages laser-sharp focus and concentration for any task.

As a musician, TM enhances my mental stamina, memory, concentration, and ability to learn. It puts me in touch with my innermost creative core and enables its expression through music. Most importantly, it facilitates instant access to a state of “cosmic immersion,” that feeling of being in the flow, or in “the zone.” When I perform onstage, I enter a state of being very similar to the one I enter daily when practicing TM. It’s a sense of communion with the energy of the universe, the audience, the composer, and the music—without ego or interference. It’s a feeling of unity between me and the listeners, a sense of “oneness” in which we are all experiencing the beauty of the music together. That sensation is one of the reasons live performances can be so powerful—everyone is focused and transported, and the experience is unique and in the moment, never to be replicated.

(I originally wrote this interview for Enlightenment Magazine, Issue number 7. Reprinted with permission.)