Dr. Trevor W. Payne: Still a Choral Force

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After 43 years at the helm, Dr. Trevor Payne has decided to put down the baton. His final appearance with the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir was on Dec. 7 in a concert with the Orchestre symphonique de Longueuil.

He hasn’t left the choir for good, though: Payne will continue to serve as artistic director and producer. Here’s a look at his memorable moments, his musical background, and the motivation behind his conducting.

Anyone who retires from a job after more than four decades would normally feel a sense of accomplishment, relief, and liberation.

“Quite the contrary,” said Payne in a laid-back manner, admitting that his retirement comes with mixed feelings. “It has certainly lessened my load. Being the producer, artistic director, and choir director all at once was zapping my energy.”

An artist should reach a peak during performance. Payne found that he was expending much of his energy during the sound check.

“I would be able to finish the show but would need to spend the next three to five days in bed to recuperate,” he said.

Trevor Payne photo by Imad El Kik

Given his age – he is 69 – and considerations discussed with the board, medical staff, and his allies, Payne decided to step down from active conducting, still thankful for the support he received from audiences who flocked to see his choir perform on international stages.

“My one- or two-hour rehearsals with the choir mean more to me than the two hours on stage,” he confessed.

Payne will continue to arrange and orchestrate choir selections until the next official conductor has been named. This transitional period will continue until the next concert, planned for December 2018 at Place des Arts.

What is Payne’s most cherished memory?

“The bond with the choir,” he answered. Of course, he doesn’t deny that singing for Queen Elizabeth II or Nelson Mandela and performing at the Hungarian State Opera House were major highlights. All the same, nothing compares with a great rehearsal, where choristers start with an unfamiliar tune and put it together two hours later.

Unlike choristers in classical choirs, many of whom read music, singers in a gospel choir learn by ear. How, then, do gospel choristers learn music, especially if they have no musical knowledge? Payne provides an interesting answer.

“The root of black music is communal. It allows everyone from the grandchild to grandparents to perform with or without musical training. If it’s for the entire community, pitch and rhythm don’t apply as they would in European classical music.”

Learning music by ear can be frustrating. Getting through a gospel arrangement of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus can be laborious when singers can’t read music.

Happily, learning by ear suits gospel music, which is highly repetitive. What’s more, in the digital age, tools exist to record separate parts. With the help of Dropbox and mobile devices, choristers can listen to a part individually and in context, with the others.

“When singers finally get through works, they can make them their own,” Payne explained. “There’ll be no need for orchestral conducting techniques, going over dynamics, attacks, and releases – typical aspects of classical music.

“Not only would singers [hearing such instructions]not understand what I was talking about, but such explanations would take away from the choir’s natural sound.”

In addition to singing gospel, Payne insisted that the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir learn African-American spirituals in a classical music style.

“Very few black choirs take the time to learn a spiritual,” Payne said. “It’s difficult.” His choir has steered clear of contemporary hip-hop gospel styles that have been popular since the 1970s.

All the knowledge Payne shared during the interview made me wonder how, when, and where he started his musical journey.

“Singing is a spiritual gift,” he said. “I was blessed with perfect pitch and a propensity for performance.”

Born in Barbados, Payne played piano at age eight. As he was pulled into the rock and R&B genres, he added percussion, saxophone, and keyboards.

On the strength of this background, Payne was admitted to McGill University’s Faculty of Music (now the Schulich School of Music). Alexander Brott, head of the orchestral conducting department, brought Payne into the conducting stream after only three weeks in his first semester.

Payne’s style is clearly effective. The Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir is now in its 36th year, having admitted more than 700 members. He regards all of this as a gift and is thankful for it.

His thankfulness will undoubtedly leave a mark on the choir, as will his unfailing motivation on and off stage. That motivation has also spread through CD purchases, performances around the world, and feedback choir members receive from the audience.

No longer on the stage, Payne has many projects on the go. And he remains the spiritual leader of the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir. A spiritual connection will be one of the qualifications the next conductor must have.

Happy retirement, Dr. Payne.

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