We had the good fortune of connecting with Christina Whitten Thomas and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Christina, how has your work-life balance changed over time?
Becoming a mother was what first challenged me to explore the meaning of balance. Having previously been used to an independent, flexible schedule of composing, teaching, and singing, my time was now mostly devoted to my infant daughter. I came to appreciate time in a completely different way. I cherished the moments with my daughter and looked forward to the few hours a week I had to compose. In the fall of 2018, I had a preschooler and a kindergartener, and my mornings to myself. I found a beautiful balance of composing time in the morning, family time after school, with rehearsals or personal time in the evenings. I had a few afternoons of teaching, for which I engaged a different kind of balancing act, one that included carefully timed scheduling with my husband as well as trusted babysitters. The church where I worked welcomed my family and went out of their way to care for them as I sang for the service. One lesson I learned was that balance was not something I could manage by myself; I needed to embrace the help of others. I find the greatest sense of balance when I work on collaborative projects. In 2019, I wrote the music for “Mother’s Word”, a song cycle for for soprano, piano, and narrator. The team of five women (lyricist, composer, soprano, pianist, and actor/director) are talented artists, dedicated mothers, and close friends. I found working with them rewarding on an artistic as well as emotional level. We encouraged each other to create our best work, to meet deadlines, and to persevere through challenges. We were all working through our individual work/life balances and were able to support each other through the process. Another collaborative work was a commission for the Middlebury College Choir in honor of composition professor Su Lian Tan, who was my first composition teacher. “And I Shall Sing” came to be through discussion with the conductor, Su, and lyricist Marian Partee (also the lyricist for “Mother’s Word”). I felt I had come full circle in my career, writing for the choir and professor that first inspired me to be a composer. In March of 2020, I was honored to have that same piece win the Fissinger Prize at NDSU and was scheduled to go hear them perform March 15. When that performance was cancelled, the first of many, I began a period of time where balance would be greatly challenged. With the pandemic, the concept of work/life balance has become very blurry. I am now balancing online teaching schedules for myself and my husband, home-schooling a kindergartener and 2nd grader, and navigating the technology to record for virtual church. There is no individual time, no focused mornings, no meetings with collaborators. I have been fortunate to have my music featured in several virtual choir performances. I am uplifted that at challenging times, choirs have turned to my music. Though finding time to compose is difficult, I am starting to reach out and collaborate again. “Mother’s Word” is in the process of being expanded to included three singers and several more movements. We are currently producing our first virtual release of one of the movements. In 2021, I must embrace a new definition of balance, one that accepts the unexpected, that allows for letting go, that acknowledges flexible priorities, and that silences judgement. For many artists, this is a time of patience and reflection. We must recognize that during moments when we lose our balance, we may find new sources of strength.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Contemporary composition is about engaging with your audience, sharing sensation, telling a story, and commenting on life. The voice has a unique ability to connect with human emotions while working with text adds another layer of communication. I write so that the vocal line follows the natural inflections of the words and the syntax of the text. The imagery and message of the text will also influence the mood, style, and structure of the music. Choosing the right text is an integral step of my composing process. I have had the most satisfaction in this regard when working directly with a poet/lyricist. Not only do I get an original text that directly addresses the theme of the commission, but the opportunity to work together will result in a stronger piece. One notable partnership is working with playwright and lyricist Marian Partee. Having met in 2014 in the children’s section of the library while our young daughters played, we have since written several pieces together including “Deceiver” for the Seraphim Singers of Boston, a serious commentary on the struggle of faith, “Spinning Through the Sky”, a piece for children’s choir about a roller coaster ride, and “And I Shall Sing”, which was recently featured in one of Choral Arts Initiative’s virtual concerts. A highlight of my career was the creation and production of “Mother’s Word” for soprano, piano and narrator. With lyrics by Marian Partee, each of the seven songs and two monologues tells the story of a mother from the Bible, the struggles they face as mothers and as women living in a time of suppression, and of the hope they have for their children and their people. Truly a collaborative process, all the women involved (lyricist, composer, soprano, pianist, and director) are talented artists, mothers, and close friends. These women bring out the best in me artistically. They have boosted my confidence with their praise and challenged my thinking and my writing with the result being a better final product. For the premiere, we partnered with, and raised money for Elizabeth House of Pasadena, which provides sanctuary for mothers who are homeless and/or facing domestic violence. We are currently expanding “Mother’s Word” to include three singers and several more movements. It is our desire that future performances will continue to partner with charities that support women and children. Success as a musician requires passion and talent, of course, but so much depends on perseverance, flexibility, and connection. Rejection and criticism, including self-critique are a natural part of being a musician. Acknowledge challenges and grow from them. Send your music out to potential performers. When an opportunity appears that may be outside of your comfort zone, challenge yourself to say yes. Be genuine. My music is unique because I wrote it and it came from who I am, my personality, my experiences, my passions. It is unique because it captures an original text that may re-tell an old story in a new light, or address a current issue. It is unique because new voices will be singing it, voices that bring their individual sound and life experiences to the music. The most rewarding experiences I have had as a composer have had an element of personal connection. I often get to travel to work with the performing choir in rehearsal, and to hear the premiere. I love meeting the members of the choir. They ask great questions, as well as have interesting stories of their own to tell.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Under current circumstances, this is a challenging question! But with a brighter future in mind, here’s what I would do. As there will be children coming along, I would plan to be outside as much as possible. A visit to Descanso Gardens would definitely be on the itinerary, along with a day at the beach. We might head over to the California Science Center to check out the space shuttle Endeavor. If my friend is visiting in the summer, we would hire a babysitter and head over to the Hollywood Bowl with a picnic dinner for one of their classical evenings or live-accompanied film showings. If it’s not during the summer, we would head to Disney Hall to hear the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Staying close to home in Sierra Madre, we would check out my favorite local culinary spots including The Only Place in Town, Poppycake Bakery, and Mother Moo Creamery. And, of course, we would look for a performance of new music by one of Southern California’s excellent chamber choirs such as Choral Arts Initiative. Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I would like to dedicate my shoutout to the artists I have collaborated with, many of who are balancing careers and families. They inspire and uplift me. I would like to give a shoutout to the members of my family and community who support my intense and sometimes unpredictable schedule. Their patience and flexibility help me to stay grounded. I also want to recognize musicians that have chosen to perform new music. They are leading the way.
Matt Thomas, Richard Whitten, Dennis C. Olson