Naomi Russell is up to her eyeballs in music. In addition to singing with the Canadian Chamber Choir, she sings in two ensembles in town and directs a barbershop chorus. For the past 12 years, she’s been on faculty at the International Music Camp at the Peace Garden as director of the women’s barbershop chorus. But those are just her extra-curricular activities. Her day — and sometimes night — job is as a nurse in her hometown of Rivers. (BRUCE BUMSTEAD/BRANDON SUN)
You are one busy woman! You nurse in Rivers full-time?
Yes, I work full-time. Sometimes I wonder how I manage to fit in all my musical exploits with working full-time — it can be a challenge. But I’ve been nursing now for 22 years — the first six years I worked here at Brandon Regional Health Centre, and then the first permanent job that came up way back when was out in Rivers, and I took it. Rivers is where I grew up, so I guess I’m a lifer out there.
Yet you live in Brandon because of the cultural activities you’re involved in?
Yes. I’ve gotten used to the conveniences of living in a city because I’ve been here since 1990. I love the size of Brandon and I love the small-town feel because I grew up in a small town. And because my parents are still in Rivers, I’m close to them and it’s only a half-hour commute.
Do you have an area of specialization in nursing?
We have an orthopedic with a little bit of medical rehab program out in Rivers that we established about six years ago, so that’s mainly what we do. We do have a little bit of palliative care which is sort of my favourite area of nursing. I’ve been doing that for the entire time that I’ve been nursing and I find it’s the most meaningful, most fulfilling kind of nursing there is. It’s tough, but I think there’s no more special time to help people than when they’re going through a life-threatening illness and as they’re facing death — it’s a very important time for them and their families. So to be able to help them through that and do whatever I can to ease that burden, it’s very special.
You say even though you love it, it’s tough. So how do balance your own mental well-being?
I sing. Because when I’m in the middle of a time that we’re caring for a patient in Rivers who’s dying, it can sometimes be weeks on end. And so I find that my musical life become even more of a lifeline to help get me through that. Music is such a cathartic way to deal with the everyday stress of life.
You conduct the barbershop chorus, Women in Harmony, sing in a barbershop quartet called Great Expectations, you sing with Das Femmes, and the Canadian Chamber Choir, an ensemble of singers from across the country. Not wanting to tick anybody off, but have you a favourite amongst all those groups?
They bring me completely different joys. I would say probably the top of my musical experience is Canadian Chamber Choir because it is such a high level of singing — very high quality, and it’s that intensive choral experience, which I’ve always been a huge believer in. This goes back to my days in Westman Youth Choir as a teenager. We would go in for those weekend rehearsal camps — two rehearsal camps — and then a tour. And you were immersed in that for three days at a time or a week at a time. And that’s all you do — you eat, sleep, and you sing.
I’m sort of carrying on with that in my Canadian Chamber Choir life because we fly in from across the country, and start rehearsals that night, and we’re together for a week, and then we go home. So it’s challenging for me because a lot of the other singers in the ensemble, they’re music teachers, they’re performers, they have music degrees from universities, and I’m not really in that category. But because I have a lot of choral experience, I can keep up to them. So that’s sort of the pinnacle of my choral experiences in a year.
But the barbershop chorus gives me an opportunity to teach, in a way. I come from a long line of teachers — my parents were teachers, my grandma was a teacher — so I guess I have those genes in me to teach in some way. And when I was ending high school and thought, ‘Well, do I want to go into music for a career,’ and I thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to be a teacher.’ I give full credit to people who are teachers, because it’s incredibly difficult, I think. And you have to want to do it.
So as a profession, I didn’t want to do that. But this is perfect, because I get to help other people to become better singers, and have fun while they’re doing it, but it’s a hobby. Although sometimes it feels like it’s more than a hobby!
Das Femmes, we’ve been going now for 12 years. That’s something that, from the get-go, was such a different thing. I had never sung in an unconducted ensemble, and again, it’s a place where I can just sit back and be a singer. All eight members of the ensemble have equal footing as far as choosing repertoire, as far as making suggestions, running rehearsals — it’s all just equal contributions. Which, of course, can be challenging at times, because you get eight women together …
And it’s like "The View" times two, right?
(Laughs) "The View" times two! But on the other hand, it’s great for me because I don’t have to be at the head of the class as I do with the barbershop group. And my barbershop quartet is, again, completely different because we mostly get together for a good meal — pie for dessert and a bottle of wine! And then some singing happens. So it’s low pressure and lots of fun. We’ve been together now for 10 years.
In a day and age of recordings everywhere, providing music everywhere, what’s the thrill of both delivering, and especially attending, a live performance?
As far as being in an audience and watching a live performance, there’s just something in the air. You’re bound together as audience members because you’re all there for the same reason, unless you’ve been dragged there by a family member! But if you’ve gone to a performance, it’s because you want to hear that performer, and there’s things that can happen in a live performance that you’re never going to get from a CD or a download from iTunes. Things can go wrong. And I always laugh when my brother, Hugh, who’s an opera singer, tells me a little snippet of something that has happened in an opera performance, and you just have to keep going on. You have to try not to laugh your butt off and just keep going, because you’re up there to keep the ball rolling. And as a performer, you can simulate that all you want in rehearsal, but when you have those bums in seats, it’s an entirely different feeling, being up there.
Now you mentioned your brother, Hugh Russell, who trained with Sylvia Richardson at Brandon University’s School of Music and has made an international career of opera AND who’ll be singing at the Lorne Watson Recital Hall this Wednesday night as part of Augustfest. Your older brother, Colin, also sings. So coming from a musical family, and with Hugh having made a career of music, are there ever any pangs when you see him on stage? Do you ever wish it was you in the spotlight?
I’ve done a few solo things in larger works. But while I’ve enjoyed those experiences, it doesn’t come naturally to me. Choral singing is my true love so I can’t see myself ever stopping that.
And I’m just proud as heck of Hugh. I remember when he was in Grade 10 at Rivers Collegiate, and they did ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ Hugh was Tevye. And I remember seeing him on stage in that role and thinking, ‘God — Topol has nothing on him!’ He had it back then — that stage presence — and he had the audience in the palm of his hand.
My other brother and I have performing as a hobby. But I think when you decide to make music your career, you either have to want to teach, or you have to have that extra-special drive and an amazing ability to perform. And Hugh had that all along.
Nursing as career, music as hobby. How do you fit all this in? Do you ever almost resent it?
Well, I think it’s like anybody who’s in any career — there are times when you resent work because you wish you had more time to play. And sometimes it’s, ‘Oh, I’m glad to get back to work to have a rest from everything else I’m involved in!’
Do you have free time? I mean, are there days that you can just kick back and relax? And if there are, what do you do?
Because I’m so very rarely at home, I’ve invested in a PVR in the last year. I’m kind of a nerd when it comes to my shows — the medical shows and so on — and if I have a day when I don’t have any pressing projects on my list of things to do, I’ll just sit and watch episode after episode of Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, all the cop shows. It’s mindless TV, but it’s a guilty pleasure. And then I’m refreshed when I go back to doing all those other things.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition August 11, 2012