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Weekend Sun shines on Bruce Shavers

Born and raised in Brandon, Bruce Shavers attended Vincent Massey school and took his first year of music at Brandon University. He finished his undergraduate degree at Dalhousie in Halifax, then achieved his graduate degree at University of Western Ontario in London. However, after one year in the Doctor of Musical Arts program in Vancouver, Shavers decided he'd spent enough time in school and was eager to move on to other things. So the musician and composer made his way back to Manitoba. While he's had plenty of other careers over the ensuing years, he's never strayed too far from his musical passion. This year, he's written two orchestral works for the Brandon Community Orchestra, which will premiere at the BCO Spring Gala Concert on Saturday, May 3 at 7:30 p.m. at McDiarmid Drive Alliance Church.

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Born and raised in Brandon, Bruce Shavers attended Vincent Massey school and took his first year of music at Brandon University. He finished his undergraduate degree at Dalhousie in Halifax, then achieved his graduate degree at University of Western Ontario in London. However, after one year in the Doctor of Musical Arts program in Vancouver, Shavers decided he'd spent enough time in school and was eager to move on to other things. So the musician and composer made his way back to Manitoba. While he's had plenty of other careers over the ensuing years, he's never strayed too far from his musical passion. This year, he's written two orchestral works for the Brandon Community Orchestra, which will premiere at the BCO Spring Gala Concert on Saturday, May 3 at 7:30 p.m. at McDiarmid Drive Alliance Church. (BRUCE BUMSTEAD/BRANDON SUN)

So music’s always been a huge part of your life.

That’s correct.

You play it, you compose it, but you did other things, too, because in many cases, music and the arts don’t always pay the bills.

Yeah, that’s right. Initially, my primary interest was in writing music and I did earn an income of sorts by doing that. But I also discovered, and others discovered of me, that I had a certain talent for organizational-type stuff. So I was quickly catapulted into administrative or arts-administrative-type positions — promotion and marketing and event management and all that sort of thing. So that’s kind of what put me in the not-for-profit sector, which I stayed in through many, many years.

I know Canadian Blood Services was one of them.

That actually was the last one. Executive Director at Manitoba Composers’ Association would have been the first one. I was assistant to the Dean of the School of Music at the University of Manitoba. I was the Music and Touring Officer for the Manitoba Arts Council, and the next position then brought me to Brandon, which was in the Development Office at Brandon University where I worked as a development director. And just after that, I worked with Shari Decter Hirst in her company called Contract Solutions, which was in support of not-for-profits. Then I became involved with Canadian Blood Services and was there for a number of years. And now I work in a music store!

And how is that?

I love it!

Is it almost sort of the reward for slogging away — although you like the analytical stuff, too, you said — in jobs that didn’t involve music as the primary focus? You’re around music all the time now. I mean at Ted Good’s, musicians congregate there, they learn there.

Yeah — I had sacrificed a lot doing all the other things and I don’t regret that at all. I mean, it started out IN the arts and it was arts administration and I loved it and I recognized the need for it. I always felt torn because it took me away from what I always wanted to do myself artistically. But the skills are transferable — I think that once you do one thing in the not-for-profit sector, whether it be education, social, health, arts — you can move.

Well, you’ve proved that with all you’ve done! How long have you been at Good’s?

It will be four years in August.

And do you teach, work in sales — everybody seems like they do everything over there.

I’m teaching an adult guitar course at Assiniboine Community College and I’ve been doing it for almost four years now through Continuing Education. And that has been a LOT of fun! And I think quite honestly I can say I learn as much from the students as maybe they learn from me. It’s a real joy.

So at the store then you sell equipment, test it out, get to know it — all kinds of stuff?

Yeah — everything. Sales, service, repairs, rentals, and assisting with the teaching stuff when needed. But that doesn’t happen too often.

Do you have a primary instrument or do you play a lot of them?

No — I would have to say my primary instrument is guitar, definitely.

I’d like to talk about your composing. Have you been doing it all along?

Well, I tried to almost, if you will, lead a sort of dual life for a long, long time. But once we started a family and as the kids were getting older, it became increasingly more difficult for me, just because that’s my nature and personality — I can’t throw a switch and be super-creative in an instant. So I let it slide and started getting involved in other things, which was fine. But I was never afraid that I would lose it in the sense that if I stopped writing, I wouldn’t ever be able to write again.

I find, as a singer, that if I don’t have a gig coming up, I don’t really practice very much, if at all. But when something is in the offing, I really buckle down and get to work. So did you have other commissioned works? I was just intrigued that you offered to create this piece for the Brandon Community Orchestra.

I’ve composed some stuff for Fingal’s Last Pint, the Celtic group that I play with here in town. And the two that I liked best I used for the orchestral pieces for the community orchestra.

So you approached the Brandon Community Orchestra or they approached you…?

Bill Robinson, the former owner of Ted Good Music, plays trumpet in the orchestra, and he was always in the store first thing Saturday morning warming up on his trumpet and then going off to community orchestra rehearsal. And we were just chatting one day, and I had just finished a project that kind of got me back to composition, so I was ready for an idea! And it just occurred to me while talking to Bill that that might be a possibility.

So I kind of threw it out there and he got quite excited about it and said that I should most definitely talk with Chris McConnell, the conductor. And that’s what happened. I know Chris from my very first year at Brandon University because he was at the School of Music as well — one of the more senior students, whereas I was a new student.

So I contacted Chris — I don’t know if he knew right away what it was all about, but we got together over a cup of coffee and we chatted about it and he listened to some of my music and took it from there.

That’s great! Now why did you want to do this, and why for the community orchestra?

I hadn’t written anything for an orchestra in quite a while, and one of the things I love doing — one of the things I’ve always loved doing when I was studying composition — was the orchestrating part of it. Because it’s a lot like painting. You might have a picture, but what are you going to do with the colour in the picture and all that sort of thing? You have a palette in an orchestra which you just don’t get in any other type of ensemble. So I really like that — I really get excited about that.

And then the second part of that would be over the years, especially when my kids were younger and taking lessons, I was writing pieces for THEM to play.

Cool! That’s neat!

They were a bit beyond your usual educational-type repertoire and they did have some success in festivals and that sort of thing. So I always like that idea that there’s all kinds of different musical things going on at all different kinds of levels. And your job as a composer is to be able to write a great piece, or as good as you can make it, for whatever that outlet is.

And the idea of the community orchestra, I thought was just great because a lot like my adult class at the college, here were people who get together every Saturday and work hard on learning pieces for concerts because they love it. So I wanted to take that same feeling and attitude and put it into writing something for them to play.

Wow! And you said the pieces for the orchestra were drawn from two of your favourite pieces that you’d written for your Celtic group?

Yes. The first piece is called ‘Fingal’s Last Pint’ and the second piece is called ‘Fingal’s Awakening.’

I can only presume these were based on stories of some sort. Where did the ideas come from?

A friend of mine from Nova Scotia told me the story of a sleeping giant that was legendary in the Maritimes. The story, he said, was used to warn noisy children at bedtime to be quiet and go to sleep so as not to awaken the giant. The giant is Fingal, an Irish-Scottish mythical creature, who is cast as the guardian of good behaviour.

Will it be exciting for you to hear these pieces at the concert?

Yes — absolutely!

And why? Why is that a thing for a composer? Because you have no way of having it come to life — it’s just notes on a page until you hear it?

Yeah — it breathes life into it, right? And the excitement of live performance, too. And they’ll do a great job of it. Chris is so enthusiastic and he’s been so supportive. I don’t know if they’ve ever done this kind of thing before. So I hoped that he felt it would be kind of an achievement for him in his tenure with the orchestra.

Now will this be a springboard, do you think, to doing other things for other orchestras, or at least more for the BCO?

Absolutely. I don’t think I’ll ever stop wanting to write music. Time is obviously always a factor, of course. But right now, the timing was right for me to basically try and build my days entirely around all things related to music. And that includes writing.

So I’m just not sure today what the next project’s going to be. But unlike previous times when I had written, I don’t have the stressor of ‘I need another commission’ or ‘I’ve got to meet this deadline’ — that sort of thing. It’s kind of a privilege to be able to write music knowing it’s not your bread and butter entirely. Because honestly, I think everybody knows and appreciates that that’s a very, very tough go.

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition April 12, 2014

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