The Art of Musical Expression

The Art of Musical Expression McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 2000 > Fall 2000 > The Art of Musical Expression
The Art of Expression

Eleanor Stubley is an artist whose scholarly papers are praised for their poetry, who creates high drama when she is conducting and who brings students to a new spiritual level as she teaches. Her mastery of the arts is for a single purpose: to share her joy in the love of music.

The conductor raises her hands, fixing the tenors with a steely glare. "If the men could get their eyes out of their scores..." Eleanor Stubley, an associate professor in McGill's Faculty of Music, is rehearsing a modern Australian composition with a community choir, and expects the singers to follow her every move. Stubley is polished. She is prepared. Impeccably dressed, she is clearly a perfectionist.

She raises her arms a second time. Exploding like a jack-in-the-box, she punches the air above her head, exhorting the basses to sing "with attitude," and the sopranos to keep their pitch. The women's eyebrows arch, the men roar.

Watching Stubley at work is like watching a flag snap in the wind. Inert and silent until she calls a group to attention, the 39-year-old music professor shatters stereotypes the minute she lifts her hands to conduct. For one thing, she's a young, female conductor in a traditionally male world. For another, she has achieved distinction in a physically demanding profession despite the onset of multiple sclerosis 12 years ago.

Pegged as "one of Canada's most promising young conductors" by the Montreal Gazette in 1996, Stubley has led the Massey Singers, the Yellow Door Choir, a section of the Elecktra Chamber Ensemble, the Bach Festival Orchestra and the Canadian Opera Company. A former French horn player, she now combines conducting with classroom and studio teaching, showing McGill students the tricks of eliciting sounds "with multiple dimensions," and teaching brass and conducting techniques.


Stubley is also a prolific author of erudite papers on the philosophy of music, earning accolades from luminaries in the field who describe her writings as "outside of the box," "poetic" and "refreshing." In her writing, instead of using primary sources as scaffolding for her ideas, she borrows literary and narrative techniques to put readers inside the composition, to make them feel what she feels in the music. References are even placed at the end of her papers so as not to interrupt the flow of ideas.

Roberta Lamb, a professor of music at Queen's University, calls Stubley "a deep and precise thinker about music, who integrates scholarship and creativity. She's looking at what really happens in a performance, how everything combines -- the technical aspects of producing the sound, the creative and the spiritual, all set in a social situation," says Lamb. Her innovative writing has merited her inclusion in seminal texts where, Stubley notes drily, "almost everyone else is dead."

She adopts a similarly non-traditional approach in her conducting, moving outside the academy to test her principal idea -- that creating music transforms the performer as well as the listener. Conducting concerts in nursing homes, food banks and youth centres is all in a day's work, and her musicians may be professionals, music students or just regular folks. Ever the teacher, Stubley discusses the purpose and power of music in relation to the human body before each performance.

Music transcending the body, or "the capacity of sound to enlarge the space occupied by the body," as Stubley puts it, is the main message. As she faces the increasing constraints imposed by MS, it may seem an especially poignant one, but Stubley appears unfazed by limitations of any kind. She focuses instead on the transcendence and mystery in the experience of music. Everything else -- whether the musician can read music, who is in the audience and whether the conductor is standing or seated -- is beside the point.

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