Reflections on John Oliver and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus

John Oliver changed my life.

I spent my entire childhood training to be a pianist. Prodded by my “tiger mom,” I executed a routine of practice, competitions, masterclasses, and performances. By age 17 I knew I needed music — after all, I had hardly known life without it — but I didn’t love music. After spending three years at Juilliard in the company of children who already had managers, concert tours, and recordings, I was certain that music would not be my career.

I went to MIT with the mindset that music would be my hobby and nothing more. Music was going to be fun, dammit! I refused to audition for the music scholarship program despite a personal invitation from the faculty. Without earning even a music minor, I enjoyed MIT’s many music offerings, including chamber chorus, chamber music, and collaborative piano.

In 2006 I left MIT, having completed my undergraduate degree and one year of employment. I auditioned for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to fulfill my need for a musical hobby, but in retrospect, I had no idea what I was getting into.

During my years in the TFC I finally fell in love with music. I performed and listened to the highest level of music-making in my life. I shared the stage with musicians who reduced me to tears (Stephanie Blythe, How can I keep from singing), made time stand still (Jessica Zhou, Ceremony of Carols), and inspired transcendent beauty (Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, B9). I spent an unfathomable number of hours memorizing scores, sharing during performances an almost-psychic connection with more than 100 singers who had voluntarily done the same. How could I not fall in love?

I was also fortunate that John took an interest in my singing, even though I have never been the best singer in the soprano section. In 2008, with only two years of voice lessons under my belt, I ended up on the Symphony Hall stage auditioning for James Levine for a solo in Bolcom’s Eighth Symphony. Over the years I performed several small solos at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, but I never experienced the pressure I felt as a child musician. John’s way of providing opportunities and exuding trust is the best motivation any musician could ask for.

Because John believed in me as a musician, I began to believe in myself as a musician. I wondered if perhaps I never gave music a fair chance by relegating it to a hobby. So, after more than four years without playing a single note at the piano, I quit my job to become a full-time pianist. (I considered titling this post, “John Oliver made me quit my job,” but thought the better of it.)

Without John Oliver and the TFC, I would not have a new career and a new sense of life purpose. I also would not have met most of my friends. My TFC friends are the smartest and most interesting people I know, and aside from the TFC, many of us have nothing in common. As John wrote in his letter to the chorus, “It is the music that binds everyone together in that room, those who otherwise might not be bound together.” John created a family that is fiercely loyal and bickers about diction at the dinner table, and we all love him for it.

Like so many past and present TFC members, I am deeply saddened that the TFC will continue without John’s leadership, but I also understand the impetus to begin a new chapter in one’s life. I wish him all the best in his new role as Master Teacher Chair at the Tanglewood Music Center, and I thank him from the bottom of my heart.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on John Oliver and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus

  1. Martha Bewick

    This is a beautiful reflection, Eileen. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and memories about John and his influence on your life and music.

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