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Ask the Cougar

Face the Music

Robert Taylor, associate professor of music

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There’s no question that music feeds the soul – and, whether it’s home-cooking or five-star dining, the richest flavors and freshest tastes always come from locally grown ingredients.

“There’s nothing as pure as what’s homegrown in the backyard,” says Rob Taylor, associate professor of music and director of choral activities, who likens pop music to something off an Applebee’s menu (generic, artificially enhanced, “contrived and corporate”); folk music to that age-old recipe that’s been handed down from generation to generation, neighbor to neighbor, for so long it’s part of the local cuisine; and classical music to the complex cookery that formally trained chefs learn in culinary school.

“But the best chefs use the local recipes and local foods as inspiration and then give them a little creative twist employing their classical techniques,” says Taylor, who is also the president and founding director of the Taylor Music Group, a performance- and education-based organization focusing primarily on Celtic and classical music. “That’s exactly what we’re trying to do: connect the art of the people (folk music) with the ‘high art’ that’s associated with classical music or ‘art music.’ That’s our thrust: figuring out ways to make Celtic and classical music coexist.”

The group – which includes the Taylor Festival Choir, a semi-professional chamber choir made up of 28 singers from all over the country, and Na Fidleiri, an ensemble of 20 young violinists focusing primarily on Celtic fiddle music and led by Taylor’s wife – has done this by performing together every year in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day and a “Celtic Christmas” and by hosting the Taylor Music Festival every June.

“Anybody can learn how these things come together,” says Taylor, explaining that the annual festival features both performances and lessons so people can hear a world-famous musician play the Irish tin whistle and take a lesson from her. “The idea is always to promote music – and in order to do that, you have to close the gap between the performer and the audience.”

Of course, you don’t have to perfect a Celtic tune on the tin whistle to appreciate music. All you have to do is listen.

“Every time we perform, I know we’re changing lives – opening someone’s eyes and ears,” says Taylor, who also serves as the director of the College of Charleston Concert Choir (itself lauded as one of the nation’s finest collegiate choirs), the College’s Madrigal Singers, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the CSO Chamber Singers. Because it is named for and specifically honors his father, however, Taylor Festival Choir (which also serves as the College’s professional choir-in-residence) holds a special place in his heart. “I really feel like I’ve put something together that honors my father. And it feels good to hear it called one of the best choirs in the world.”

Having been featured at the American Choral Directors Association’s national convention for the past two years, Taylor Festival Choir has certainly made a name for itself. And, as the choir’s conductor, Taylor himself is at the forefront of it all.

“I have the best seat in the house. Not too many people get to hear these voices like I do,” he says, adding that conductors are similar to sports coaches in that they’re in charge of how the group performs. “The difference is I’m not on the sidelines. I’m in the middle of it all. I’m performing with them. I’m not making any sound, but I’m still making music.”

And the music he’s making is powerful, indeed.

“Conducting is a deeply spiritual experience. When the choir is hot, it’s like you’re communicating with God through the medium of music, like you’ve tapped into Truth or God, or whatever you call that higher being,” he says. “It’s intoxicating. But I can’t just wallow in the ecstasy of it – I have to stay in control so that I can lead them, keep them functioning and balanced. I can’t let their voices get lost or overtaken.”

After all, these voices have come together for a reason.

“We’re here for the art. We’re here because we have to be, because art is an emotional and cultural necessity,” says Taylor. “People don’t realize how lost we’d be without it.”

No question about it: A soul’s got to eat.