Martin Segerstråle: A blank paper full of endless opportunities

A musician distinguished by unique musical diversity – finish pianist, conductor, and composer Martin Segerstråle. Music was a part of his life since he was 5 and Martin Segerstråle tells he was probably born with a passion for music and his entire life was dedicated to development of the passion.Therefore he had finished studies in musicology, piano, choral conducting, musical direction and coaching. Martin has conducted several choirs in Finland and is in frequent demand as musical director, pianist and accompanist. In the interview, the musician discuses creativity, Finland’s music traditions and his lifestyle.

How could you describe the music traditions of Finland? What would you say are the most associated features? Is there Finnish music identity? What forms it?

I would say the music traditions of Finland are in many ways interwoven with the Nordic traditions as a whole, as Finland was part of Sweden for the best part of 700 years. Notwithstanding, the Finnish music culture has many aspects that are very originally Finnish, starting with the national epos Kalevala. Moving on, Jean Sibelius obviously became a symbol of Finnish music in the 19th century and, for many Finns, he is still the epitome of Finnishness, so to speak. I also think the Finnish musical identity is made up of many smaller aspects, not necessarily only related to the music in itself – the Russian rule during the 19th century, the struggle for independence in the early 20th century and the tough years during the two wars certainly made the Finns very aware of the importance of a cultural identity of their own.

You are a music director, pianist, accompanist, conductor and composer. How do you balance all of your occupations in your everyday life? How do you describe your identity as a musician?

I started out as a pianist; the accompaniment part came along quite naturally working with singers. My composing started very early on as well, as I was interested in seeing how music is created and what sounds good and what does not, and why. Conducting had interested me since I was a small child, play-conducting in front of the stereo to all the classical recordings we had at home. There was a fascination there, but, at that point, not necessarily an aim for a conducting career – it was merely interesting. As choir singing became a bigger part of my life during my later school years and then at university, conducting became a focus point once more. This eventually led to choral conducting studies at the Sibelius Academy. During this time, I played for a musical theatre masterclass in Helsinki and met one of the teachers from the musical theatre program at the Royal Academy of Music in London. The discussions I had with them convinced me of the fact that the musical direction program at the RAM was something for me, as I had worked quite extensively in theatre in Finland even before this and knew and enjoyed the genre very much. My year in London was a defining period of my career and I haven’t looked back. Nowadays, I define myself as a musical director, even though I am very much a pianist at heart in most situations. The choir conducting bit I have been lucky enough to keep alive with a choir I founded a few years ago and I still enjoy it immensely. The composing part of me is also still present, but the lack of time to do any proper composing has kept the output to a minimum.

You have studied in Musical Direction and Coaching, choral conducting, piano and musicology. How did you find your way in music? What was the incentive to study several ways of approaching music?

The piano was my starting-off point, when I was five. Later on, going into university studies, musicology felt like the only option for me at the time. As mentioned earlier, the conducting bit had always been interesting, but the interest grew with more exposure to choir music and opportunities to conduct. During my studies, I got the chance to work in the theatre and always felt it was a place where I belonged. Generally, in my experience, having worked with so many aspects of music and different genres has given me a broad knowledge, which is especially helpful in musical theatre, where genres are often mixed in the most peculiar ways.

You studied in London and Helsinki. How could you compare these two cultures in their music education and traditions? What do these countries value in music differently?

I obviously studied very classical subjects in Helsinki and musical theatre in London, so the differences are already quite clear. The level of both universities is very high; the will to be the best one can be is always present. One actual difference I noticed – and this was because I was generously allowed to sit in during one of the choral conducting lessons, so there are most certainly more than this one aspect – was that in Finland, a lot of attention is given to the technical aspects of conducting; focus is on the beat and how to make it technically as good as possible. In London, the focus seemed to be on creating sound – the technical aspects weren’t discussed nearly as much, and when there was discussion about the beat, it focused on how to shape the sound of the choir with your hands, not so much on how to beat the pattern.

You were an artistic leader of Studentkören Brahe Djäknar, Ensemble Vida and Key Ensemble. What do you take away from this experience? What is the most important thing you learned by leading the student choir?

All choirs teach you something. My time with the student choir was a one-year project; as the conductor I was standing in for had a general vision for the choir, implemented for years, my time was too short to really have an impact on the long-time aims and results. However, I believe I did shape my own sound during the year. Standing up in front of a group of people I had only recently been a part of, as a singer, was obviously a bit exciting at the start, but we quickly found our way. I had previously been vice conductor, so I had been in charge of rehearsals every now and then. A student choir is as much about having a good time as it is about making great music, and the conductor of such a choir needs to remember that all the time. Ensemble Vida was a project that started living a life of its own quite quickly, and the choir recently celebrated its 5th anniversary. That was “my group” from the beginning and it was obviously down to me to create the sound I wanted. My friend from the Sibelius Academy took over when I left for London and we currently share the artistic leadership. It’s a very different choir to any other. I was never artistic leader for Key Ensemble, but they sang in my choral conducting MMus exam and I worked with them during the rehearsals. I had been singing in the choir for a while, so it was wonderful to have them join – it is a very special choir with a very special sound. You are noted as one of the founders of Ensemble Vida.

Maybe you could tell what was the thought process of finding the ensemble?

It all started with a few friends – we sang in a quartet and had thoughts about making it into something more. We wanted a group that could sing challenging choral music but also have a lot of fun during the process. We gathered people we knew might be interested and set out a plan. It all grew from there; first we tried out a few things, then we had a first concert, and slowly and steadily we moved towards bigger challenges, longer-time planning and a more steady rhythm with regards to concerts and training camps.

You were awarded for your accomplishments on numerous occasions (Finlands Svenska Sångoch Musikförbund conducting prize, Kurt-Erik Långbacka-priset, Svenska Kulturfonden annual culture prize). What meaning does the recognition hold in your heart?

It is obviously nice to get recognition for your work, even though I do not really count my success in prize wins. When I read the prize statements, I was sometimes surprised by some aspects of the reasoning behind awarding me that specific prize, and it was both interesting and gratifying to notice that those parts of my work had been recognized.

You have studied with very accomplished and inspiring artists – Mark Warman, David White, Nick Skilbeck, Dan Bowling, Imelda Staunton, Jeremy Sams, John Bucchino, Matti Hyökki, Nils Schweckendiek, Folke Gräsbeck and Teppo Koivisto. What did you learned from your teachers? Maybe they have shared some wisdom which is guiding you even today?

All teachers give you something – every teacher I have had has given me a few words of advice I will never forget, I am sure of that. It might not even be related to the specific subject; it can be a life story, an account of a meeting the teacher had with a great artist, anything. It all enriches you and your music making and the combination of stories and wisdom is what makes any great artist.

You are playing piano from the age of five. How music came into your life? Did you felt like you had a choice to pursue a non-musical career?

I have been told by my mother I liked pressing the keys on the piano when I was about five, and she thought it might be a good idea to take up lessons and see what happens. Obviously, that was a good idea! After that, music was pretty much all I did. However, I was convinced quite early on I wasn’t going to be a solo pianist – I have always enjoyed music-making in groups much more than solo playing. It is hard to say if a non-musical career was ever on the cards, but in my heart, I don’t think so.

How your understanding of music and “relationship” with music developed and changed through time?

 I have always felt I have changed as a musician with every major new revelation I have experienced. First, I was a pianist. Then, step by step, I found new forms of music and new ways of expressing myself. I think the relationship evolves all the time; it is all down to what music your life requires at that specific point. Recently, I have started listening to my compositions from the late 90’s; I cannot say they are all brilliant, but there is something there that reminds me of those times – it is a bit like a museum! I believe re-experiencing certain moments in your own musical history might be very beneficial every once in a while. It reminds you of where you have been and what you have become.

How your daily practice does look like? Do you have any rituals as a composer?

I do not really have a daily routine – my days are quite different from each other and it is hard to have a strict routine. During performance days, I try not to do too much during the day and focus my energy on the show in the evening. My practice sessions, when required, are usually fit into whatever free slot there is. I am not a person who practices for hours, I tend to do short but effective bits and then leave it for a while. If I compose, however, I might write for hours on end and only stop when I notice I am hungry!

How did you imagine your profession at the beginning of your career? What was your motivation and aspirations? How does the reality differ?

That is a very hard question to answer. I don’t think I had a clear picture of what it was going to be – when I was younger I wasn’t even 100% certain I was going to be a musician! My motivation has always been to be the best I can be, and I think as long as you stay true to that, reality does not really differ too much from that.

What do you value the most in the music performance?

I always feel music should be true, a true depiction of your view of the score, not something you have heard or seen and felt is “the right way” to do something. If a performance of a piece of music is completely true, real, yourself, I will probably enjoy it.

What would you name as musicians that inspired you; or pieces that introduced you to something new at the beginning of your career?

I grew up in a classical bubble, so when I got my first radio in the middle of the 90’s and suddenly discovered all the popular music of the era, my mind was completely blown. That changed my understanding of music in a fundamental way.

How did your passion for music born?

I think you are born with that passion, in a way; then you need to understand you have it and nurture it. Good teachers probably notice that passion and fuel it.

What kind of impact do you want to have to the listener? If you knew that you had only one last opportunity to express yourself creatively, what message would you want to convey to others?

I do not think it is about me as an artist, I think it is about me as a medium giving the listener as true an interpretation as possible of the music on the page. The message should be the one the composer intended, I think, not your own agenda using the music as fuel.

Define inspiration – does it exist? How does it manifest in your everyday life?

It does exist. Inspiration can be found anywhere – a conversation, a walk, a good meal. It is about new impressions and thoughts.

How do you listen to the music of others? What are you searching for? What affects you or resonates with you the most?

This goes back to being true – if what I hear is true, it affects me. I always look for new impressions, new pieces, and new performers. It is also about curiosity for me, hearing new interpretations and thinking “oh, you could do that!” And I still think music should be beautiful. It soothes the soul.

Have you ever doubted your talent? How did you work through your doubts?

I think all creative artists doubt their talent all the time. It is the way you bounce back and overcome those doubts that defines what you become. Whenever I have those moments, I just work harder, put myself in difficult situations and try to come out on top.

How do you define creativity?

I think it is the process of making something out of nothing. Creative people see opportunities and ingredients where other people see nothing. I think the whole concept of creating art is such a beautiful thing. Taking myself as an example, I have never been much of a visual artist, and I truly admire painters who can take a piece of canvas and create a picture on it – it is inconceivable to me. Then again, I figure composing is much the same; it is pieces of paper on which you scribble notes which in turn help other people create music. I’ll admit I sometimes marvel at that process myself, at the fact that small dots on a paper can create worlds.

Please describe your state of mind when you are composing music.

It’s like tunnel vision. Mostly! It obviously depends on the piece, whether it is something shorter that is written quickly, or a bigger piece that requires more work and rework. But quite often, it’s tunnel vision.

What is your guilty music pleasure?

That is definitely a secret!

How being the conductor had influenced you as a composer?

You learn from conducting music – what to write, what definitely not to write, what works and what does not. I am certain my conducting work has affected my writing, even though I am not sure it has been a conscious process.

How would you describe your conducting style?

I think you should ask somebody who has sung/played with me. It is difficult to describe my own conducting. I try to be as much of a helpful presence as possible to whoever it is I am conducting!

What is the difference of conducting your own pieces and pieces written by other composers?

I haven’t conducted much of my own music, but obviously, you know every aspect of the song and what you have looked for. Then again, you might be a bit blind regarding other ways of doing the music, so sometimes it is very beneficial to have someone else interpret the material.

How could you describe your lifestyle as a musician? What elements of it challenge you the most?

I do not think the lifestyle of a musician is much different from any other occupation – obviously, a freelance musician moves around a lot more, from workplace to workplace, and few days are alike. But mostly, I think it is just like any job – doing something for a living. I would say the biggest challenge as a freelancer is constantly being on the lookout for jobs, but I have been fortunate enough to have a lot of work in the past years. I am obviously very lucky to be able to do my favorite thing for a living – I think it was a Nobel physics prize winner who once said, speaking of being successful, that when a person works with something they would just as happily do for free, that is the true measure of success. I just feel very grateful to be doing what I am doing.

What do you think that your career gave you the most? What do you value the most in the journey?

For me, the feeling of giving an audience a memory to cherish, an experience to think about and remember, to evoke emotions – that is the thing to treasure most about being a musician. I much prefer audience members coming up to me after a concert and telling me that the music gave them an experience or a reminder of a beautiful memory than them praising the performers.

What is the biggest lesson on creativity you had to learn? How did it shape you as a musician?

I had to think for a long time about what to answer you here. Sometimes, when listening to compositions I wrote in my teens, I feel that the one big lesson I have learned with regards to creativity is that I should let it exist! During my studies, I had a tendency to hold my creativity back and go with what was “correct” instead of what I would maybe actually have wanted to express. Obviously, this applies to making music as a pianist and conductor as well. A creative idea might feel “too much” and therefore, one might decide to go for a more conventional way of expressing the music. My advice would be to just go for it! Life is too short to repeat what somebody else has already said. Be creative, think of your own ways of expressing yourself. This has certainly shaped my musical persona.

How much of your own life is reflected in your work?

I think every artist puts loads of their own experience into their work, be it in the way they perform or in what they create. We are our experiences; I don’t think you can take that out of any single person.

Do you have certain patterns, structures when it comes to the creative process?

Not really. Every project requires its own processes. What are the most fun and the most boring part of the creative process? It is fun knowing what you want to do, structuring up the process, starting off. A blank paper presents endless opportunities. The most boring part is probably the small “admin” kind of stuff that needs to be done in between and mostly at the end, to make it all look and sound good.

Are there any future projects that excite you the most?

All of them!

Thank you for the conversation

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