Challenging the Possible: Stories and Symphonies Beyond Perfection
Welcome to our fifth Story Kin and Cousin Conversation. We continue the vision of the Story NOW! interviews by exploring the power of storytelling to transcend divisions and create change. We interview an oral storyteller and a cousin storyteller from a kindred art form. Join us for a conversation with storyteller and artistic director of Artists Standing Strong Together Sheila Arnold, and cousin storyteller, conductor, and music director Francesco Lecce-Chong.
Vel: Do you remember a story you were inspired by as a child, and who shared it with you?
Sheila: I am so excited to be here with Francesco. My storytelling and the way I tell it began because of symphonies, and because of orchestras. My father was in the military, and we would go see the Army band, the Navy Band, and the Marine Corps Band. Mostly because they were all free. My mom liked dressing us up, three little girls all four years apart, and we would go out to dinner, and then we would go hear the band. I was the oldest, and I thought this was pretty much hell on Earth, because my baby sister could flop around, my middle sister went to sleep, and I was supposed to set an example and stay awake. One day a band director turned around, told the lights to come up, and told us what was going to play was a story. It was Peter and the Wolf. And I was like: “Oh. Music can be stories.” From that time on, whenever I went, whenever I heard music, these beautiful orchestras, I always saw stories.
Francesco: That’s amazing Sheila. I also remember the first time I heard Peter and the Wolf. I’ve conducted it many times since. No matter where it is, I feel like a kid again. I remember doing one with the National Symphony at the National Institutes of Health. That’s probably the closest I’ve come to being a storyteller, because I literally had kids on my knee. I grew up in a creative family. I’m the only musician, but my mom’s an artist and my dad’s an architect. I remember my mother especially weaving nighttime stories. They were something I looked forward to: the continuous storytelling as I was growing up, and I was encouraged to do the same. And being inspired by the stories of composers. When you’re a child, the way we tell those stories is over the top: Beethoven being deaf, not being able to hear his music, and stomping around causing problems, but always hearing this beautiful music in his head. Beethoven Lives Upstairs, a children’s book, I remember distinctly, and thinking: I want to do that. I think it’s intrinsic to all of us, whatever those stories are. I’m excited to talk to you, and hear what it’s like when you put a focus on that.
Vel: Music and stories are often found together. How do you combine them in your own work?
Francesco: Among musicians, when you do it at a really high level and you go to conservatory for years and you’re being pushed so hard to be an absolute master of your craft, being able to communicate about it with words is secondary. A lot of us aren’t trained at all. One of the things I’m told so often as a conductor is: “Thank you for talking to the audience. Thank you for telling us about what we’re about to experience.” That’s not common in our field. Usually we’re told: “Stick to the music, do what you do well.” I’m a subset of conductors that want to engage the audience outside of music. I love the way you sing to start one of your stories, or engage the audience in that way, is that common among storytellers, that you sing as well? Or is that a special thing that you like to add?
Sheila: It’s not common. My extended family is very musical, we have composers as part of that, and musicians that have PhD’s. It was not natural at the beginning for me to add song. Someone said to me: “You’re singing all the time. I don’t understand why that doesn’t go in one of your stories.” I said: “I have cousins who have their own CDs. I don’t need to pretend I’m them.” And they’re like: “You’re not. Do you, and add that.” When Diane and I are together–she’s a PhD in music, she’s a composer, she’s very like you in “why waste a good moment to teach somebody?”–we have actually seen something at the same time, and the way I talk about it is orally, the description; she immediately thinks song. She sees her world through music, and I see my world through words. Do you find that for yourself? When you see things, you see the music?
Francesco: My path has been odd in that, I did want to be a composer early on. I went into undergrad thinking I was going to be a composer, and then switched to conducting. It’s one of the weird transitions of my life has been… at its base level, a creator, because if you’re a composer you’re creating, to realizing I could promote the music of colleagues I think have better voices than mine, as far as creativity goes. So I put myself in a position to advocate for that, and bring their music to life. The interesting thing was, the more I conducted, the less I could compose. The more I was trying to understand what made composers brilliant, the more I got in my own head when I tried to write music. Because I’d been dissecting their music to be able to make the most of it. The worst thing you can do, and maybe it’s the same for you, is create and analyze at the same time. It’s deadly. I do think more orally now, because so much of my work is presenting. It’s taking the music and trying to find the best way to communicate that, both in the performance and when I advocate for that particular piece. I did think purely in musical terms, you’re right, but I sort of switched.
Sheila: Don’t forget you have that. Bring that back to yourself. I bet you’re going to find, as you compose, you’re going to compose differently than you ever have. Because now, once you’ve stopped telling yourself all the things that you’re doing right and wrong, once you free yourself, you’ve added so much to your picture. You have a different tank filled with different gas now, and it’s going to create something extraordinary, when you come back to it. I truly believe we have those analysis times, and then find ourselves walking back in, to where our heart was. It’s different, because we’ve changed so much, but it’s much more powerful and richer than what we had before. Because we took the time to learn. I don’t know if you have that in your world, where you find people get lazy in the business? Over time, I recognized that’s where the strength of other people is: that they’re not lazy. Do you all have lazy musicians and composers?
Francesco: Well, these fields are really big, the whole point is you have all sorts of characters to make it happen, but definitely you can get a free ride as well. If you have a certain amount of innate talent, you don’t always have to go much further than that. I feel I had to fight tooth and nail. I was always in school practicing way more hours, and had to fight for every little thing. Even now I feel I have to spend more time studying music than a lot of colleagues, just to get to the same level. But it’s not a bad thing. Obviously I like it, and I’m happy I have to put in the work.
Sheila: One of the things people say is: “You have a very natural storytelling.” And I do. I learned fairly early in my career it would take me to a certain point, but then I would plateau. I have found natural talent in storytelling, you have to take that, and purposefully put yourself under people, and purposefully put yourself in a place of learning, and sitting at people’s feet, and really doing that work so you can grow. I think that’s really important.
Vel: What challenges as an artist have shaped your approach?
Francesco: It’s actually something I think about a lot. In some sense I had a really easy path, coming from a family of artists, but there weren’t any musicians. What was interesting for me, and what’s helped me, is I had to communicate and justify why I wanted to do all this music. It wasn’t just the financial commitment from my parents, but driving me before I was sixteen. They drove me two hours to a composer in a different city, because I wanted to study with this composer so badly. Once a month my parents would drive me so I could meet with this composer. They gave me so much. At the same time, I spent my life having to tell them why this was important. That’s really helped me now, and why I enjoy so much communicating with audiences and people in other fields. I wasn’t surrounded by musicians, so I had to talk about why I have to practice four hours a day, and what’s so great about Beethoven and Prokofiev. Those challenges, if you will, set me up well for where I am now. I’m curious to hear Sheila’s path.
Sheila: I got to watch a little of your presentation to the group in Carnegie. You spoke with them, not just to them, and not down to them. You allowed us moments to understand, through the eyes of an orchestra. That’s a gift you have that you’ve brought with you: helping people understand. For me, talking in our family was normal, it was the way you were. My parents took me to a musical, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Eubie Blake. I just melted. And they were like: “Oh. We have found her thing.” My birthday gift for years was tickets to go to a musical. In 2003, I was a single mom. God opened a door and said: “It’s time for you to do this full time.” The first person I talked to was my son. I said: “If I do this, your senior year may not have all the bells and whistles.” And he said: “This is what you’re supposed to do, Mom.” Then I went to my parents, who are fairly conservative about keep a job, keep your health care. Both my parents, without hesitation, said: “We know this is what you’re supposed to do.” I asked for help with the first year of bills, and they did that. I was very blessed, but that pushed me to work very hard. I had a lot of people at the beginning that gave me a chance. That completely informs me in regards to producing programs. I want people to hear new voices. People come with their A game. But they also learn. Folks say: “This was a master class in storytelling.” Hearing what you’re doing, those new composers, new voices in people’s ears. It’s so important. I do wish we paid artists better. The pandemic showed how much people need the arts. I wish that depth of knowledge translated into how we do things, or could do things. I know people, and I’m certain Francesco knows people, who are living, because they had arts to lean back on.
Francesco: In the orchestra world, there can be a lot of bureaucracy. I work with orchestras that are on the smaller side, so we’re a little more nimble, but it’s a slow moving field. The conductor/music director role has never been laid out very clearly. People think I’m like a Toscanini, where I yell and fire people in the moment. I actually like it when people come to my rehearsals. Because they don’t realize the teamwork that goes on, but also how fast and how efficient I have to work with everyone. During the pandemic I knew we weren’t going to have a single audience member all season, and I knew we weren’t going to sell a single ticket all season. They said: “You can have thirty-two musicians, everyone has to be spaced apart, and after that you can do whatever you want.” We put together a whole season of recorded concerts. Amazingly enough donors stepped in, foundations stepped in, even a little bit of government stepped in finally. We were not able to support our musicians as much as I would have liked, but we did better than most orchestras, because we were honest with our donors. We said: “We need your support, because we want to keep our musicians employed as much as possible.You need music, they need work. Let’s work together and make this happen.” I hope we’ll be stronger going forward, because we’re honest now about why orchestras need support, and what we offer in return.
Sheila: You said something so incredibly important: for us to be honest with our audiences. They don’t know. People look at me tell a story and say: “You just open your mouth.” They don’t realize all the work that goes in, or have any clue whether I actually speak at my house–which I do, I talk to myself at my house quite a bit, and I’m very interesting. Generally I spend a lot of time with the story stewing in my head, or stewing in my heart, running it through until it begins to weave its way to the right place. Most people would probably think: “Well that’s just strange, it’s just kind of sitting there.” But that’s what it takes, until I can then put it out into the world. But people don’t understand that as well. I think you’re absolutely right: the more honesty we have, the more behind the scenes we have, the more people see the work of artists. We don’t say enough the words “work” and “artist” in the same sentence. And I think we as artists need to change that: “the work I am doing.” Not just: “the art I am doing.” What are your thoughts on that?
Francesco: That’s one of the things I wrote down to talk with you about: how do you show the effort? I feel, in the orchestra world, this fascination with perfection I was taught all those years. Supposedly that’s all we’re supposed to strive for: absolute perfection, all the perfect notes. People get used to that. I got to work on amazing CDs over my years as an assistant.I know in one five minute work there can be five hundred edits. But you also see that in performances: the top orchestras in the world are so good, there’s no such thing as a bad performance, and you assume that. They ask: “What’s one of the qualities you want to have in your performances?” and I say: “risky.” You’re not supposed to say that, it’s supposed to be perfect. But I want to ride the edge of my performance. If it’s supposed to be fast, I want it to be on the edge of fast, if it’s supposed to be soft, I want it to be so soft people have to lean forward. When you do that mistakes happen, and I think that’s important. That’s my way of showing how hard we work, to make the audience think everything isn’t going to go perfectly. Obviously I hope it does, and that’s why we rehearse, but I want to push it to that point. Not playing it safe, creatively pushing ourselves to the edge.
Sheila: That is fascinating. I do walk into orchestras expecting it to be perfection, because we don’t talk about it in any other terms. When a dancer dances and they skip a step or they miss a move, or if there’s a color that doesn’t seem to match on a visual art, I think: “That wasn’t great, but ok, goes with the territory.” But I don’t give that leniency to music. And it is because we are not allowed to see your mistakes. What pressure that is.
Francesco: On the storytelling side, I’d say that’s the history of music until the last thirty or forty years, and something I’m trying to restore. We hear stories of say Beethoven. He gave a very famous concert in Vienna for six hours. He premiered his fifth symphony, his sixth symphony, a choral work, improvisations. It was a freezing night, there was no heating in this building he did this concert in. The musicians played by candlelight. The music was handwritten in ink, so it’s a mess. It was under-rehearsed, you had a partially deaf conductor. The concert was horrible, we have to assume. Beethoven was writing pieces musicians at the time couldn’t play. If we struggle with the technique, back then they could not play a lot of it. There’s another great example, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, that starts with a bassoon player playing higher than any bassoon could play. Now bassoonists practice it so it sounds perfect. Then it would have sounded like a duck being strangled. There’s this expecting the player to struggle. He wanted that sound. Over time we’ve perfected and smoothed it out. I think that’s a modern phenomenon, and in the past mistakes were expected. Because we were supposed to push the edge. Composers were pushing the edge of what is possible.
Sheila: I agree. We’ve come to the age of retakes. Wouldn’t it be cool to resurrect that particular concert of Beethoven’s? Having said everything you just said to me, let an orchestra play at the worst level. To almost do it wrong, so we can see what it means when it’s done right. Over the pandemic, when people started doing stories, they were editing every single thing. Storytellers telling a thirty minute story, spending nine to eleven hours editing it. I did that once. From then on out I said: “You get what comes out of my mouth: all the mistakes, all the challenges, all the difficulties. Because that’s true.” Last weekend a storyteller forgot a part of the story, and said: “I was supposed to tell you that–but I’m telling you now, and you’ve got to pretend I told you before.” Storytellers get away with that, if we are honest with the audience, and don’t try: “I forgot. I’ve got to start over again.” The audience does not like that, nor should they. When I am producing a show, things happen. Every mistake, whether it’s technological or something happens with the storyteller, is an opportunity to learn. Often I’ll call the audience to learn it with me: “That was an opportunity for us to see what happens when all the microphones go down.” Or someone saying: “I don’t think I can finish right now,” and saying: “Alright, that happens at times.” I feel I need to go to all the orchestras in the world and say: “You have permission to make a mistake!”
Francesco: Let me ask one follow up on. In storytelling, how much are you planning before that moment in front of the audience, and how much is spontaneous?
Sheila: When I go in front of an audience, I generally have a decision of the stories I’m going to tell. I say: “That’s my plan, but really it’s the open door. It keeps my mind open to all the other stories possible.” When I get on stage extraordinary things can happen. I was at the Paris Storytelling Festival. On Friday we were in the schools. I was invited to go to a daycare. I walked in, and there were two, two-year-olds. That was it. Two, two-year-olds, their two teachers, and the guy who drove me there. My process is to tailor it for their age: I’ve got to reduce the time, keep the voices, but then connect it to things they know. In my head I have a storyteller, but I also have a producer– you’re laughing so I assume you do, too– constantly surveying the situation: “They may not know red. Find red. There you go, something red!” I’m constantly producing, in my head, the story itself. I saw a frog and thought: “Ok, we’re doing a rendition of ‘The Frog and the Princess’.” They gave me the frog I saw. It happened to be a puppet, so the frog got to talk. I changed the ending for the adults. I made it so the princess wouldn’t kiss the frog, even though she promised. The frog ran after her, and kissed her anyway, and she turned into the frog. So the frog I was holding was a princess a long time ago. The adults thought that was the most divine thing, the kids just thought the frog was funny. I come in with a door slightly open, planned, but I’m prepared for what might come down in the pike. What does an orchestra do if there’s crying babies in the front row? Do you have incidents like that?
Francesco: I love children’s concerts because of the chaos. I thrive on that. To a sense, adults come in with an expectation: it’s going to be perfect, they’re going to like it, and they know something about Mozart and Beethoven. Kids come in, they’re just like: “the tuba looks funny!” I wish we could be as agile as you are. If we were, I could do awesome things: I could turn to the orchestra and say, “we’re going to be playing that piece.” We unfortunately can’t, because it’s eighty people who need to have the music and know what we’re doing. Listening, I’m jealous the way stories have been passed for thousands of years is relatively intact. You have your stories, but adjust them to your audience or the circumstances, or your own life experiences as they change. Music was that way for a long time. All the great composers could improvise, it wasn’t only Jazz. Until maybe 1900, that was a way of communicating. They could compose something on the spot, mix in their own pieces, throw folk tunes in. That art is largely gone. There’s literally a couple of musicians known for it. We’ve become very what we call come scritto, to the book. I’m jealous storytelling continues to preserve that amazing tradition. For us, I hope we find ways to get back to that.
Sheila: I hope that for you as well. It’s interesting you say that. My cousin who writes music, Diane Clayton-White, she writes things where people say: “So how are we supposed to play this?” She purposefully does that. She has this praise clap song. The clapping is difficult, but it’s required in the song. Experienced people look at her work and go “Absolutely no. I’m not doing this.” And she does it on purpose, to push things, to challenge the mind, and challenge the music and where it’s been. Maybe music needs more of that.
Francesco: It’s always had it, so it’s reminding ourselves we can be spontaneous. I live for those moments. The way I destress after a concert, usually I’d go straight to a Jazz club at midnight or 1am. After a whole evening striving for absolute perfection, and exactly what’s on the page, the way I could destress was watching musicians hang out and make up music on the spot for hours. That’s still my favorite thing to do, probably because I’m a little jealous they get to make music that way. I’m sure it’s something that will eventually come back, because that is how music is inevitably created is a series of improvisations and they meld together.
Sheila: The fact you brought it to my mind creates a space for me to not go in with perfection as the thing. To be able to say: “Maybe that which might have been a wrong note, might have been the right note. And what if they had taken that note a step further?” We have put an expectation on a particular art. You’ve given history to what music was. I didn’t have the history. You’ve given me that history: it wasn’t perfection always. That makes me feel that not just perfect people can do this. How many more musicians would there be if people realized we didn’t start out this way?
Francesco: I would not be this passionate two years ago, going this far to: “we shouldn’t strive for perfection”. The way the orchestra sits on the stage is specific. Musicians argue about inches. Health mandates last year were: “You want to get back on stage, we’re talking six to eight feet.” We had plexiglass barriers between the wind players, because they couldn’t have masks on. I could hardly hear them, much less them be able to hear other people. We didn’t have many rehearsals. Everyone was exhausted, we were anxious. You’re talking about, could we recreate that Beethoven? When we were thinking of what to play, I thought: I want to do music that is not supposed to be perfect, that when it was first performed would have been a disaster. We did the first three Beethoven symphonies, and works that were groundbreaking, too hard for orchestras at the time. The only way to play these pieces is they would throw themselves at them. It was interesting to work with the orchestra, everyone was timid. By the time we got to the third symphony, everyone went crazy. We didn’t have an audience, but I would hold that up as one of my best performances. The only way to make it work was to believe strongly in what we were trying to say with the piece, bringing out the struggle. This was the Eroica symphony where Beethoven was writing suicide letters. He knew he was going deaf, and is fighting against the world. This is one of those pieces we play perfectly and don’t think about. Once I experienced that, I knew we were doing things wrong. Our striving to keep everything safe, and perfect, and in a box actually does a disservice to a lot of the music we perform.
Sheila: So where was the reality show on this one?
Francesco: We should have made some sort of documentary on this. We were the first orchestra in California, and one of the first in the world, to start playing again. This was the time others were doing string quartets. We did it, but there were a lot of days I thought: this is not going to work.
Sheila: I love that story, Francesco. We should invite you to come and tell that story: of a risk. In order to do something powerful and beautiful it had to almost look ugly to get there. Kudos to you for fighting the need to be absolutely perfect so you could give something beautiful.
Francesco: I would love to hear how the pandemic was for you and how you adapted. Surely you weren’t able to have the same audiences. What was that experience like for you?
Sheila: I wish I could talk about it in my individual terms, but I didn’t start with me individually. I was watching my friends hurting, losing thousands of dollars in a short period of time. So we started Artists Standing Strong Together. I found for me in the pandemic, I did a lot of caring for other people, and that was good. I also found I was extraordinarily creative. I think because I had time, and because I was not so much worried about my own work, but other people. It wasn’t until June or July of this year I started feeling the pandemic on me personally, and feeling the strangeness of not being able to be with the audience, the strangeness of what my work had done. It took me a long time to get to that point. I noticed, about the audience, I adapted fairly easily. On Zoom I could talk with people about the stories. Now, live, I can’t as often, because they shouldn’t be coming up to me after the programs to be safe. I’m just processing what the pandemic has meant to me, because I spent a lot, maybe even too much time, taking care of everyone else. So I’m just walking through.
Francesco: Was that also part of your way of dealing with it? Certainly for me, having to take care of my orchestras, and trying to keep music in people’s lives, for me it was almost a coping mechanism.
Sheila: Yes. Absolutely. The way I survived this was taking care of people, and now I’m having to take care of myself. The joy is when you take care of people really well, they turn around and take care of you, and step into your life when you don’t realize you’re going to need them. I’m really happy about that. I’m walking through and learning. One thing, I’m reentering now, I can’t stand as long. I was doing everything on Zoom, so I was sitting down.
Francesco: We started getting back into a full rehearsal schedule, and after a double the other day my body was not happy with me.
Sheila: I don’t think we spend enough time talking about reentry. We’ve been so wanting to be there we haven’t processed what that means for our bodies and our minds. I don’t think we’ve recognized what that’s going to do to us as artists. I know artist friends, like me, who are finding themselves exhausted. One of my artist friends said: “I forgot what I take when I travel…I forgot things I did naturally before.” The world is going to be very different, and we don’t realize what our bodies have gone through and changed in. We’re going to expect people to be at the level we were before, and I don’t think we’re going to be there.
Francesco: I definitely relate. Our seasons start in September and October. Four months ago I thought we’d have a grand opening. It’s not going to be that smooth or that pretty getting back.
Sheila: As artists we just need to talk about that. The expectation we’ve put on ourselves, and others have as well, is artists will just bounce back. I don’t think we will just bounce back.
Vel: Is there one thing you’d like people to take away from this conversation?
Sheila: Open yourself up to other art genres. Don’t just sit in the storytelling world. There’s so many connections that can be made, and we can learn from. I hope more than anything, people will walk away with: wow, what could happen if I had a conversation with someone completely out of my art form? If I took a moment and learned from them, and studied them? I hope we as storytellers and artists in general will enhance each other by walking across the aisle to other arts and connecting.
Francesco: How am I supposed to follow that? That’s perfect. I should play a piece of music right now, since that would be my version of what you just said. I absolutely echo what Sheila said. All the best times I’ve had as a musician have been working with people in all sorts of different genres and disciplines. I think part of that, and something I’ve been very conscious of recently is: yes, everybody needs the arts, and that’s so important, but also we’re all creative. That’s part of what makes us human, we’re constantly creating. Whether we’re cooking or writing a letter or making music or telling a story, it’s a part of all of us. Whatever your creative outlet is, we all need it. And it’s a way for all of us to connect with each other. No matter our backgrounds or different places we work, whatever it is that makes us all different, one thing that makes us all the same is: we all have to have that creative outlet, and there’s nothing more fun than finding and discussing other people’s way of creating and how that works.
Sheila Arnold has been gifted by God with performance skills and has been using this talent since she was eight years old. Since 2003 she has been a full-time Storyteller traveling through the United States and sharing a variety of stories – “whatever fits in her mouth”, as well as doing Historic Character Presentations and Christian Monologues. At her core, Ms. Sheila, as she is commonly called, is a Professional Imaginator with a passion, vision and ministry of healing hearts, unifying communities and reminding people to share their stories. Sheila’s online programming and workshops with Artists Standing Strong Together can be found at https://www.artistsstandingstrongtogether.net. Sheila will be performing October 30th at Jonesborough (TN) Brews and Boo’s, 8-10 pm (EDT): https://jonesborough.com/boo . For more from Sheila find her at www.mssheila.org , follow her on Twitter @MsSheila757 , or reach her by email at
Francesco Lecce-Chong serves as Music Director for the Eugene Symphony in Oregon and the Santa Rosa Symphony in California. He has appeared as a guest conductor with major orchestras around the world including the New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Hong Kong Philharmonic, and the Toronto Symphony. Francesco’s performances with the Eugene Symphony and Santa Rosa Symphony can be attended both in person and online – more information at https://www.srsymphony.org and https://eugenesymphony.org For more from Francesco, find him at https://lecce-chong.com