2021-2022 Teaching Award Winner: Stephen Hargreaves

Published: 5 July 2022

Congratulations to Prof. Stephen Hargreaves, winner of Schulich's 2021-2022 Teaching Award in the full-time category. 

Stephen is vocal coach for Voice and Opera and Early Music, at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels, where he coaches from the piano and harpsichord in aspects of singing, language, diction, style, musicianship, career and overall artistic expression. He co-teaches the classes of Opera McGill and is the Music Director of the program where his responsibilities have included: listening to auditions for all singers, casting and programming the Opera McGill season; auditioning pianists and overseeing them throughout all the rehearsal processes; teaching classes in Mozart recitative and ornamentation; mock auditions; playing for weekly colloquiums; role preparation and coaching of all roles sung on stage (which counted 49 this year); conducting rehearsals and performances as required. He is dedicated to the work, the music, and above all, the students.

No matter what obstacles Opera McGill faces, Stephen is part of the team that steps up and steps in. Giving extra time to keep projects afloat and helping colleagues and students alike has made a huge impact to the program and on those who work with him. When a student asked Stephen what it was like to take so much on — including sometimes coming on board at the last minute, if needed — he responded that he “just liked to make things work.” 

Sometimes following a conductor can be a stressful experience — but not with Stephen. There is a trust that is developed and nurtured through professionalism and kindness. He keeps the students’ best interests at heart. Student pianists, harpsichordists, singers, and conductors all receive feedback during the rehearsal process, with an aim towards growth and development. Stephen prepares individualized notes mentioning exceptional moments along with those that could use polishing. These are offered with respect and, without fail, the reason why the change is important to make — providing information they can be applied in the future. He wants all to be empowered and confident in making their own artistic choices, whether it be role interpretation or even preparing their own ornamentation.  

The way Stephen coaches is extremely collaborative and creative. With considered guidance and constant support he allows young musicians to discover their unique voice. He has high expectations and challenges students to take thoughtful risks in their music-making. He shares his knowledge freely and is willing to offer insights that go beyond just singing. A student shared that “working on the voice is as much about knowing yourself as it is about knowing your voice, and Stephen has always been there to help keep me positive, to look deeper, to keep working, and to be kind to myself throughout all the work.”  

Stephen leads by example. He shows up prepared and positive, providing a calm and supportive energy in the rehearsal room and studio. With tireless empathy, patience, and an inspiring devotion to excellent music-making he demonstrates not just what to do, but how to do it.  

In celebration of this award and of his achievements, we asked Stephen to tell us more about his teaching philosophy, what he’ll carry with him from this past year, and to let us know what advice he might give to his starting-at-university-self. 

What are some elements that are important to your teaching philosophy?   

I didn’t come to McGill as a teacher. I always knew I wanted to give back educationally but I came to music with curiosity as a youth and pursued and refined this love as a life-long student. Despite now having invested thousands of hours mastering a multitude of musical concepts and skills, I still prefer to remain open to the collaboration of learning. To this regard, I find I hold on to mantras rather than a codified philosophy. They go something like this: 

Maintain balance and perspective 

Performance can be a “look at me” endeavour. It’s important to remind ourselves that what we do is not the only measure of who we are and, while art is incredibly important for the perseverance of the human spirit and shapes culture, it is ephemeral and adaptive and blossoms with empathy and humility. 

Respect the individual voice 

As I collaborate frequently with singers, this is both a literal and metaphorical comment. Literally, I want my students to treat their bodies with respect, to be impatient for knowledge and to actively pursue change. Metaphorically, as a guide I want to hear who the person I am collaborating with truly is and I want them to be affirmed that they have something unique and valid to communicate. This is so important when you are studying in a field where very few will ever have the capacity to support themselves solely on their performance engagements. They need to leave McGill, or any training institution, knowing their perspective and thoughts have weight. 

Separate the analyzing from the doing 

In any physical activity there is a need to see it, try it and analyze how to make it better. When babies learn skills there is a balance between fine and gross motor skill acquisition… they pull themselves up and fall on their rumps learning to balance and move on two legs. If a baby analyzed whether each motion they made was perfectly aligned, it would take years to figure anything out. Singers need to jump in — to learn what they need, try it, and then decipher what was successful and what was not. It is impossible to convey anything clearly if you are questioning every moment.  

Be clear with your objectives 

It is not sufficient to declare you will perform at “X” hall, be famous, or make this much money. Objectives are the thoughtful lists one makes to determine how to get from one point to the next. They constitute one’s game plan and should be a combination of moment-to-moment goals, daily achievements and larger scale ambitions. 

Anybody can sing  

This one I stole from Ratatouille (Chef Gusteau), but I’m a firm believer in the sentiment because everyone has something to say and can learn to sing. I’ve witnessed numerous performers who were turned down by organizations big and small, suddenly emerge in a year or two at the most prominent institutions in the world. Voices are unique — different colours, ranges and volumes and the minds and spirits that speak through them are independent and powerful. Many people make the mistake of believing singing is a magical talent granted at birth. It is simply a learnable skill — a coordination of body and thought that can be harnessed to communicate emotion at a wordless, visceral level. It is an acquirable “magic” for anyone who loves music and is willing to work. 

Has your teaching philosophy changed over time? If so, how?  

When I began teaching, I treated students like young professionals who might be a young artist at a company with which I was working. Over time teaching at McGill, I began to see that all the students needed more concerted help in building their fundamental skills so that they could take bigger and more effective steps towards professional proficiency. Those fundamentals are psychological as much as they are musical and technical. I am thrilled by the ways that those seeds grow and bloom into unique, satisfying and sometimes unexpected artistic expression.  

Working with my students also greatly redefined for me what constituted a professional artist. Artistry is not highfalutin, nor overly precious — it is not reserved for the most prominent successes or most perfect practitioners — it is the intersection of effective emotional expression and the individual personality/voice through a medium. Its potential is always present and always accessible if you look for it. I am careful to see the individual in front of me and attempt to understand their perspective. Their uniqueness should be central to their artistry. Too often at the university level and before, the student is told to fit their performance into the “right” parameters which then can become barriers blocking their expression. 

What do you want your students to leave your classroom/studio knowing?  

That they are not broken. So much of the old-school mentality of the industry led students to internalize the story that their essential technique of producing sound is broken and requires a full rebuild. Though some correction is always necessary, it is more important to recognize the inherent artistry, beauty and skill in every musician. Corrections are just minor course adjustments. The aspects which are easy and working well should be recognized, celebrated and built upon.  

What does a future-ready musician look like to you?  

Adaptable. Knows how to learn. Creative. Works multiply — has many options. Can use their technique to express a wide range of emotions, styles and genres. Collaborative. Technology allows for so many interesting artists to have a platform they would never have gotten in the past due to issues of equity, financial equality or simple, dumb luck. The students of today need to proactively identify what makes them stand out in a crowd. 

What will you carry from this past year into the coming years? 

COVID. Won’t we all carry the pandemic with us? Stories of heartbreak, resilience and adaptation pervade all of us now. The landscape has been changed and the world is still coming to terms with our new reality. Performance is tied to audience — we have just seen how fragile that connection is. Despite it all, the pandemic has strengthened my conviction that emotionally stirring performances that come from sung words are an essential part of our shared experience. We do not have enough outlets for the communal and collaborative emotional expression that genres such as opera can create. I am thankful that I can help inspire students to become artists who will have the minds and internal fortitude to wrestle with these issues. 

Do you have a stand-out teaching moment from the past year?  

I do not feel there was one stand-out moment from this year… rather  the past couple years were simply about creating stability, hope and just showing up.  

What advice would you give to your starting-at-university self?  

Speak with your own voice and believe. 

If you hadn’t ended up in music, what might an alternate career path have been?  

Since the age of 9, it was only music. The question was, and still is, in which stream of music will I swim? And my resounding answer is in as many as I possibly can: harpsichordist, pianist, horn player, coach, conductor, editor, researcher, writer, more and more… exploring and functioning in as many facets as we are capable allows us to grow as musicians, artists and ultimately, as human beings. 

What was a recent book you read / show you watched?   

The Extended Mind – Annie Murphy Paul — important conversations about the way that our mind works in community and with others. 

City of Stairs (The Divine Cites trilogy) - Robert Jackson Bennett — I flew through this trilogy - a quirky imaginative trilogy of fantasy novels with a complex society and relationships between individuals and gods. And speaking of interesting fantastical reads, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch trilogy) and her latest novel The Raven Tower, without spoiling anything, involve really interesting narrators and ways of telling stories. 

TV… Sex Education — so smart, sensitive and funny.  

Bosch — I’m a sucker for old-school yet complex detective dramas and Bosch does not disappoint in any respect. 

Bordertown — Just great characters and writing… a great Finnish Nord noir TV show. 

Last, but not least — Ted Lasso — such a necessary and refreshing rethinking of what it is to be a leader and what it means to be a part of a team. 

Anything on your to-learn list? 

Falstaff is currently on my mind as I’m conducting a production in St. Louis this summer. It’s Verdi at his best with Shakespeare through Boito as librettist — great text and drama. Because it is dense and so detailed, it has been taking quite a while to digest.  

Musically there are always countless things I want to tackle! Currently I have been revisiting the Rachmaninoff 2nd sonata (the original version) and the Goldberg Variations. After creating a new edition last year of L’amant anonyme (1780) by Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a Paris-based Black composer, I am seeking to identify other historically overlooked works by underrepresented composers. 

It is unusually fortunate when one figures out what they want to do with their life, but when that person is a 9-year-old child who accidentally inherits a converted player piano from his new neighbours (because the instrument wouldn’t fit through their front door), it is magic. From the auspicious moment that Stephen Hargreaves sat down before that humble instrument, his love for music began. With no musical background of his own and none in his family, Stephen’s parents recognized his passion and engaged a local teacher to introduce him to the technical aspects of learning music. Stephen quickly dove into exploring music of all genres. He spent hours captivated by diverse composers spanning centuries, rapidly absorbing their languages. He sight-read and mastered piece after piece and it soon became clear that, in order to continue to progress, Stephen needed to find a conservatory based high-school. Having added horn a few years after the piano, his parents lovingly packed him (and his smaller instrument) and moved him to the Walnut Hill School for Performing Arts just outside of Boston. 

Walnut Hill provided a strong base that readied Stephen for his collegiate years at Indiana University where Stephen chose to major in horn as a student of the acclaimed Myron Bloom and continued his piano studies with Reiko Neriki. After passing out of many of his freshman year core requirements, he needed additional credits and registered for an accompaniment class. Stephen was assigned to play for legendary soprano Martina Arroyo’s singers and quickly found himself enamoured with the vocal repertoire. In his third year at Indiana, Stephen played for Ardo Opera’s performance of The Turn of the Screw and this experience shaped the direction of his life moving forward. During Stephen’s senior year, he managed to accompany 40 recitals (including performing his own horn recital), perform a Barber of Seville, and left during the school year for a month to work professionally with Dayton Opera. He graduated with honours.  

Post university, Hargreaves lived in Chicago, where he joined the staff of Chicago Opera Theater (COT). At the time Stephen worked with COT, the company head was Brian Dickie. Dickie shaped COT as a boutique company performing eclectic works. In Stephen’s 13 seasons with COT, he fulfilled every musical job imaginable: répétiteur, coach, orchestral pianist, outreach pianist, recital accompanist, music librarian, continuo, chorus master, assistant conductor and conductor. Stephen was steeped in baroque and classical operas performed on period instruments and the most challenging of contemporary opera. When not performing with COT, Stephen freelanced in similar roles nationally and internationally. He has conducted at companies including Union Avenue Opera, Opera Omaha, Glimmerglass, Chicago Opera Theater, Banff, Pine Mountain Music Festival, Festival Lyrique de Belle-île-en-mer, Opera McGill and University of Toronto. He has assisted conductors including Harry Bicket, Jane Glover, Steuart Bedford, Johannes Debus, Pablo Heras-Casado, Rinaldo Alessandrini, Julius Rudel, Raymond Leppard, Emmanuelle Haïm and Michael Hofstetter at companies including Santa Fe Opera, Canadian Opera Company, Washington National Opera and Chicago Opera Theater. 

As a recitalist and collaborative pianist, Stephen regularly performed at Preston Bradley Hall (Chicago) and the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre (Toronto). In 2014, he released a solo piano album, Variations on 1930, a collection of colourful virtuosic works composed around 1930. Collaboratively, he has accompanied singers including Anita Rachvelishvili, Samuel Ramey, Clémentine Margaine, Janai Brugger, and Jonathan Beyer. He also has toured extensively with Hudson Shad, a five-voice quintet with piano, throughout the US, Germany and Macau. Hargreaves is an active harpsichordist, playing continuo for operatic productions at companies including Santa Fe Opera, Canadian Opera Company, Brooklyn Academy of Music and Chicago Opera Theater. He also is known for leading from the keyboard, conducting Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice and Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers from the piano for Chicago Opera Theater, Le nozze di Figaro from the fortepiano for Opera Omaha as well as numerous productions for Opera McGill. He has created performing editions of two operas — a full edition of Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ L’amant anonyme as well as an eleven-instrument reorchestration of Bluebeard’s Castle. Based in Montréal, he is currently an associate professor at McGill, the music director of Opera McGill and the recipient of the Schulich School of Music 2021-2022 teaching award.   

Recent productions: Il barbiere di Siviglia, Nabucco, Tosca (Union Avenue); Nightingale and Other Fables, Louis Riel, Maometto II (Canadian Opera Company); Alcina (Santa Fe); Don Giovanni, Les mamelles de Tirésias, The Turn of the Screw, L’amant anonyme, Clemenza di Tito, Bluebeard’s Castle, Lucia di Lammermoor, East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon, and Dido and Aeneas (Opera McGill).  

About the Schulich School of Music Teaching Awards

Each year the Schulich School of Music recognizes faculty members and student instructors for their outstanding contributions. The Schulich School of Music Teaching Awards recognize excellence, commitment and innovation in teaching, and the importance of these qualities in the academic experience of students at McGill. Prizes are awarded annually to each winner at Spring Convocation.

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