In Conversation with Isabelle Demers

New addition to the Schulich School of Music, organist Isabelle Demers talks about being flexible, loading up one’s toolbox, and supporting your colleagues.
Image by Abi Poe.

Dr. Isabelle Demers joins the Schulich School of Music as Associate Professor of Organ.

Dr. Demers is a world-renowned performer and pedagogue having appeared in recital throughout Europe, Great Britain, Oman, China, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada. She is a native of Québec and a doctoral graduate of The Juilliard School. Continually in high demand at conventions of the American Guild of Organists, the International Society of Organbuilders, the Royal Canadian College of Organists, and the Organ Historical Society, there is no doubt that Dr. Demers’ presence at Schulich will enhance its reputation as a leading international institution for organ studies.

We connected with her over email to hear her thoughts on studying music, non-linear progression, and being well-rounded.

What are you most looking forward to your new position at the Schulich School of Music?

Montreal has some wonderful instruments in beautiful acoustics, including the Wolff at Redpath Hall. I had lessons on many of them as an undergraduate student at the Conservatoire, so I am looking forward to getting reacquainted with them after all those years. Most schools are fortunate to have one or two good instruments on campus, so having such variety at our fingertips (no pun intended) is really fantastic! I have also never had the chance to play a French Classical organ (like the one at Redpath) regularly, so I’m very eager to explore all that repertoire in greater depth.

Of course I’m also excited and honoured to join such an illustrious faculty, so I hope there will be many opportunities to collaborate in the future. I have spent many hours alone in my practice room over the past two years, so I’m eager to work with people, not only with organ stops.

What should every student leave Schulich knowing?

I think our graduating students should be well-rounded musicians. My life has been so enriched by the many activities I do — not only teaching and performing recitals, but also playing in church, collaborating with choirs and other ensembles, researching composers and works, and so forth. I think having as many tools as possible in one’s toolbox is a big plus; for organists, this means basic notions of pedagogy, strong keyboard and service playing skills, good knowledge of improvisation, and likely some familiarity with conducting as well. Being able to piece together a comfortable living from various sources is rather crucial these days, but beyond the financial aspect, it also makes life far more enjoyable.

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

In my opinion, the greatest asset of an organist is flexibility. We constantly have to adjust to new instruments in different spaces, over a very short period of time. Moving forward, with the pandemic following its ebb and flow, I think flexibility will be required of everybody, on a very broad scale – being able to convert a series of concerts into a recording project, for example, or going to a different venue. Organists may have a bit of a head start as we always need to have Plan B or Plan C in case things don’t work out as expected. We deal with complicated yet fragile machines and have to adapt to their will — not entirely unlike our current Corona foe!

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

Practicing is important, but so is exposure to as many concerts and artists as possible. Be supportive of your colleagues and go to their events; go hear the world’s leading musicians when they are in town. Go to the symphony, the ballet, to early music concerts, to a new music event, etc. You will be a far better musician if you are well-rounded than if you spend all your time alone in a practice room. After two years of lockdowns, I am sure we are all craving live concerts even more than usual!

Also, performing arts don't follow a linear progression. You will have good days where everything works perfectly, and bad days where it seems that playing even the simplest piece is a challenge. The important thing is to keep practicing so that even on a bad day, you’re still at a very high level.

Is there a song/piece/composer you could listen to on repeat for an entire weekend?

That’s a tricky question! Pretty much anything classical, except organ music! I like orchestral and choral works regardless of the era but am perhaps even fonder of Renaissance vocal music and romantic/modern orchestral works.

Is there something that you would be happy to play at every concert? 

Any Bach piece, of course, but more recently I’ve really enjoyed playing transcriptions of Stravinsky’s ballets (Petrushka and Firebird in particular).

If you had a mantra/philosophy/phrase for where you are right now, what would it be?

After the past two years, Carpe diem? Enjoy every minute of every practice session or concert – it could be the last one for a long time! And spending time with family and friends is very important too.


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