Rainbow City Q&A: Tim Norris

1. Hi Tim, can you tell me about yourself and your professional background?

During my University studies, I was consistently warned against becoming a jack of all trades because of my undying passion to dig into so many subject areas. (Could be a symptom of the then undiagnosed ADHD!) So, I have quite varied professional experiences from music education to collaborative technology and economic public policy. As I mature, I’m finding the fundamental through-line is bringing community together and supporting the development of capabilities, collaboration, and self-expression in its members.

I am an Ohio native, where I received my Bachelor’s degree in Music Education and Performance certificate and minors in women’s studies/political science as well as my first Master’s degree in conducting (orchestral/opera) at Ohio University. While in Athens, Ohio, my lifelong dedication to community music was inspired by my three years conducting the string orchestra for the university-connected Athens Community Music School and Musically Directing the Ohio Valley Summer Theater program. I also participated in multiple international scholarship programs, conducting/teaching orchestras in Bucharest, Romania; Chisanau, Moldova; and Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

In 2007, I moved to Dallas, Texas to study conducting at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University with Jack Delaney and Paul Phillips. Upon graduating, I stuck around in Texas where I taught courses and facilitated first-year student programs at SMU and served as the Artistic Director of The Oak Lawn Band and Chair of Strategic Planning on the Pride Bands Alliance Board of Directors.

Unexpectedly, I met a man… a Texan and my now husband, who was teaching in the engineering school at SMU (our shared students in the Creative Computing Program loved watching our courtship). An undeniable job opportunity pulled us to the PNW, where I immediately began my term as Artistic Director of Rainbow City Performing Arts and Music Director of Concert Band, Marching Band, and Purple Passion Swing Band. (Thanks Betsy Smith!) I also dove into the Seattle theater scene, working as the Digital Marketing Manager and Deputy IT Director for ACT theater. A few years later I joined the team at Seattle Repertory Theater, where I was a teaching Artist with Public Works and Senior IT Director for the company.

Adventure is in my blood, so when the opportunity arose to move across the pond, we packed up the dog and headed to Dublin. I decided to put down the baton and dust off my trombone and within the first week of being an expat, started playing with Dublin Concert Band. I served on the Repertoire Group for the band and brought my passion for diverse composer representation and helped develop programs of music by women, LGBTQIA+, and melanated folks, for which we won multiple Irish Band Championships. A true joy came when I was able to guest conduct the band on multiple occasions. While in Dublin, I decided to get back into the classroom and taught courses in Inclusive Teaching Practices, Orchestration, and the Diverse History of Rock and Roll at schools including The Royal Irish Academy of Music. Outside of the friendships I gained with brilliant music educators, one of my favorite memories was orchestrating a flexible/inclusive version of the European Union National Anthem (from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) for the Irish President’s Office of Cultural affairs. In the end, the piece was performed by diverse ensembles of students across over 250 Irish schools and the Irish National Symphony on the 50th anniversary of Ireland joining the EU.

I am now back in Seattle serving as the Interim Music Director of Rainbow City Concert Band loving the opportunity to work with old friends and meet the fabulous new members of the ensemble!

2. What instruments do you play?

I began my love of music at an early age when my Grandma Kyoko gifted me a short AA powered Casio keyboard. To the annoyance of my siblings, days and nights at 546 Harbor Street were accompanied by my playing Disney themes and 50’s rock and roll songs by ear and later composing little songs to sing in porch productions of shows with the nerdy kids on my block. I quickly graduated to the acoustic piano in my Godparents’ house and sleepovers at any friend’s place with decorative uprights/baby grands. Then in the summer prior to 6th grade, while my friends were playing sports, I was mowing three neighborhoods worth of lawns to buy my first trombone and join band.

I haven’t recovered from the decision to be a trombonist my whole life, and recently, some of my fondest memories are playing with Hibernian Orchestra, Dublin’s Guarda Band, Dublin Concert Band, the Irish Symphonic Wind Orchestra, and even subbing with the Irish National Symphony. Prior to leaving for Ireland, I had a blast playing Sousaphone with Reign City Riot and Marching Band and occasional subs on trombone and vocals with the Swing Band. My piano skills came in handy during the many shows I have musically directed as well as vocal coaching as a teaching artist with Seattle Rep’s Public Works.

3. What strategies do you use to motivate students and keep them engaged?

First and foremost, I find it important to get to know my students as individuals, learning from their interests/passions and encouraging them to actually SEE themselves as artists. I find that engagement becomes real when each individual player feels that their contributions are having an impact and I try to ensure that impact is revealed to them. In the classroom and ensemble settings I like to choose diverse and non-pretentious music selections that meet members where they are in their interests and scaffold new musical experiences to support their potential and hopefully inspire their curiosity.

4. How do you approach preparing for performances?

The old adage that life isn’t about the destination but the journey rings true with my approach to performance preparation. In community ensembles the creative communing in a “safe space” is equally important as the concert performances. When we do our work well, performances are less of a goal and more like opportunities to expand our journey, inviting audiences into our world as members of our ensemble.

5. How do you accommodate different skill levels within the ensemble?

Inclusivity is a cornerstone of my work in community music and openly embracing people from all skill-levels and backgrounds is the foundation. It takes time and a commitment from every member of the ensemble to live in the music with an amplified perspective of the collective creative process, where their compassion and responsibility to one another isn’t just a courtesy but a necessity. I arrive to and depart from each rehearsal reflecting on ways my interactions with members can foster an environment where we all can embrace the discomfort of being venerable with one another.

I try to use non-binary words, body language, and tone to break down the barriers of the “failure fear” that has become ingrained into us by our competitive society. In spaces made safe and inclusive, we can all take more individual risks, in the presence of others, knowing that our judgements (both of self and others) don’t have to be debilitating but can be channeled into growth. We aren’t working toward perfection but hoping to achieve progress.

Working with leaders in the ensemble, we can simplify complex parts and make instrumental substitutions while honoring the artistic intent of the composers. With each new musical challenge, the members who began their Rainbow City journey with limited skills may gradually improve their musicianship. While the players with more advanced skills commit to teaching so that their capabilities live on beyond their individual pursuits. My long-term goal is that each member of the ensemble has moments as both learner and teacher.

6. What excites you most about conducting a band?

The excitement of conducting for me comes from the spontaneity and unpredictable nature of live music, especially that which comes from performing with a truly inclusive ensemble. What could be seen as challenges of bringing together a group of artists encompassing the full spectrum of musicianship and skill, instead this is what invigorates my approach. I love the little moments I share with individuals in the ensemble or in the audience when you can’t help but know they have fully given themselves over to the music.

I am privileged to be a part of building an environment where people are able to embrace a genuine expression of themselves and support those around them to do the same.

7. How do you stay current with trends and advancements in music education?

I’m an avid reader and always on the lookout for new books and resources. I was also an early listener to podcasts (back when they were audioblogs) and my consumption has exponentially increased as there are so many brilliant thought leaders now presenting in the medium.

No matter where I have traveled and lived, I have been an active member of the local education community: from regional conferences, and international festivals to town ensembles, meeting new people (fearlessly reaching out to those brilliant thought leaders) and experiencing their creative processes has been invaluable to my growth as an educator. The best teachers I know have a vibrant desire to learn and the most impactful lessons I have learned have come from partnerships forged with students. In my lived experience, the most influential of those lessons are often outside the scope of our content areas (like music) because everything is more related/connected than our individually-specialized and market-driven human ecosystem encourages us to see.

I don’t often quote bible verses, but this one is consistently in mind:

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

All that to say, trends and advancements in education are meaningless without simply and entirely connecting to the living beings around us.

8. What do you hope the members audience will take away from their experience in the upcoming concert?

We all could use a little hope these days—to be aware and steadfast in our fight for meaningful change and the unity that our world and community deserve. We have power in the music we create and glimpses of unity in the collective experience of our concerts. If everyone present for our performance finds contentment in even one note, our job will be well done.

I’m confident that together, embracing our audience as fellow artists in their own rights, we’ll create a symphony of joy that evening!