Episode 15

World Maestro with Colin O'Donohoe

Published on: 4th August, 2021

Colin O'Donohoe is a musician and composer who founded The Pangean Orchestra, an ensemble of performers and instruments from all over the world. He has performed in venues from Mongolia to Brazil, and from Turkey to Japan. Recognized as an outstanding composer, leader, performer and arts advocate through awards, commissions, and grants, Colin’s global impact has earned him the title of ‘World Maestro’. To add to the audaciousness of Colin’s work, he is also recognized as being legally blind. 

In this interview, Colin talks about:

  • his musical background and upbringing and why music is his life
  • his reasons for developing the concept of a world orchestra
  • the challenges involved in travelling, composing music and leading an orchestra with a visual impairment 
  • the difference between internal and external fulfilment, and why having confidence in your abilities is crucial
  • the importance of being a perpetual student and never ceasing to learn
  • how to deal with the inner critic

Colin’s website is www.worldmaestro.com

The book mentioned in this episode is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

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Music: Pablito's Way by Paolo Pavan

Transcript
Helen:

Colin, hello, and thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us for our podcast AudaciousNess. Now, we met earlier this year on an online workshop that we were both taking part in. And you contacted me, you sent me a direct message, from one participant to another, and I'm gonna read out the message that you sent me.

Colin:

Uh oh!

Helen:

This is what you wrote. You wrote: “I'm a legally blind composer who formed a global orchestra 10 years ago and still lead it. That's audacious, right?” And I thought, it is indeed audacious, let's get him on the podcast. And so I'd like to start, Colin, by unpacking this statement that you wrote to me earlier this year. I mean, I imagine forming a global orchestra would be a challenging thing for anyone who isn't legally blind, so I'm curious as to what challenges you in particular faced. So my first question is actually a three-in-one question: What do you do? Why do you do it? And what challenges have you faced?

Colin:

Hmm, okay, what do I do? Let's... that's fun. Wooh, there's a bunch. So I create the music, I compose music. And that's kind of the step one is to have some music to do. The other thing is recruiting and socializing and building a little network of musicians. And the way that happens is, I'm already a professional musician and I've trained since I was 12, at Eastman School of Music up in Rochester, New York. So I was trained in theory and jazz performance. The reason that's important is you fast forward eight years, nine years, I'm in my 20s, and I gained a lot of respect for my abilities. Now, among my peers, when you can play, it gives you a certain level, where people will listen to you a bit more. So it's easier to get the musicians on your side, when you yourself know what you're talking about, you yourself tell them, I want to form this group, I know I need this, I know I need that. And then you kind of have people join your team. You also do a lot of listening. When I was putting the groups together, I would go out to where they perform, and where they're comfortable. I would listen to their show. And then I would have a bunch of follow-up questions, and why do you do this? And how do you do this? I would go to people's homes, we have tea, we have whatever, and we just kind of hang out. And we build that rapport. And over time that allows me to invite them into a project that I want to lead. So that takes a little bit of, you know, a couple years really of just building that rapport. So there was the What, the Why? Why do I do it? That's a good question. And it started, the seed started in about 2003, I believe, when the United States invaded Iraq, and in the United States, we were inundated on television of these video games-style videos, of a little dark screen, that green little arrow in the middle, and you'd see these explosions, these bombs going off. And I was in a mail, postal store having to return something. And I heard a man behind me saying on his cell phone, “Hey, man, why don't you come on over later? And we'll have a few beers and we'll watch the bombs drop.” And for me, it was quite disgusting that how could we as a people become so far apart, that watching their death and mutilation could be a form of entertainment, like a football game, and your buddies come over and cheer it on and swig some beers? It was disappointing to me. But I felt like, okay there are these two groups that are so far apart, we're very cool with killing them and we're very desensitized. You can't change that overnight. You can't somehow go to those people yell at them, hey, you're being mean, and all of a sudden, they're gonna say yeah, and everything's gonna be happy and we're gonna hold hands and have flowers and whatever. That doesn't happen. It has to happen over a period of time. And the only way that I felt with the pulp that I had of being a leader and a musician was to try to bring people from all these different backgrounds together. I'm not saying we're going to solve racism, or we're going to solve world political disagreements, but it's a start. And it's a symbol that, okay this is starting to be possible. We come together and play each other's music. And what I learned from my father who was a disabled veteran from Vietnam, he said, the first step in his training was to dehumanize your opponent, you don't think about them as human, you come up with some slang terms, like, whatever, I don't need to repeat them. But that's the first step. So if I can combat the first step, if it's harder to call someone a this or that, because they're on stage with you, or they're at the show that you paid a ticket to go see, it's a little harder to believe they're inhuman, right? So that's the Why. And then, as this project has been evolving, I realized from my own artistic spirit that I wanted to break out and create this new ensemble movement that could be repeated all over the world, it doesn't just have to be the Pangean orchestra, but maybe we're inventing a new system of orchestra that's not boring, that's not got the connotation of Oh, that's where you put your nice cocktail dress and then your suit, and you go sip a little wine and you feel rich and sophisticated and you go into the theater, which is what it's become. Orchestral music 200 years ago was cutting edge, it was the newest sound. And for most people, the only chance in their life or their year to hear music, you didn't have it in your home, you didn't have it on your phone, you don't get to walk and listen to music. The only time you could hear music was at the theater, at the place. So it was extremely exciting. Now, it's one of the most, you know, for most people, boring entertainment, they put it on to sleep to calm down their child, the Mozart Effect, let’s play Mozart so it'll magically make our kids smarter. But there's no excitement for most people. I have an excitement, but how do I make that more universal? So I feel like the orchestra has to reflect the people the same way it did in 1800, or when Mozart was alive in the late 1700s. We have to make a music that excites people. So that became the second impetus. The second Why, as far as why I do this project.

Helen:

Yeah. And I guess that's also leading into the challenges that I asked you about, because that seems to be a big challenge, to get the audience again, then?

Colin:

The challenge is twofold. The challenge one is an audience which I really drastically underestimated. And then the other challenge that I underestimated was musicians themselves all trying to take a “We need to do it this way. No, we need to do it that way. We need to do whatever.” That became a challenge, or one musician saying “I'll only play if you fire that guy.” Things like that. I wasn't expecting those issues. So the audience, yeah, it's an issue. But that's an issue if I formed a rock band. That's an issue if I formed a pop project. It doesn't matter. There's always a challenge of garnering that kind of core group, and then getting that core group to go and tell their friends. That's a problem. My other challenges have been things like my own vision, which drastically slow me down. And then the fact that I've, I have traveled so much, especially, I was divorced in 2015, I was living in Manhattan, that happened. And then after that I was kind of a vagabond or something. I chose that time to explore the world. So I was in Ireland for several months, I was in Amsterdam, I was in Turkey, Brazil, Mongolia, Japan. And all this time, I decided to just study and learn. Learn from the people, humble myself, take a backseat and just listen. But because I've traveled so much, people don't even know where I am. So then they don't know whether to trust me and because I've traveled. If I set up shop in Phoenix, Arizona, how long am I going to be here? So it hurts the trust a little, which is why I want to get that board or some core group here in Phoenix. So if I do go, and chances are I will probably travel again because I love it, there's a core group there. There can be someone that takes in my place that leads the group and puts on a show, the project should be bigger than me. It should be bigger than one person. I just haven't been able to do that yet.

Helen:

I like that you're saying the project should be bigger than me, should be bigger than one person. And you said just a couple of minutes ago that your own vision slowed you down? What did you mean by that?

Colin:

Oh, daily. From the obvious, like being a conductor, where you normally have all the staff, all the music in front of you, and you can quickly tell the violin, No you had this here, or the percussion, I need more of this on which measure, because you can see it all. What I have to do is I have to memorize the whole score, so that I know what I need and I can tell the person where it is because I memorized it. So memorizing, I've always been very fast at memorizing, but it still takes a lot of listening through the songs. Even if I've written a song, it might sound weird, but even if I composed it, that doesn't mean I remember every single note I wrote, I have to listen to it over and over. And because I know me, I know what I tend to do. So sometimes I just guess, “I'm pretty sure I asked you to do that, right?” And they'll check that Oh, yeah, yeah, that on me, you know, the musician. Also, in correspondence, everything I do, I have to zoom in on stuff, text messaging, people like to text, I have to zoom in to respond. It's a little frustrating. The various apps and things I'm just not good at seeing, so slows me down. The only things I have in my corner, which don't hurt, is I've been working with the same software for 20 years and I kind of already know where things are. Again, it's more memorization. It's more, I know where it should be. And I just go to that. But people don't appreciate it until they're sitting with me and they see how it works. They see how much I have to zoom in. They see when I'm composing the music on the notation software, that I can really only see one line at a time, instead of 20 at the same time. So those are the frustrations. Also I can't drive. So when I want to go and meet musicians, I have to find a ride. Uber and Lyft and things, they've made it a lot easier. When I was living in New York City, it was much easier because I learned the subway system pretty well. So that wasn't as much of a trouble. But when you're in, like I was in Gort for a while, in Ireland, that's tricky. There's only one bus that takes you to Galway, you know, it's a little bit tougher. Istanbul was a lot easier. I do speak a few languages, that does help me get around in these cities. But still, it's a little tough and seeing things, seeing the signs, seeing stuff, I can't. So I'm a little behind, or someone that with a healthy vision wouldn't have the same problem.

Maribel:

And still, Colin, you are doing so many things. You've mentioned that, I was wondering also about this vision question that Helen already mentioned, and all these challenges that you have mentioned. What brings you then, because you're doing it, what brings you the most fulfillment?

Colin:

That's a great question. Thank you for that. Oh, you’re making me think in the morning! That's my biggest challenge, is trying to think without sufficient coffee in my bloodstream. Repeat the question. Let me...

Maribel:

What gives you the most fulfillment in spite of all the challenges?

Colin:

I think the biggest fulfillment is that I haven't given up and I have wavered, for sure. But still when I wake up in the morning, I still have this, like, unbelievable passion and a bit of self-belief that I can do it. So fulfilling is, I guess from myself on my internal, is that I know I've done that. I can be proud or happy with, you know, my life if it was to end today, which I hope it doesn't, that I did what I wanted. I tried, I may not have ended up sharing the stage with Beyoncé or something, but I did it, I worked on it, I didn't let all the noise from outside stop me from trying to do this. But sadly, I would be very fulfilled if audiences everywhere just loved it and I had a million people on my, you know, email list and blah, blah, blah, that would be great. That would be fulfilling, but that's external fulfillment. And I feel like you need to have an internal fulfillment. And for me, when I, you know, when I'm by myself, when I'm whatever, I'm excited about what I do, I know I can do this till I'm a 100. I don't want to retire. I think, when I'm 80 I'll hopefully still have the same excitement. And that helps you when you get slammed down on the ground by those external sources that we're all looking...we're always looking for an external acknowledgement of “Hey, that was good.” But that rarely really comes and it's always fleeting. The same people that congratulate you today are going to be your biggest critic tomorrow or six hours later. It's not really reliable. You have to have your own internal fulfillment, I believe.

Helen:

Definitely. Yeah. And it's lovely that you say, you know, you're just, you're doing this for yourself, you know, and that you could do it until you're 80 or 100, that, you know, you've obviously found your calling. And it sounds like you found it at a young age as well. Did you do anything before you became a musician? Or did you always know that this is what you wanted to do?

Colin:

I think I always knew, since I was five, and my father always listened to a ton of music every day. Like I said, he was a veteran and because of being a veteran, his hearing was very messed up. So he would blast this music. And I don't know, I just grew up with it. And when I was a kid, I remember he put on the Thriller album with Michael Jackson. And at the time, I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world. And then MTV came out. And that was cool. And I wanted to be a drummer. Age 12, I formed a rock band with a friend. And I just, nothing has made me feel as alive as when I'm either composing or performing music. I think I was 14 or 15, I heard this album Enigma, by... actually Enigma’s the band. I thought that was an orchestra in France. I didn't know it was electronic music. I didn't know that existed. So I thought it was this cutting edge orchestra in France. The reason I thought it was French is because this girl speaks some French in the opening song or two. So I thought, Oh, France must be way ahead of America. And then I learned a little later, Oh, that's not a real orchestra. So then I decided, well, I can make one that does similar things. So probably by 16, I was forming my own orchestras in high school and putting on things. I had probably more self-confidence than I should. But all teenagers do, right? I have some, so...

Helen:

That sounds fantastic. I mean, you said, you know, the musical background came from your father. And you know, you grew up with a musical background, but being a musician is one thing. Taking the lead and saying, I'm going to make my own orchestra and then get people together and what you're doing now, getting people from all over the world together to do it, this is a different set of skills, isn't it? How did you go into this part of your career, so to speak, going from being a musician and composer to actually getting people together and making an orchestra?

Colin:

I think the biggest change, the biggest assistance, I went to graduate school and Carnegie Mellon for arts management, not for composition and not for performance. And I knew at the time what I wanted to do, and I knew what skills I didn't have. So I knew I needed to go there, learn the admin side, learn how people run a group, and while I was in grad school, my first semester I formed a Chinese orchestra, American Chinese orchestra. And I didn't mean or intend to be the leader. I just wanted to be the drummer. I had been working in a Chinese orchestra in Phoenix and I was really fascinated by the history of China and the instruments of China, and so on. I came to Pittsburgh, and I knew there's Professor Bill Young at the University of Pittsburgh, who is a leading person in ethnomusicology for Chinese music. He works in Hong Kong as well. So I thought he could be a mentor or resource. And while he was a bit preoccupied, he did provide all the instruments, all the love and support and the Attaboy! kind of thing. And he helped. And over the next two years, even as a white guy running a Chinese group, it became quite successful, I gained some respect. And that really helped my confidence. And then after that Chinese experience, after doing that, because I'm kind of a perpetual student of music, I wanted to branch out, I wanted to learn more about Arabic music, Turkish music. I had been raised on Irish music since I was born. I always heard on Sundays, it was always Irish music day, there was a lot of Scottish music too. But mainly the Irish and a lot of political things, not very flattering to the British, which is a bias I had to get over. Because my family had suffered through the black and tans and the oppression of 1916 and things like that. So we always had a healthy dose of rebel spirit in the music.

Helen:

So it sounds like on your journey to become, or to be where you are now you always realized or recognized what was missing, and then, you know, you sought a mentor, or you did a period of study, or you discovered Turkish music and different music. So you're always on this perpetual, you said, you're a perpetual student, always learning. Is this something that you think is necessary for, I was gonna say any musician, but any job I guess, any person in life needs to be perpetually learning. Would you agree?

Colin:

I would. And I think there's an important thing for audience members, anyone that's striving to be audacious and do that, is that that's great. Keep it and do it. But the number one thing you can do is listen, you really need to listen to who are your constituents, who are the people you want to work with. And as much as I'm a talker, kiss the Blarney Stone, raised by the Irish storytellers, I never shut up. But I have to learn how to shut up and just listen. Take a back seat, humble yourself, have the self confidence that you already know you're good, but you don't have to show it every day, every minute. And I think that's something I've seen with younger up-and-comers is they're a bit insecure and so they overcome or overcompensate their insecurity by just playing all the time and trying to show up and trying to show “Hey, I'm good.” I'm a bit understated, as hard as that might be to believe with my constant talking, is that I'm able to take a step back or five steps back and let other people shine, let other people do it. And it's a sign of respect, learning even some other language, learning the basic conversational things, the numbers, I say numbers because I've been in a lot of foreign countries, I had no idea how important numbers was until you go shopping. The first time you go, you need to know how much something costs. What is this? It comes up everyday. But to show a little respect, to do the research to read the... your backgrounds before an interview, not to make the focus on yourself, but make the focus on the group, so the group feels good, so they have a positive experience. And then they want to learn more about you, but only because you first shut up and let them tell you about them.

Helen:

That sounds like excellent advice. Collin. Is there any other advice that you would give to anybody wanting to do this line of work, either musician or starting an orchestra? What other advice would you give?

Colin:

I would say, don't rely or listen so much to family members or your best friends. They're not your target audience. They're not... families are so different, right? I have identical twin daughters. They are very different personalities. And if there's any proof that we're all different, take identical twins and see the huge difference in their personalities. So your family, while they love you and probably because they do love you, they give horrible advice. And these great ideas that your listeners have, because I'm sure everyone tuning in is a, you know, they got a budding audacity somewhere, those ideas are stillborn, and they need resuscitation right away. And if you have a great idea, and it is stillborn, and people just say, look at that, see it has no legs, it has no traction, then you're gonna believe them more than half the time, you're gonna, maybe it's a book you want to write, a series of blogs, things that are passionate for you that you want to get this thing out there, whether it's music, whether it's engineering, whether it's a new system of whatever. And then your friends are like, oh, that'll never work. That's stupid. They're not saying it to be mean. They're just, they're not your target audience. Don't put a lot of value on the negative things your brother, your kid, your mom, your neighbor, your best buddy since you were five, don't put so much importance on that.

Maribel:

And that's, those are external critics. What are your thoughts on the inner critic? And how do you deal with that negative thinking, for example, oh, I won't be able to achieve that, or, I'm not confident today, etc.

Colin:

I think there's a few ways to combat that. I've never seen it articulated and put better than Steven Pressfield's book on the War of Art.That's a book every single audacious person needs to read. So he just says, look, yes, you're gonna have these demons, he calls it resistance. And that's a big, you know, kind of a drag. And the only way to fight the resistance is to do. Now getting yourself to the keyboard, to compose, turning the program on, dealing with the technical issues, you know, that's all stuff that wants to kill your creativity. So you need to just sit down. What I did, for several years when I was writing for television is, there was a commercial when I was a kid about Dunkin’ Donuts and there was this man that always woke up at four or five, and he said “Time to make the donuts!” and he went outside to go make donuts. I did the same thing, I wake up at six and I say “Time to make the donuts!” and I go in my room and I compose. Sometimes I compose amazing stuff and sometimes I compose crap. Doesn't matter, I compose something. So that's one of the things. The inner critic is always gonna be there and it's generally in my brain. It's been personified and some professors I've had, or some peers I've had that I know, oh, if they listen to this, they're gonna know I chose this chord and not that chord. Oh, they're gonna know I should have had a better French horn line and I didn't, or... and those things are so dumb to let it kill you because the audience, the energy is what's more important. The overall nature of the song is more important than what ingredient you put in or you forgot, or you don't know as well. So that part of the critic is strong. The part of the critic, yeah, I'm audacious in yeah, I believe in myself and yeah, I do this, but at the same time, I don't. At the same time I battle depression, I battle anxiety. And these things are things that kill me sometimes. I've been deeply depressed sometimes and that's really hard to overcome. And I sometimes don't even know how I did. So those are the inner critics which are far more damaging than the external, but a lot of times the external plant the seeds in your brain, for the self-doubt to grow, and the more energy you give to those negative thoughts, the more they grow within you. And you need to, instead of fighting those weeds and trying to pull them out of your brain, it's better to actually plant seeds of positivity and water those. So yeah, the negative are always going to be there. But hopefully, your positive ones over time grow taller, take more of the sunlight, and the bad ones start to diminish. But I can't say I've figured out that formula yet. And I don't know if I always will. Some things that give me solace is Beethoven wasn't always happy with what he wrote. Frank Lloyd Wright, his advice was, with your first few buildings plant a lot of ivy so people won't see the mistakes in your architecture. Another thing is great music is never finished, it's only abandoned and then you move on to your next thing. So for me reading about other people, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Leonard Bernstein, people that also had self-doubt. And you could think. How? They're so amazing. I know Lady Gaga’s very famous, she's had self-doubt, she’s had depression. If someone that on top of the world can face these things, then what makes me think I won't have it? What makes me think I'm different? We're human. We have some things in common, all of us, no matter where we live on the planet, we're human, we're gonna doubt ourselves. We're lying if we say we don't.

Helen:

And this leads us there, Colin, very nicely to our final question, as we're coming to the end of this interview, now. It's been such an interesting conversation that we've had with you. We've got one more question to ask you and that's to do with the name of our podcast, which is, as you know, AudaciousNess. And the audacious part refers to having the audacity to do what you do in the first place. And the ness actually means a piece of land, a spit of land, which juts out into the sea, and stays strong, no matter what the weather, you know, is throwing at it. So our question, our final question to you is, how do you keep going, despite what life is throwing at you? What gives you the solid grounding to continue with what you do?

Colin:

It is a hard question. I would certainly, at least for the last project, I had my wife and a great producer who had that positive energy and had that support, moral support, emotional support, and also technical support with the producer, that they believed in it, and more than that, they believed in me that I could get this done. So I think when the, you know, the last minute star musician cancels on you, and there is a technical problem and you don't get the audio quality you wanted or things, that there's enough belief from some inner, very tight-knit people in your life, that they catch you. You're always going to stumble, we are not that solid ground. We are human, we stand on two feet. Sometimes we get knocked down. And sometimes you gotta pick yourself back up. I remember my grandmother from Limerick, she said, if life kicks you down six times, then you gotta get up seven. That's stayed with me, the life's gonna kick you on the ground. Don't stay on the ground, get back up. And I guess I have those ghosts in my mind that tell me to do it. But the strength to carry on that's a tough one. I would say I've been very blessed with some people that really do look out for me and pick me up and sometimes they don't care whether or not I keep pushing on a project. They just want to make sure I don't die. You know, they want to make sure I survived that storm. And then they can talk about moving forward. Sometimes you have to nourish yourself. You have to remember that you're human. You have to remember to rest. You have to remember to nourish yourself. And that's why with my project with Pangean, I also do my own personal solo projects, I compose my own music for myself, I do a lot of performing on Native American flutes and drums that feed my soul, play tin whistle with a pub. And that feeds my soul. I'm not doing it to be a star, I'm not doing it for attention, I’m doing it purely for selfish reasons to make myself feel good. But that ness part, that ground you know, I admire it, because it never complains either. It never says Poor me. Whereas humans we do say, Oh, poor me, oh, if this didn't happen, if only I had more money then I could do... you know, and those are, those are just negative thoughts. I think sometimes having a great therapist or something can help you to scatter and re-sort your thoughts. I'm a big believer in acupuncture, I think that helps. But it's… you've got to maintain your own body too.

Helen:

Very good advice, Colin. I've thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. Unfortunately, we've come to the end of it. Maribel, any last thoughts before we stop?

Maribel:

I just want to thank Colin for taking the time to have this conversation with us. It was extremely inspiring.

Helen:

Thank you very much.

Colin:

And you love my blazer! The most audacious blazer I have!

Maribel:

Looking very sharp!

Helen:

It's pink. Colin's wearing a pink blazer and a pink tie.

Colin:

Yeah! It helps me feel more audacious.

Helen:

Thank you so much, Colin, and we wish you all the best of luck with your ventures in the future.

Colin:

Thank you.

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About the Podcast

AudaciousNess
A solid grounding on which to practice your audacity.
AudaciousNess showcases individuals who have set themselves bold, audacious goals and have worked to achieve them. Our purpose is to inspire people to act with the courage to create a positive impact in the world.

Through interviewing 'regular people' about their audacious goals, we highlight the fact that role models are everywhere. Each and every one of us can have an impact in some way. Our goal is to enable a courageous community that honours their genius and lives their calling.

The name 'AudaciousNess' has two components: audacious, meaning 'bold', and ness, meaning 'a strip of land projecting into a body of water'. We believe having a solid grounding on which to practice your audacity is crucial, or, in the words of the great philosopher king Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 4.49):

"Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it."

About your hosts

Maribel Ortega

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I help women find their worth and be confident so that they can use their voice, speak up, take new opportunities and ultimately lead fulfilled lives.

Helen Strong

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I run an eco-friendly, vegan B&B in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. This is just one of the many audacious goals I've pursued in my lifetime.