A Visit with Thomas Jefferson


Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) is one of the most admired, controversial figures in American history. He endured incredible loss (only two of six children lived into adulthood), owned many slaves, defended slaves in a court of law, had at least one child with Sally Hemings, a slave, etc., and he also contributed much to the development of our early government.

Jefferson created the Democratic-Republican Party system that we have been inundated with as of late.  He was our first Secretary of State, established many free-trade policies, and was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence.  As a self-made architect, he designed the capitol building in Richmond (pictured above) and his beloved Monticello, constructed while a young man, after the burning of his childhood home.  He also moved Virginia’s capitol from Williamsburg to Richmond.

Jefferson was a meticulous person in regard to process and crafting.  The Declaration of Independence did not ultimately result in the product Jefferson thought it should be, and the “committee work” of compromise was not exactly pleasing to him in the final document.  However, he held onto his original draft, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing it first-hand.

While my husband and I were on a trip to Richmond, Virginia recently, we visited the Virginia Historical Society, and saw Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration.  It is scarcely imaginable to think of a young man 33-years-old, drafting such a beautiful document, copying this work over and over and over.  He had several copies, and each one displayed beautiful penmanship and grace.  It was truly obvious that “perfectionism” was embodied in Mr. Jefferson.

In the same wonderful exhibit at the Historical Society, we saw the plans for Monticello, Jefferson’s magnificent home.  Each specific area of the home had intricate, specific plans for construction…including the gardens.  Jefferson knew exactly what he wanted to do…he thought.  It seems that the same perfectionism that created the Declaration of Independence also went into the building of his home.  He would get a section of it built…decide it was not what he wanted…tear it down…build it again.  He did this over and over again…disassemble…build again.  Ultimately, it cost him, but he had the privilege of seeing his ideas come to fruition in the beautiful capitol and Monticello.

I am making a transfer here into choral composition and choral music education.  I suppose this hits me at this point in my life, in looking back over a 22-year career in choral music writing…and yes….I hope for 25 more!  I look at the pieces I published back in 1994, and I think, “Wow…..who wrote this stuff?”  If I had it to do over, I would re-work every singing piece I have “out there.” I have learned so much since I first wrote the first ones, and I can hear so many things that would make them better.  However, I have chosen not to re-work or change them in any way, but to write new pieces that will speak in fresh, exciting ways to the choral directors in the world.  I have a list of at least 50 pieces I want to write.  I have heard them in my head, and I want to write them.  Maybe…

Will they be the same as the ones I wrote in 1994?  Will I look at them when I am 80, and wonder why I wrote them in such a way?  Probably…but…I realized early on in this business that I must “let it go.”  Yes…you have heard it before in a modern context, but at some point, we must say, “That’s all I can do,” and let it go.  Thomas Jefferson never got to that point, the perfectionist in him would not allow it.  There is a fine line between the need for artistic perfection through our rehearsal ethics and releasing it to the world for performance.

We set goals in our performances, based on what we hear in our mind’s ear, but as I look back over my life as a choral director, I really wish there had been a few days in rehearsal when I could have just listened to my students…enjoyed blissfully what I was hearing…with no desire to analyze or change in any way….just listen and let it go.  I am not sure I was ever able to do that very often.  Let’s make it better, better, better!  True, but at some point, the joy of participating in music should be able to flow through us as we just let it go…and listen.

Yes…we can restructure lesson plans and rehearsals…try harder…be better…do better.  For those things in life where no “do overs” come easily, let’s make peace with the journey, and know that for that time, in that place, with those singers, we were in the quest for something beautiful.  Only time will tell whether the effort led to something good.  My guess is that you, too, will receive a note from a former student or colleague one day letting you know…then…let it go.