Q & A with Cliff Colnot

On February 29th, Cliff Colnot led his final concert as Principal Conductor of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. The program included Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony and Augusta Read Thomas’s EOS. At the end of the concert, nineteen string players honored Dr. Colnot with a conductorless performance of Stravinsky’s Concerto in D.  Read the Chicago Tribune review of his final concert here. This performance marks the end of an era for the Civic Orchestra. Having worked with hundreds (possibly thousands) of musicians through the Civic Orchestra over the past 22 years, Cliff Colnot, a.k.a. “Civic’s guardian,” has undoubtedly impacted the musical community of Chicago in a big way.

The rehearsal process was just like any other with Cliff conducting: meticulously rehearsed using Cliff’s tried-and-true methods. He stresses slow full-orchestra metronome work, relentless repetition to habitualize good orchestral playing, and strict, hierarchical intonation and balance (e.g. lower and softer thirds and sevenths, secondary players using little to no vibrato when in prime unison, stronger lower voices when playing in octaves, and “just” intonation when playing with harp or keyboard instruments).

For years, Civic has been considered one of the nation’s premier training orchestra programs for emerging professional musicians. Uniquely positioned in the home of the CSO, Civic musicians have many resources available to them. For most musicians, membership in Civic comes near the end of a long period of musical study and usually after a few years of professional experience. While some Civic musicians move away after the two-year program, Chicago remains somewhat of a haven for graduated Civic musicians. Chicago has a nurturing musical environment that makes it possible to sustain a musical career in some capacity. Many Civic alums make careers in the city as music teachers, music administrators, freelancers, entrepreneurs, or some kind of combination of these things.

Cliff Colnot has been a longtime advocate for diverse musical paths and, in fact, has had a multi-faceted musical career that has gone through many transformations. He’s a musician who continues to wear many hats – conductor (Civic and CSO’s MusicNOW), educator (DePaul University and Indiana University), arranger, and composer. Earlier in his career he was an active instrumentalist (bassoon), performing with such ensembles as the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra. He’s an exemplary model of the 21st century musician. He is adaptive, makes important connections, and works tirelessly and efficiently. He is reachable and responsive (he responds to emails, regardless of time, faster than anyone I know), and eminently experienced doing a wide assortment of things within the music world.

At the beginning of the last Civic season, he gave a workshop for members during which he talked openly about his experiences and gave relevant advice for emerging professional musicians. I decided to interview Cliff for this blog post before his last concert to get to know our conductor a little better and to also revisit some of the things that he said in last year’s workshop. For those who know Cliff Colnot, his answers, much like his rehearsal tactics, are what you might expect: direct, unapologetic, and beautifully simple.

Q & A w/ CC

Describe your role in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.

I conduct two regular concerts each season and prepare the orchestra for various guest conductors. I also coach Civic chamber music and do some special arrangements for members of the orchestra.

How long have you worked for Civic and/or the CSO?

I have worked for the Civic for over twenty years and I have worked with the CSO’s MusicNOW Contemporary Ensemble for about ten years, since its inception.

What was Civic like when you first started approximately 20 years ago? How is it different from the Civic you know now?

The character and spirit of the musicians was and remains the same – at a very high level. The depth of the technical abilities and the amount of experience of the Civic musicians have gotten stronger and more extensive over the years.

How is your approach to conducting different from others?

Probably less traditional approaches to conducting (e.g. impressive choreography, clarity of gesture, etc.) and more chamber music approach to the ensemble, more teaching.

I’ve heard you say on several occasions that you consider yourself to be more of a pedagogue than a conductor, describe what you mean by this.

Obviously, I have never had a conducting lesson or class in my life, but I have thoroughly and carefully studied what it means to be an effective teacher.

With Civic, what rehearsal strategies do you find to be most effective?

Soft playing, unification of all elements, including phrasing, and a detailed rehearsal plan before each rehearsal.

As you prepare for your last Civic concert as Principal Conductor on Monday, what do you hope the Civic musicians and audience members take away from it?

Actually, my expectations are the same as for every other concert – I hope that the audience members are inspired by the orchestra’s music making and I hope that the musicians continue to grow and continue to be musically challenged.

As you know, a career in music is extremely competitive and unpredictable. For many musicians, participation in the Civic Orchestra usually occurs after many years of studying music (most have Bachelor/Master of Music degrees, several have Doctorates) and at the beginning of professional music careers. What advice can you give to second-year Civic musicians preparing to leave the program and head into a career in music?

My advice would be to diversify and think seriously about entrepreneurship, and to be respectful of other people.

I love this advice. This reminds me of something you said to many Civic musicians at the beginning of last year – “you must prepare for the next 40 – 60 years of your musical careers.”

Working efficiently, effectively, and quickly is something that you are extremely good at. What are your strategies for managing a heavy workload?


What do you hope Civic musicians take away from studying with you?

Hopefully they will understand that the study of music is a means by which larger issues, such as honesty, respect and sentience, are explored and refined.

Favorite thing about your job as Principal Conductor of Civic?

Being a part of the tremendous progress which the orchestra makes during each cycle.

Where are you from and how did you get into music?

Youngstown, Ohio and I started playing the saxophone and bassoon when I was in junior high school.

What instruments did/do you play?

Violin, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, and bassoon.

You started your music career as a performer, correct?

After I graduated from college, I had an active career as a bassoonist but had already gravitated to teaching which started in high school. I think that effective and soulful teaching is very important to the development of all young people.

Was there a teacher or musician that inspired you to teach?

Yes — Dr. Clifford Madsen of Florida State University. When I was an undergraduate he spent countless hours guiding me and answering my many questions.

What was your primary focus of study at Florida State University?

How to become an effective teacher.

Did you study anywhere else?

Yes I got my Ph.D. at Northwestern University and the focus there was ensemble rehearsing and research into teaching.

Where were you and what were you doing in your early- to mid-twenties (the average age for Civic musicians)?

I was teaching a public school High School orchestra and a jazz band in Miami, Florida.

During this time, what were some challenges that you faced?

I was thrilled to be in my ‘dream job’ teaching in a high school.

At what point did you find yourself doing less as an instrumentalist and more as a pedagogue/conductor?

When I moved to Chicago I was about 28 years old.

This is an internal dialogue that a lot of young freelancing musicians have (myself especially!) — Do I seek out more teaching or performing opportunities? Did you always know that you wanted to teach?


How did you come to Chicago and what was your path to becoming Principal Conductor of Civic like?

I met my [former] wife, composer Shulamit Ran, in Miami and when she got a job teaching at the University of Chicago, I followed her to Chicago. Through her support of my professional activities, I met Daniel Barenboim (music director of the CSO) and Pierre Boulez, and both of them encouraged me to be more active with the Civic Orchestra.

Was it hard to leave your ‘dream job’ for Chicago or were you excited by the prospect of being in a new musical environment?

It was no problem moving since my ‘dream job’ was possible to have anywhere.

You are a musician that has worn and continues to wear many different hats in the field. Other than maintaining an impressive career as a conductor, what else do you do?

I have arranged various styles of music for many years, I enjoy coaching chamber music, I had my own business for twenty years which enabled me to write music for documentary films and commercials, and I have had many years of experience with jazz pedagogy.

I had heard that you wrote music for commercials before. What was your favorite commercial or film that you wrote for?

Arrangements of the George Gerswhin Melody Rhapsody in Blue for United Air Lines.

Favorite restaurant in town?

Coco Pazzo Cafe on St. Clair St. in downtown Chicago.


Thank you, Dr. Colnot, for your remarkable and lasting contributions to the Civic Orchestra.


By Zachary Good