Linda Blanchard would rather not talk about herself.
The Damariscotta resident is more than happy to talk about her handsome, amazing, intelligent, and incredibly talented husband of 29 years, Sean Fleming, and her equally amazing, intelligent, talented, and lovely daughter Hermione Blanchard-Fleming, but Linda Blanchard is not particularly eager to focus on herself.
A professional choral conductor, Blanchard is the artistic director for two of Lincoln County’s most prominent community singing groups, the Sheepscot Valley Chorus and the St. Cecilia Chamber Choir. She has served as the choir director for the St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Newcastle since 1994 and she conducts the Lincoln Arts Festival Chorus, preparing the group for its annual performances in August.
She has no problem standing before a large group of singers, offering guidance, suggestions, constructive criticism and occasionally, tough love. She also has no difficulty leading a chorus in a public performance.
“I am 100% comfortable with that, because I have a job to do,” she said. “I know how to do it. I am very good at it and I have been doing it long enough I don’t have to think about it.”
Music has played a role in Blanchard’s life as long as she can remember. Somewhere there is a family picture of her as a 2-year-old reaching up, straining to touch the keys of a piano. She learned to play the instrument before she could read, her teacher color coding the keys so she would know where to put her fingers.
Born in Virginia and raised initially in Maryland, Blanchard was a horse-mad 13-year-old when her parents moved the family to Hope in 1979. Looking back, Blanchard said Maine immediately felt like home in ways Maryland never did.
“That was kind of a dream come true because I hated being in the suburbs,” she said. “I should have been devastated leaving all my friends but I wasn’t. Like my favorite book growing up was ‘Tom Sawyer,’ so I really liked being out in the woods.”
Noticing her musical aptitude, Blanchard’s high school band director seriously urged her to pursue a teaching career, a profession that never attracted her, despite the potential benefits.
“I love working with kids,” she said. “I find it a bummer not working with kids right now, and I even love working with kids in middle school, which most consider crazy … I have a very high tolerance for chaos.”
In Maine, where it can be challenging to earn a living as a professional musician, it is not uncommon to turn to teaching to make ends meet.
“A lot of people think it is so nuts that I don’t (teach), but it’s all just so rigid in the administration and there is so much to it that isn’t music,” Blanchard said.
Graduating from what was then Camden Rockport High School in 1984, Blanchard entered Bowdoin College with the idea of majoring in biochemistry. At the time Bowdoin didn’t have a much of a music department, but she ended up majoring in music anyway, she said.
“I never wanted to be a choral director,” Blanchard said. “I thought if I was going to be a musician, I wanted to be an instrumentalist, kind of a band, orchestra thing, but the choir director at Bowdoin was an absolutely amazing musician and so I ended up going in that direction because I was so inspired.”
Blanchard credits a trip to New York City with her best friend Richard Francis in 1990 for turning her on to the sound and style of music she would make her life’s work. Francis remains a dear friend and collaborator for both Blanchard and Fleming and he lives near the couple today.
A New York City native, Francis took Blanchard to St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue to see the St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys.
“I had never heard music like that before and when I heard that, that was what I wanted to do,” she said.
“That’s very distinctive, that English cathedral sound,” she said. “They tend to sing with no vibrato, the boys do. Of course, I am working with adult women singing the boys part, so in St. Celia I ask them to sing with no vibrato.”
After graduating Bowdoin, Blanchard worked a semester leading the college chorus and then spent the next year and a half working a series of interim choral positions in local schools. It was enough to confirm her suspicions that she was not cut out to be a school teacher.
“I actually tried, so I knew I didn’t want to do it,” she said. “After that experience I thought, ‘dear God, I have to go to graduate school.’”
Graduate school turned out to be the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, which has a highly regarded music program. There she earned a Master of Art in choral conducting in 1992.
Coming from Bowdoin where the music program hardly warranted a reputation, Blanchard said she felt a little of her depth at Michigan, being that most of her peers had come through conservatories and planned to pursue professional careers. Blanchard had a different idea.
“They were all kind of horrified that I wanted to go back to Midcoast Maine, because I wanted to work with amateurs,” she said. “The professionals, they all really love it too, but they come in and have generally, like, two rehearsals and then they perform and it’s a totally different thing.”
Blanchard, who prefers to plan a 12-week schedule leading up to performance, said she enjoys the rehearsal process. The organization at the very beginning can be involved, and opening night at the very end can be a little stressful, but the middle, when the songs and the singers are decided, is a sweet spot in process. That is the easy part, she said.
“If I know how many rehearsals I am going to have, I can choose the repertoire accordingly, but I know the minimum I consider reasonable is eight,” she said. “If I have 12 to 13 (rehearsals), that’s comfortable.”
Picking the repertoire is particularly challenging, Blanchard said. She is admittedly “very picky” about the music, but she knows what she likes and what she wants her chorales to present and she stays true to that vision.
“I don’t like most choral music at all,” she said. “I like this small subset of choral music and that just really spoke to me. It just sent me and I get really excited getting this particular sound, but most of it I either don’t care about or find it actively unappealing.
“I have to really like something to be able to do it,” she said. “I can’t be inspired by something that is just fine, so there is only so much out there. There is a ton of stuff that is just churned out so there is lot to sort through.”
Blanchard’s husband helps her sort through her musical options, professionally and personally. A Rockland native, Fleming comes from a family of musicians, many of whom pursue professional careers. The couple met in 1993 after Blanchard agreed to sing at her sister’s wedding. A highly regarded multi-instrumentalist who has directed or accompanied approximately 100 musical theater productions nationwide, Fleming has served as Blanchard’s accompanist for the entirety of her professional career.
“I met him when my younger sister got married,” Blanchard said. “He was playing organ for the wedding and I was a soloist so we had a rehearsal, just Sean and me, and I thought ‘oh, he was a good musician’ … I could tell he was excellent, and I thought he was very handsome.”
Fleming followed Blanchard out to Michigan, supported her there, and followed her back to Maine. The couple married in 1994. Their daughter, Hermione, named for the daughter of Helen of Troy, is a sophomore at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle
When she is not working, Blanchard likes to stay at home with her family and tend to the family’s small menagerie, which includes three dogs, three cats, and a couple birds.
“Sean and I are homebodies,” she said. “We just like to read and binge watch. He’s nauseating. I think he has read every book that is worth reading on every topic you can imagine.”
When the family does get away, in recent years they have enjoyed going to Disney World, where it is possible to get away from the demands of being self-employed and enter the “Disney bubble” for a stress-free week.
The Sheepscot Valley Chorus was founded as the Sheepscot Valley Musical Arts Society in the late 1970s. Under Blanchard’s direction, the non-audition chorus performs three major concerts a year. She is currently leading the final preparations for the chorale’s spring performance, “Requiem for the Living,” a five-movement work composed by Dan Forrest in 2013. The chorus will perform at The Second Congregational Church in Newcastle Saturday and Sunday, April 29 and 30. Both concerts begin at 3 p.m.
Simultaneously, she is preparing the St. Cecilia Chamber Choir for its next performance, Saturday and Sunday, May 6 and 7 at the Damariscotta Baptist Church. At that time the choir will present “Bach to the Future,” a collection of pieces celebrating Johann Sebastian Bach and his musical successors.
During performances the entire chorus and the music take center stage. According to Blanchard, that is just fine by her. She would rather not be the center of attention.
“I don’t like talking about myself,” she said. “I don’t know. It’s a New England thing.”
For more information about the Sheepscot Valley Chorus, go to sheepscotvalleychorus.org.
For more information about the choir, go to ceciliachoir.org.
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