Though the quotation is often misattributed to Dr. Seuss, when FDR presidential advisor Bernard Baruch said, “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind,” he referred to the rather mundane and honestly pretentious matter of seating arrangements for a dinner party.
For 2012 alumnus Ian Murrell, the significance of this philosophy is the commitment to “living unapologetically.” Thinking back to his time in the Vandalia school system, he explains why he matters and doesn’t mind: “[Conformity] has been a long standing thing in rural communities and I really wish it would change. The only way that it does change is through people actually living unapologetically. You know, making that difference by becoming the individual.” He adds, “I think of the people that would make fun of me for doing music in high school, and I look where I’m at now, and I think I would have been stupid to listen to them.”
Music has been the radiant core of Ian’s life since he first picked up the trombone for the school band. Since then, he’s made the remarkable jump from trombonist to operatic force of nature as a singer, graduating from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University-Bloomington. “They call it ‘the factory’ in music circles,” Ian laughs. As one of around 2500 students in Bloomington’s music department, he found himself in the uncanny position of transforming his jazzy trombone tendencies into a no-holds-barred operatic baritone vocal performance. Indiana University puts on six operas a year, and he was immediately cast in leading roles for five of them.
The transition to singing began during his undergraduate studies at the University of Evansville. Ian’s first voice lesson with his teacher introduced a “right place, right time” moment to his career trajectory. “We do some warm-ups and we’re like starting to sing some stuff,” he recalls, “And he just kind of pauses the lesson. He says, ‘You know, opera tryouts are next week. Are you going to try out?’ I was like, ‘What’s an opera?’ I was just a 19-year-old kid that had never even heard an opera.”
Ian now lives opera, on stage and off. He calls Chicago his home base and has engagements with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Grant Park Orchestra, ensemble Music of the Baroque, and is the section leader for the choir at his church, St. Paul & the Redeemer Episcopal. He wins his bread through private lessons, tutoring over 65 students a week and instilling in them his hunger for the personal joy of performance. “One of my goals, whenever I moved here in 2019, was to eventually make all of my money in music,” Ian says. By his account, he reached that goal long ago and is now having the time of his life.
Music has always been a source of delight for Ian. “It just made sense,” he explains. He attributes his first melodic ripples to the highly capable music educators that mentored him in Vandalia. His dream at the time was to become a professional baseball player, but even though his course deviated, wearing a glove for the Vandals played a prominent role in his ability to better his vocal performance. The reason? It’s all about breath. “
A major facet of singing is the breath, right? I tell my students and myself whenever I’m singing that you can’t sing tense, and the breath is the most natural thing we do,” Ian explains. “When you’re playing baseball and swing the bat, you can’t tense up your arms before the swing. It’s got to stay loose, but it’s still firm and engaged. The breath must feel the same way.”
The connection Ian describes to us is exemplified by the composers that motivate his performance: Harry Burleigh and Giuseppe Verdi. Though Verdi was by no means imagining himself at home plate, ready to strike, when he wrote the music for Rigoletto, his intuition for remaining “firm and engaged” with breath in mind during composing is what Ian identifies as the “metaphysical versus scientific” ability that he champions. “When we study how to sing, we’re studying the metaphysical side. Whenever I tell my students, ‘I don’t like where you’re placing that vowel,’ there’s no scientific explanation for it,” he emphasizes. “I’m sure there is, but it would take way too long to explain it when you can just say instead of singing in the back of the mouth, bring it toward the front.” Ian believes that instinct is the motor of vocal performance, and he nurtures the spontaneous nature of the voice in his singing and that of his students.
His advice for all vocal performers in training is to “document your progress.” Ian’s archive of his recorded performances reaches back to when he was three years old and pulled stunts on stage like stealing and hogging the microphone from his family during their church performance of “We Three Kings.” He enjoys listening to past gigs to grasp the progress he’s made. “There’s a lot of grace that you need to have with yourself,” he says of committing to the voice as an instrument. “I’m not an extraordinarily patient person, but when you’re in the thick of it, you don’t really pay attention to how much you’ve improved.” Pushing back on passive refusal to listen and fully accepting the power of retrospectives is the driving force behind Ian’s musical approach. When you can appreciate how your single note continues to rise above the dull, discordant noise of the hectic every day, then you’re living with purpose without apologizing. “If it makes you happy, if it gives you purpose?” Ian says. He’s contemplating out loud (as is the way of the stage artist) about how technical advancement in music runs parallel to the realization that you made the right choice long ago to only listen to yourself concerning what you want from the world. “Don’t sacrifice your purpose for any person,” he says. Or, in other words-- don’t apologize, don’t mind, do matter.
Okay. One more time, from the top. One and a two and three and a…