Dr. Brian Gurley, Director of Music and Organist at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany.
Dr. Brian Gurley, Director of Music and Organist at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany.

The Evangelist continues its interview series with Dr. Brian Gurley, Director of Music and Organist at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany. Gurley talks about his upbringing, love of pipe organs, life philosophy and much more. Catholic Voices will feature a wide range of men and women in the Diocese and will appear periodically in the paper and online.

Dr. Brian Gurley is Director of Music and Organist at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, a position he has held since 2013. Gurley holds the degrees Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Wisconsin, Master of Sacred Music from the University of Notre Dame, and Bachelor of Music from Grove City College.  As Cathedral Director of Music, Gurley is responsible for preparing music for over 250 liturgies a year and runs the Cathedral Choir School for Grades K-8. Gurley talked with Mike Matvey of The Evangelist about his upbringing, faith and love of music for the latest edition of Catholic Voices.

TE: DESCRIBE YOUR UPBRINGING?

BG:  My mom was from the Philippines; she passed away a couple of years ago from brain cancer, she actually had discerned religious life. My parents took my brother and me to Mass every Sunday (in Pittsburgh). I grew up going to parochial school through eighth grade. They were involved in PTA, very involved in that community and that parish. That was a very important foundation for us … A lot of my upbringing in Church also included music so that’s where I started developing a love, not just for music in general, but there was always a connection to Church as part of that.

TE: Did you have an affinity for music at a young age?

BG:  My brother and I, once he was in kindergarten or first grade, mom went back to work and we would go to daycare at a neighbor’s house and they had a piano. And there were certain hours when the kids could bang around on the piano and I remember learning “Heart and Soul” and “Chopsticks.” The babysitters who would look after us told my parents: ‘Your kids always look forward to piano time.’ And I think it was on their recommendation that (my brother and I) should look into this, getting lessons, getting a piano. So we did. 

TE: what caused you to see music as a career?

BG:  At some point I thought I wanted to be a dentist. I don’t think our music director at our parish was full time so it wasn’t out there as a career path. When I went to (Grove City College) I applied in the biology program to be a dentist but I made sure it was a school where I could still study organ and be involved in music and choirs. … But my dad reminded me a year or two ago, the summer after junior year in high school, I had taken a bunch of Spanish classes and we took a trip to Spain. And we were going through all these Cathedrals … and half of the pictures that I took were of pipe organs. And they were just overwhelming. Not only the churches but then you hear the organs that make these gigantic buildings shake and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve got to learn how to play that.’ So when I got home I said, ‘We need to find an organ teacher.’ And right around the same time, which was very providential, our home parish had installed a pipe organ. There was an interim period between music directors and by then I had just become serviceable; I could play Mass. So even before I went away to school, and when I was home from school in the summer times, I would sub.

TE: When did you make the career switch in college?

BG:  I hated all in the coursework in biology. It was always a chore. First semester, sophomore year, I was studying for an exam with some friends and they were just geeking out about it. And I said, ‘You really like this?’ It didn’t dawn on me that people liked this. I thought it was something you did in order to be a doctor. You had to jump these hurdles. And they are like ‘I can’t get enough of it.’ And I said something’s got to give because I always wanted to go to the chapel to practice. I always loved going to choir. I loved going to make music. My parents were very supportive when I said I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, and they said give it one more semester so you really know. Just buckle down and if it’s really that much of a chore and you are not finding enjoyment with it, let’s talk and see how you can pursue music. 

TE: Where did you think the music would take you? 

BG:  I always enjoyed singing in choirs and I really looked up to my choir director in undergrad at Grove City. So even though I was an organist … as public as it is to play organ and provide music and to help an assembly of people sing, it’s a very isolated practice. It’s just you. But with a choir, you are working with a group of people. You are interacting with a group of people a little bit more immediately than you are playing a hymn. And I always had that interest in teaching and wanting to pursue choral conducting more officially. So once I finished Notre Dame … I had kind of burned out from organ instruction at that time. So I talked with the late director of music there, Gail Walton, and I said I think I really want to stay conducting. So she looked right at me and said: ‘You should go to Wisconsin.’ I took a year off from school, applied for a church job up there (and) sang in one of their choirs that let community members in. I got to know the director of choral activities and that following fall I applied to the conducting program at Madison and I was there for five years.

TE: How did you make your way to Albany?

BG:  My brother had moved to Madison independently of me for (a) job, so it was great. It was tough to leave. I had made some really good friends there, but it was time to move on from (St. Christopher Parish in Madison, where Gurley was Director of Music and Liturgy). It was Friday after Thanksgiving, 2012, and I looked up the listings online to see what church jobs were open and this job was open. And I went to the website and saw pictures of the building … what a place, what history. So I brushed up my resume … and got ready to email over on Monday morning. And I double-checked the posting to get the address and it was gone. So just that short window from Friday to Monday the post had expired. So I called the office here ...  and the secretary at the time said it had just expired but the search committee is meeting this evening, email me your stuff and I will make sure they have it. 

TE: What is your week like?

BG:  How many jobs can we think of in the Church where we don’t know what goes on behind the scenes? I would say regrettably actual music making is one of the lowest things I can spend time on. For example, just being in rehearsals and sitting on the bench playing the organ at Mass, you add that time together, that’s one business day. So in a 40-hour work week, that’s one day that doesn’t account for any preparation that it would take to get ready for those rehearsals and liturgies. And then you spin over all different kinds of liturgies, not just weekend Masses, but weddings, funerals, ordinations, Chrism Mass. It snowballs very quickly. In which case all of the prep work expands, exponentially. On our weekend schedule, we try to work at least two-to-three weeks out. It’s a comfortable schedule on my end. But the choir, all the repertoire, all the service music, I have planned that a year out. 

TE: What is the best part of the job?

BG:  Working with the choirs that is my bread and butter. Choir is that utopian community where people have to come together; you don’t have an instrument … it’s just you and your voice and your desire to sing. And everybody has to give of themselves and I can probably count on one hand the moments where everybody does that and it’s heavenly. And that is always my hope that I can help the choir members to experience that because if they experience that, then they want to do it again. They want to work harder. It’s great to have this intergenerational program now with adults and children working together because you can interact with both of them where … some of the profound statements that children will say in discussing a piece of music will stop all the adults in our tracks. 

TE: What kind of music do you listen to?

BG:  It is true that I almost always have music on my mind.  Even in the absence of audible recordings, I often replay music mentally and experience the same joy or inspiration that may have occurred in a rehearsal or a liturgy. This, of course, means that silence around me doesn’t bother me, and I almost never listen to music in the car. That said, I will listen to pop music with a heavy beat or pronounced rhythmic drive, say, at the gym; or I’ll put on some jazz music when I’m cooking.

TE: If someone said, I want to do what you are doing, what would you say?

BG:  I would say practice, be patient, learn to play the piano; develop keyboard skills and sing in a choir. And never underestimate the amount of work that you can put into that because … the beauty that you can tap into, will always take you further and further out of yourself. There is no limit to that.

TE: What is your life philosophy?

BG:  There is a psalm refrain in the Lectionary … “Fill us with your love, oh Lord, and we will sing for joy.” And that sums it up. Any time you read of God’s grace or salvation history, not far behind is a connection with sing­ing. And that is why we sing, because we have something to sing about.