Dr. Shawn Earle - Clarinetist

He/Him - Canadian clarinetist Shawn Earle is currently an instructor at the University of Victoria. He performs regularly as a soloist and has been a chamber musician with the Albemarle Ensemble, Cascadia Reed Quintet, Vancouver Clarinet Trio, Trio Dolce, and guest artist with the Novo Ensemble. He also has performed with the Charlottesville Symphony Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Okanagan Symphony, Victoria Symphony, Vancouver Island Symphony, and Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra.

In December 2015, Dr. Earle completed his Doctor of Musical Arts at the University of British Columbia examining contemporary Canadian clarinet music. Dr. Earle is dedicated to contemporary Canadian clarinet music, while also enjoying traditional repertoire. He also holds a Masters degree from the University of Victoria, a Bachelor of Education from the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor of Music from Acadia University.

Dr. Earle is committed to music education having been a high school band director, Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, Lecturer at Washington and Lee University, and delivering numerous masterclasses, clarinet instructor at the El Sistema inspired Saint James Music Academy, and maintaining a private studio.

Among his numerous accolades for performance and research, Dr. Earle has received grants from the British Columbia Arts Council, Canada Council, and the Nova Scotia Talent Trust Award.

I met up with Shawn in August when he happened to be in Nova Scotia. He had finished up his time in Charlottesville, Virginia, and was starting his position as clarinet and chamber music instructor at the University of Victoria. Shawn and I had the same undergraduate clarinet teacher as we both have degrees from Acadia. Our time there didn't intersect, but we realized as we chatted just how many people in common we had. The art community at the best of times is a small world, but when you add in a similar geographic and instrumental element, there is bound to be cross-over. What I loved about chatting with Shawn was that his work and playing has such an intensely thought-out understanding to it, but it comes across so clearly and earnestly. I enjoyed getting a chance to hear more about the life and work of someone who I have so many connections with, but had not truly met. If you want to read more about his research, there are links on his website. shawnearleclarinet.com. 


{Jacob} - So as a jumping off point, I read some of your doctoral work. You wrote on Canadian multicultural identity and how performance of that work is in itself an act of multiculturalism. And I was so genuinely curious how you got into that work - where that comes from and how you got into it.

{Shawn} - Right! Well, I guess I wanted to study Canadian music and I didn’t know how to really look at it. I wanted to categorize it some way as there is so much Canadian repertoire for clarinet. After surveying the Canadian Music Centre’s collection I struggled to account for the diversity of repertoire. I thought about trying to do it regionally, but that was too broad. One of my advisors suggested I explore this repertoire from the lens of multicultural and it suddenly made so much sense! I started looking at multicultural theory and how I could focus my study using the Canadian Multicultural Act. Canadian Multiculturalism is established on accommodations for French speaking people, Indigenous people, and Immigrants to Canada. I used these cultural identities to narrow my study and understand how the versatility of the clarinet lends itself to interpreting the music of various cultures. Through this process I discovered that learning a piece of music from a cross-cultural lens is an act of multiculturalism. One particularly exciting piece I studied and performed which demonstrates this is a work based on Japanese shakuhachi flute music titled Empty Sky transcribed by Elliot Weisgarber. I listened and studied Shakuhachi music as well as recordings of Wesigarber performing this work on clarinet. I worked to learn as much as possible about shakuhachi, the composer, and how Canadian Japanese culture influenced Wesigaber to develop a thoughtful and informed interpretation of this piece. This process of learning about all aspects of a cross-cultural work changes the performance - whether the audience knows it or not - there is a different level understanding and engagement with the music. I’m not only presenting a Japanese piece of music, there is a cross-cultural exchange.

{Jacob} - And then to do that level of research and understanding for 300 pieces is a massive undertaking. Not to put the entirety of your doctoral research into bullet points, but through that undertaking, what would you say were the major take aways from that research. What does Canadian clarinet multiculturalism look like to you now?

{Shawn} - While I surveyed over 300 works, I used the Canadian Multiculturalism Act to focus my study. I did an in-depth study and performance of only four works: Derek Charke’s Between the Shore and the Ships, Robert Rosen’s Sipatsimoyi, Milton Barnes’ Anerca II and Empty Sky which I just spoke about. 

I now realize the versatility of the clarinet to imitate, impersonate, and meditate on other cultures and engage with audiences and other communities. This past year I did a project titled "The Cross-Cultural Clarinet” where I played contemporary clarinet works inspired by non-Western cultures. Now I’m expanding on that project and playing works for clarinet inspired by extra-musical ideas and exploring how clarinet performance can engage with the world? An example which I have explored in Virginia is Eco-acoustics; climate change awareness through music. These projects have been motivated by a need for music to engage with society. We have agency as musicians to perform music that can promote change and provoke thought..Especially with so much going on in our world…

{Jacob} - So, you lived in Charlottesville, Virginia for the past two and a half years. You lived with the political and racial divide that Charlottesville is struggling with. If we as musicians and humans have so much agency and we can create discussion and conversation with music, what can that do in a place like Charlottesville? Can music and art help heal some of those wounds?

{Shawn} - Music and art have a lot of agency, but it comes at a particular point within the  process of social change. I don’t feel like Charlottesville is at that point yet. Music is not going to change the problems they are having there. The work they need to do is around safety. They have bigger fish to fry.

{Jacob} - So you’re thrilled to move back to Canada and start at the University of Victoria I’m guessing.  

{Shawn} - Yes, absolutely.

{Jacob} - In any country - at least North America - there is obvious and huge gender and race gap in classical music. As someone who has lived and worked across Canada and in the States, do you have any other thoughts around that and what we can do to help close that gap?

{Shawn} - I believe making musical training more accessible is essential. The cost of buying and maintaining an instrument makes music inaccessible to a lot of people as well. More sistema inspired programs are needed to expose classical music to a wider audience and provide engagement with music regardless of socio-economic status.  

{Jacob} - The visibility and representation of the performers themselves also needs to extend to the visibility and representation of the music itself. People need to have access, see themselves on stage, and hear music that they connect with. Is that what you mean?

{Shawn} - Yes! Also providing young people with music literacy to engage with classical music and really enjoy it. Like written literacy or numeracy, if you don’t get that basic education it is something foreign and difficult to understand. These factors contribute to the lack of diversity and especially representation of persons of colour in classical music concerts and teaching in music schools.

{Jacob} - Have you had queer musical mentors? Teachers or colleagues that you have looked up to as queer role models in classical music? 

{Shawn} - No. I actually haven’t. It’s not something that I’ve looked for.  Possibly because I let my ears guide me. I’m more concerned with how the music sounds than anything else. Although there is work to be done around social justice, safety, and acceptance around queer identities, currently the work that seems most pressing, in my opinion, is around race.

{Jacob} - I’m sure you’ve had queer students. Do you think they might have looked to you as a queer mentor? Sometimes we don’t even know we’re an important figure in someone’s life, until years later.

{Shawn} - I’ve had queer students, absolutely, though I don’t think their identity has ever really factored into my work or teaching. I tend not to get involved in their lives and likewise they rarely get involved in mine. We always have so many things to get through on clarinet; scales, fundamentals of good tone, technique. Then we have to get through the canon of music that is essential for them to learn in a university program. I try and focus on having them be as prepared as possible to go out into the world and make meaningful contributions as clarinetists.

{Jacob} - You lived in Victoria and did a Master’s at the University of Victoria. You must be excited to move back to the West Coast . What do you have on the horizon? Are you continuing your multicultural clarinet research and performance?

{Shawn} - I am! I’m actually playing the “Cross-Cultural Clarinet” program in January at the University of Victoria and Acadia University here in Nova Scotia. I will be performing as often as I can while building my studio and reacquainting myself with the West Coast. I’m also working on completing an album ofcross-cultural repertoire.