Paula DeWit, conductor with the Chilliwack Symphony Orchestra, has been nominated for a national music award.
A few weeks ago, she received an email from the Ontario Arts Council informing her that she made the list for the Heinz Unger 2017 Award.
She had heard about the award before, but looked it up anyway and was surprised with what she found.
“It’s a prestigious Canadian award. It’s not a Mickey Mouse award,” says DeWit, who also conducts at the White Rock Community Orchestra. “It’s just not anybody nominating anybody, there is a real process here.”
She announced it on Facebook and Bramwell Tovey (music director with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra) commented with “Congratulations! That’s a big deal.”
The Heinz Unger Award is handed out every second year. On the Ontario Arts Council website it reads: The award is given to an individual to encourage and highlight the career of a young to mid-career Canadian conductor who has professional experience with a professional, semi-professional and/or community orchestra. A young to mid-career conductor is defined as one who has begun to establish and make an impact in his/her chosen field.
“Somebody’s watching me, which is mind-boggling,” says DeWit, going on to say she’s “in shock, humbled and honoured.”
“You devote yourself to the music , and you pour yourself into the music, and then you’re driven by this music that’s poured through your veins. That’s all that you do, and someone is watching what I’m doing,” she says. “I’m not doing music to be glorified, I’m doing it because the music just bleeds through my veins. I have no other option — if the music stops, I would stop being. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”
The nomination is a huge step in her career. It has raised her self confidence, something that was lacking for many years.
DeWit joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1984 hoping one day she’d be the first female conductor, but it wasn’t long before her life went downhill very quickly.
She suffered through major trauma during basic training which started her decline into depression. That was followed by a harassment case that she won through the Administrative Tribunals Support Service of Canada. DeWit left the armed forces in 1994.
“I came out very depressed and not wanting to leave my house. I had agoraphobia for a while.”
Years passed. She became the mother to two young sons, but she still had agoraphobia.
“It was so bad that I knew if I didn’t leave this house, I was in trouble,” she says.
It was then that DeWit decided to join a choir and went to sing with the Chilliwack Festival Chorus. She went to the first rehearsal “in a state of major panic, [but] as soon as I started singing, I started to feel a little bit comfortable” because she had brought herself back to music.
Her fears started to subside. She’d sing three-part harmonies over here, and help out with the tenors over there. She was back in her element and she was happy at rehearsals.
“Then I’d get home and I’m like a zombie again.”
When it was concert time with the Chilliwack Festival Chorus, DeWit would be facing the audience, mouth moving to every word of each song, but no words were coming out.
“The anxiety just overtook me.”
Soon after, she and her then husband started Chilliwack’s orchestra — the late maestro John van Liempt and DeWit founded the CSO in 1999.
She played trumpet, but she knew she wasn’t performing to her fullest ability. When it came to showtime, the anxiety still took over.
After the passing of van Liempt, and after many years of feeling “diminished, not worthy, low self esteem,” DeWit went back to school and took the conducting course in 2007 at Capilano College.
“I was tired of people telling me I’m not good enough and I thought [school] would help give me some confidence,” she says.
And it did. Slowly.
As time went by, she was finally able to be on stage during live performances conducting the chorus, but her body would be rigid.
(Above: video of DeWit conducting)
“You’re not enjoying it, you’re not feeling it, you’re just facilitating it,” says DeWit.
In 2012, after the CSO’s most recent conductor resigned, the board asked DeWit to step up and be the next conductor. Though she was still anxious, she decided to take the job, and it was then that she could see a shift starting to happen because she had more control of her environment.
“It gets easier and easier as you get familiar with that space. Now it’s to the point where I’m okay once I’ve been in a venue for a while,” she says. “I have a long way to go. I feel safe in my own community now — I can conduct here and it’s okay. Anything new, or if I think people are judging me, I have that I’m-not-good-enough feeling happening again.”
After everything she’s been through over the past 25 years, she finds it hard believe that she was nominated for the Heinz Unger 2017 Award.
She says the feeling of anxiety can still arise “even though I’m confident enough that somebody saw what I’m doing in this community and thought I deserved an award.”
And it’s all because of the music.
“I have to have a reason to get up in the morning, and it’s the music, or there’s no hope,” says DeWit. “Music has saved my life. The future looks promising.”
Related story: Chilliwack Symphony Orchestra season begins Oct. 14
(Below: DeWit’s original composition ‘Let Me Be Peace’)