Syrhea Conaway on Communicating and Connecting Through Music

 In Culture, Feature

Syrhea Conaway, the musician, is an intimidating figure. Conaway is a multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, bass guitar, keyboards and violin. She utilizes vocal acrobatics and dynamics in a unique manner that some might find just this side of impossible. She possesses a good deal of classical vocal and violin training and, unlike many “pop” musicians (for our purposes defined as rock, blues, singer-songwriter, etc. … no matter how one might bend those genres), she can write and read notes on a page.

She rolls all of this together with the extensive use of technologies that extend the limits of what one person might accomplish on their own.

Syrhea Conaway, the person, is gracious and friendly. Conaway has an ease with people that she may not even recognize. “A part of me feels a little imposter syndrome,” she admits of her educational work. She shies away from the constant barrage of social media promotion most musicians accept as another part of the job. “I don’t even have a smartphone,” she confides. Let’s just call it what it is: Syrhea Conaway, for all her accomplishment, skill and talent, is deficient in egotism.

This is not to say that Conaway lacks confidence. Very much the opposite; she is supremely confident in her music and her creative direction, she’s simply not arrogant about it. That marked absence of arrogance, despite her obvious musical skill, makes Conaway approachable. Her genuine interest in the ambitions of others is obvious, and she’s outspoken in her support of her fellow musicians. Perhaps it’s just her nature, or her own stylistic fluidity, or some combination of both, but she’s accepting and appreciative of creatives of all stripes. One rarely walks away from an encounter with Conaway without a boost of ambition and a renewed sense of possibility.

An impressive musical resume
Conaway’s solo project Syna So Pro sees her blending these instruments and skills into gorgeous, dense and often mesmerizing compositions. Or, there’s her album, “VOX,” an a cappella work that moves gracefully between very classical-sounding compositions such as the hymn-like “Sputnik” to a beat-box adaptation of the Pat Sajak Assassins song “Kick man” to something that uniquely straddles both approaches, as in “A Plea for Forgiveness.” All of this makes for a striking synthesis of western classical sound and contemporary pop catchiness.

Conaway has also spent time with some notable local ensembles. In the long-running and ever-shifting Pat Sajak Assassins, Conaway layers her keyboards and vocal loops on frenetic math-rock tantrums. As the one-time bass player for Brian McClelland’s pop-rock outfit Whoa Thunder, she showed off her pop chops. Conaway also served as co-geek in the sci-fi/electronic 3 of 5, playing tongue-in-cheek, Star Trek-inspired digital space-pop. When viewed alongside her Syna So Pro output, this resume is uniquely prolific, boasting an incredible range of stylistic acumen.

This is just a piece of her musical resume. She’s also enjoyed a residency at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, serves as an adjunct faculty member at COCA and conducts private lessons. She has composed music for other ensembles and for dance. This season, Conaway performed at the Sheldon Concert Hall as part of the “Good Vibrations: The Science of Sound” educational program. She recently made a livestream appearance with St. Louis Public Radio. In July, she’s scheduled to facilitate a session on sonic imagination during the COCAedu 2020 Summer Institute.

“I feel like just in the last two and a half short years, I’ve blown out of the box I was keeping myself in,” she says of her recent diverse and prolific output. And there’s more to come: She’s releasing “Hype Chill,” a double album composed of remixes of “VOX,” later this year through FPE Records.

Making it look easy (and fun)
One explanation for Conaway’s infectious confidence comes from the fact that she is so obviously having fun. Her performances are not the calculated exhibitions of technical skill one might expect from such a proficient practitioner. The physicality of Conaway’s performance is fascinating to view. She moves in dramatically animated gestures and bounces with the music, all while working the very exacting and unforgiving multitude of technology in her employ. A sharp observer might catch a glimpse of the mathematical heavy lifting at play behind what otherwise appears fairly spontaneous. There are tambourine players who appear to work harder.

And is that not one way we quantify mastery: the apparent effortlessness of the action? How often do we say things like, “So-and-so makes it look so easy”? Part of this inclination makes strong intuitive sense. Especially with music, it’s difficult to imagine someone working so very hard at pressing buttons or pedals and still appearing compelled by the sound. Whether we’re talking about instruments or technology, music is a complicated and often delicate craft. When someone isn’t in full control of their instrument, this is usually fairly obvious. Great performers seem to be moved by the music they create rather than pushing it out as an act of physical labor.

Syrhea Conaway on Communicating and Connecting Through Music

But performance is only one part of the lifecycle of a piece of music. The writing of that piece can reveal much about the artist creating it.

Many pop musicians write music more or less by happenstance. Someone comes up with a melody or a chord progression or some other little piece and then the process is usually an additive one—either tacking on other parts or building off the one. This is why you may hear musicians say something like: “Songs write themselves.”

There are varying degrees by which an artist can bring deliberate intention to bear on something. But this is yet another way Conaway differs from her peers. She can let “songs write themselves” like anyone else, but often in her commissioned work she has to leverage her intentions in a more thoughtful, focused way to communicate something specific. “Do I have to create a character … .”

When we think of what makes a good teacher, mastery of a subject is not often at the top of the list of attributes. Most of us would agree that teaching is not the byproduct of the accumulation of knowledge, but a skill set all its own. Much like art, teaching involves intuition and an awareness of how one might apply methods and knowledge for each unique situation.

In the end, teaching and art have one very important thing in common: communication. Sure, Conaway is a fantastic musician. But her true gift is her ability to communicate with others. So seamlessly is this woven into her personality that it’s often difficult to disentangle the musician from the mentor, from the teacher, from the friend. In this Conaway reveals the real art is her ability to connect.

Images courtesy of Neco Johnson.

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