We are pleased to introduce a new blogger to ChoralNet. Austen Wilson, a church-based choral conductor, will be writing weekly about the ways that he and choral colleagues are making the transition back into a post-COVID world, or at least looking ahead toward that. Enjoy!
During the first week in March 2020, a good friend visited me in Jacksonville, Florida, for several days. Part of our conversations involved this new virus called COVID-19. While it had swept a number of other countries, it was just reaching the U. S. We talked about the various plans and vacations we had for later that year and that perhaps the virus would be serious for just a few months but then dissipate. Oh, how both of us were so wrong! The following week, my church and many organizations went on complete lockdown for what was an unknown period of time back then.
My name is Austen Wilson, and I’m the Director of Music and Worship Arts at Mandarin United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, Florida. In late 2020 or early 2021 I continued to feel like nothing made sense, that I was out of synch with everything. I felt a dissonance. After letting that marinate for a period of time, I thought, wait a minute. Some of the best music has dissonances I truly enjoy! Eric Whitacre’s music and jazz are full of dissonance. The last chorus of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion has some memorable dissonances. So wasn’t it.
Fast forward to the week before Holy Week in Adult Bell Choir rehearsal. We were rehearsing Lament by Karen Thompson, a piece based on the E harmonic minor scale. We were working on the climax of the piece where the whole ensemble was ringing at a forte dynamic. Something did not sound right, but we kept going, in the hopes the ringers would fix the mistakes on their own. After the climax was a part that was transparent, softer, and contained a motive that was isolated in 2 ringers. Except . . . a ringer was ringing an F natural instead of an F sharp by mistake. That’s what had sounded off in the forte section. The whole ensemble, including the ringer, had a laugh and we continued with the rehearsal.
As in the previous example, sometimes it can take us a while to feel that comething seems “off.” Even before COVID, I was experiencing seismic shifts. In July 2019, I moved from the Philadelphia metro area in southern New Jersey to Jacksonville, Florida, to start a new job. In early January 2020, a coworker and good friend was admitted to the hospital for non-COVID related illnesses and was in the hospital for several months. While he is at home now and doing extremely well, he’s not quite at 100 percent yet. In late January 2020, the senior pastor announced her retirement for May 2020. We were without an interim senior pastor until October 2020. The denomination for which I work, the United Methodist Church, is also experiencing many transitions. Adding COVID-19 into the mix is a recipe for a lot of uncertainty. The past 15-16 months have shaken us all. Even if you have worked for your organization for 20 years, my guess is that it has changed drastically. Perhaps you’re figuring out a multitude of transitions in your own context.
Getting back to the E Natural analogy, I’ve been asking myself where the resolution is, or at least how to get to a more pleasant dissonance. In my opinion, the solution is helping to create entirely new key that none of us have heard. This summer, I hope to get some insight about how to do that. Join me in this journey as we start to figure out this new world together. In addition to our own personal and professional circumstances, the choral world is progressing to a whole new paradigm. Using a prior transition point in music, when Beethoven explored 3rd relationships, I’m sure people thought he was crazy or wanted to keep tonal harmony the same. Look at the musical world he opened up! Similarly, we have the opportunity to create a brand new world.
Throughout this summer, you’ll read about how various organizations and events are making this transition. Here are examples of some of the topics:
- What are conferences like in person? I’ll give you the inside scoop from the perspective of a conference organizer and attendee, as I’m doing both.
- Now that we’ve had over a year of experience planning virtual events, what goes into executing an inspiring and successful online conference?
- This new world also includes shifts that had started before COVID, such as a heightened awareness of the need for equity and inclusion in repertoire, conductors, and singers. How might we continue to create a world where all feel a sense of belonging in choirs?
- What are the implications for music in worship?
Next week’s post is about a newly commissioned work called Remember the Ladies by Dr. Melissa Dunphy. It was premiered virtually in April 2021 by the Philadelphia-based PhilHarmonia Chamber Choir, an entirely women-led ensemble in its artistic and administrative staff. On May 27, 2021, there was an informal in-person gathering where we sang the piece in person for the first time. Stay tuned to read what that experience was like!
What are some transitions you’re facing or questions you have about the fall? Post below!
Austen Wilson recently found out he was named for an uncle on his dad’s side, and not Jane Austen as he previously had thought. He is the Director of Music and Worship Arts at Mandarin United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, FL, where he plans worship for traditional services and directs Adult Handbell and Vocal Choirs, and Children’s and Youth Vocal Choirs. Austen is looking forward to singing in the Florida Festival Singers during the 2021 – 2022 season. He holds an M.M. in Choral Conducting from Colorado State University in Fort Collins and a B.A. in Vocal Music Education from St. Olaf College.