In addition to serving as Director of Music and Worship Arts at Mandarin United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, FL, I also sing in the Festival Singers of Florida, a 100-voice auditioned choir comprised of music educators and conductors from all over Florida and beyond. Thankfully, my church had the privilege of hosting this inspiring choir in a concert last weekend. Much of the repertoire is by living composers and the choir has a history of commissioning new choral works. During the 2021 – 2022 season, one of the pieces that had a profound impact on me was I Will Stand With You by Dr. Marques Garrett. It reminded me that music has the great potential to speak to contemporary and relevant themes in a profound way.
The genesis of Dr. Garrett’s piece was truly collaborative. In May and June 2020 when there were a series of shootings of unarmed Black persons throughout the United States, Dr. Kevin Fenton, Artistic Director of the ensemble, had a conversation with the composer. As a director of a predominantly white choir, Dr. Fenton wanted a piece that would stand for racial justice and speak to a relevant issue of our time. The text came from the singers in the ensemble in a process created by Morgan Luttig, who is pursuing a PhD in Music Education – Choral Conducting at Florida State University. For the initial prompt, she wrote the following.
“Through the grief that we feel over the losses of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other black lives, Festival Singers of Florida (FSOF) is striving to not only say more, but also do more to fight racial injustice. Most of the membership of FSOF is from the majority population. As such, we want to hear your responses on what we can say, and what we can do, to enact change. Using selected responses to the prompt below as the textual foundation, FSOF is commissioning a new work as a response and as a call to action. If you are willing, please submit your response using the provided Google Form. All responses will remain anonymous.”
Based on the prompt, Dr. Garrett added his own thoughts in the comment of the post soliciting responses. “Our world seems to have been turned upside down. Some of us have known about and lived through prejudiced experiences our whole lives. (There are black and brown people who constantly wonder if people are looking at them longer than usual while on a trail; if that store clerk really is following them; or if they got the job as a diversity hire. Some more direct experiences include being asked if they live in this country, neighborhood, or building; being asked to show identification as proof; and hearing racial slurs.) Others of us have known about what’s happening and have enacted change. Sadly, others have sat on the sidelines watching everything play out. In recent weeks, many more people have come to the realization that the time of passive activism is over. It is time for those of us with privilege to enact change.”
Finally, a little reminder/encouragement was added with the following to get final responses: What are some things that you wish you knew before now? What would you like to say to the majority population, especially if you are a member of that population? What do those in the majority population need to know in order to create the change that we as humans need in order to build a more unified world?” Based on the prompt, Dr. Garrett took phrases submitted by the choir and crafted the musical portion. In October 2021, I interviewed the composer about the piece. He mentioned how during the pandemic, there has been an awakening of racial awareness. During performances of I Will Stand With You, Dr. Garrett wanted audience members to reflect, put themselves in the piece, and ask themselves questions. In addition, he wanted to communicate that it’s OK to search for answers and that both a group effort and individual contributions are vital to end racism. Especially towards the end of the piece, the choir sings “I will stand with you” as an ostinato with various ensemble members saying short phrases such as, “I want to speak up; I just don’t know how” and “We cannot stand for peace without first standing for justice”. The composer mentioned that the statement of “I will stand with you” is intended as a personal statement both for the singers and the audience. To get a hold of Dr. Garrett, go to https://www.mlagmusic.com/.
As a singer or conductor, it’s a thrill to premiere a brand new piece of choral music. From my perspective, it was incredibly moving to sing in a piece that was so relevant and could make a difference. Finally, I thought you would enjoy watching it. Enjoy the premiere of I Will Stand with You from October 2, 2021.
In our local contexts, we might not have the funds to commission a brand-new work, especially in lean financial times. On the other hand, there are a wealth of new resources that speak to relevant topics of our time. From a church musician’s perspective, I keep finding living authors whose hymns I have used. Three who I highly recommend are:
Carolyn Winfrey Gillette – http://www.carolynshymns.com/
Stephen Fearing – http://www.stephenmfearing.com/
Mark Miller – Roll Down, Justice! Songbook. This resource can be found on choristersguild.org (CGBK72).
What are other resources have you found that speak to social issues of our time or have been a relevant vehicle for social change?