I am truly humbled to offer these thoughts today in the context of our national ACDA conference focused on music and diversity.
The name of Helen Kemp is known to many of us who have devoted our lives to nurturing and developing the love of singing in children. Helen Kemp was a highly respected vocal music educator and church musician who served as a musical ambassador for our sister organization, Chorister’s Guild, and later as professor of voice in church music at Westminster Choir College. She was a deeply beloved mentor to me and thousands of others who carry on the belief of her mantra “Body, mind, spirit, voice. It takes the whole person to sing and rejoice.” As Helen Kemp reminded us in her presentation at an earlier ACDA conference, we are imprinting musical memories for the soul and a lifetime, for in this high-tech world, the music we sing with children, with all people, makes us responsible for what we put into their hearts, minds, and souls. Then Dr. Kemp would quote the words of respected news journalist Tom Brokaw, “It is not enough to wire the world if you short-circuit the soul.”
During this time of COVID-19 pandemic, we have had to embrace drastic measures to keep choral singing alive. Without virtual choral singing many of us would have had our choral music programs eliminated in school and community settings. I applaud organizations like Chor Amor that came to the rescue of so many choral music educators in using virtual choral experiences as a way of keeping our choral programs active and engaging our singers. It has had much success and has given us useful ideas about how such technology might have positive employment in a post-pandemic world. However, it is not a long-term substitution for making music in person and together.
Making music together is not just about the music. The real impact of choral singing in person is that we are doing this to delve into the souls of each singer. That is so we feel connected to one another and to build community. Colleagues, our choral art may be one of the last social platforms where people can still come together, put aside those differences that so much of society uses to create barriers to divide people, and that we seek to build bridges to bring people together into community.
I believe our choral organizations can and must seek to be safe spaces for all. As I reflected upon my own work in life at St. Olaf College, I know I have a wide array of diverse thoughts and beliefs among the students I serve, especially in the St. Olaf Choir. I felt it was incumbent upon me to take care of my own house before I try to solve the problems of others.
I’m very proud of the wonderful artistry and the musical legacy of excellence of the St. Olaf Choir. Yet we, like other organizations, are not exempt from behaviors that can cause pain to members of our own ensemble. To that end, I posed the question to the student leaders and members of this year’s St. Olaf Choir of how we could be better versions of ourselves this year and as we proceed into the future. The result was that the entire choir membership had challenging and vulnerable conversations about how they were thriving and, more importantly, not thriving in the St. Olaf Choir. I especially appreciate the over one dozen BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] students that are current members of the St. Olaf Choir honestly sharing about the joys and struggles of being a member of the ensemble. While the discussions initially stemmed from concerns addressing anti-racism, we also had to address microaggressions and other negative behaviors relating to issues regarding gender identity, politics, religious thought, and socioeconomic differences that have come up in recent years. My students are not alone in dealing with these issues, yet I am grateful that they wanted to take responsibility for their behaviors and make concrete changes in how we would live with respect and care as a choral community based on a model suggested by one of the student officers, which he had encountered in another situation.
They have created a social contract that all members and I have signed onto to guide our working lives together as part of the St. Olaf Choir. This is a living document that will need to be recrafted each year as membership changes and behaviors are reviewed.
I believe we are creative people who must continue to aspire to a better world for each of us, and the organizations and the people we shepherd. For me, the words of immortal African American writer and poet Langston Hughes ring ever true as written in his poem “I Dream a World.” For this time, when Hughes uses the word man, it meant an inclusive all.
I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world!
My colleagues, I keep returning to the belief that we are called to be pastoral servant leaders, in our music making and leadership. I truly believe we as choral musicians are both priests and prophets. We are so often called upon to provide comfort, compassion, and healing through our music. Yet, we often have to be the prophetic voice, leading the cries for care of our neighbor, care of our planet, and demanding justice for all. I have long believed that our art must be relational and transformative.
In my own life, while I have continually have striven for musical excellence in all I do, music for me is but a means of grace, to reach people’s souls, both the performer and the listener. Our art must be in service to others. It calls us to be humble and vulnerable in the sharing of our gifts. Our call, avocare, is to become servant leaders, using our choral art to nurture and nourishing whole people, in breaking down the walls from within and outside that enslave us. Hear me well when I say I am not advocating throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In my own programming, I still continue to program music from the Western canon. However, it is incumbent upon me to make that music of the Western canon relevant to the lives of the singers that I ask to sing these compositions.
Throughout my career I have tried to reflect a global or multicultural perspective in the choral programs I have designed for the various ensembles I have conducted. However, I have pledged to myself that I will be even more intentional in programming works from women, BIPOC, and other marginalized people. This is not to check of some type of politically correct list, but to better reflect the realities, history, and ideas of people who have been for too long silenced and ignored. I call upon all of you out there to do the same. This my friends is low hanging fruit that is very possible to achieve. But it will demand greater research, sincere commitment by each artistic leader, and respect by the ensembles that will perform these works.
I truly believe it takes love, not hate, to make the dream of what Langston Hughes aspired to in his epic poem a reality. However, to achieve that love, it requires respect for one another to be the strong foundation. We may not always agree, but can we strive to better respect our differences and not let those differences lead to further division among us? Secondly, if we can establish true respect, then this can lead us to develop trust, something so sorely missing in today’s world. Without trust, in and between each other, we will be unable to reach a third and important step to transformational change, namely love. True love can, and must not only, acknowledge where we have fallen short in the care of our neighbor and creation, but also give us the vision to actually seek justice for all people in all we say, and more importantly, all we do in the choral art. These conversations and this work will not be easy. Indeed, it may cause great consternation and yes, guilt, in some cases for acts of commission and omission. But, it is only in this honest and difficult self-assessment of ourselves and our work and our organizations can we refocus the work and mission of our ensembles to achieve justice for all. Yet, it ultimately requires from each and every one of us respect, trust, and love.
Colleagues and friends, I wish each of you the very best and conclude my thoughts with the stirring words of James Weldon Johnson,
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.
Keynote presented on March 19, 2021, at the ACDA national virtual conference, Diversity in Music. A video of the address can be viewed here.
Anton Armstrong, Tosdal Professor of Music at St. Olaf College, became the fourth conductor of the St. Olaf Choir in 1990 after ten years in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he served on the faculty of Calvin College and led the Calvin College Alumni Choir, the Calvin College Campus Choir he Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus and the St. Cecilia Youth Chorale. He is a graduate of St. Olaf College and earned advanced degrees at the University of Illinois (MM) and Michigan State University (DMA). He is editor of a multicultural choral series for Earthsongs Publications and co-editor (with John Ferguson) of the revised St. Olaf Choral Series for Augsburg Fortress Publishers. In June 1998, he began his tenure as founding conductor of the Oregon Bach Festival Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy. Active as a guest conductor and lecturer in the United States and abroad, Dr. Armstrong has conducted All-State choirs and choral festivals in nearly all 50 states, as well as guest conducting such luminary ensembles as the World Youth Choir, the Indonesia Youth Choir, the Ansan City Choir (South Korea), the Formosa Singers (Taiwan), the Houston Chamber Choir, the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati, the Phoenix Chorale, the Westminster Choir and the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square.