Author: Zanaida

The Lifting of Voices

I was moved to tears when, last weekend, mezzo-soprano Brittany Logan sang the sh*t out of my arrangement of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing!” She sang it during a choral concert presented by the Bob Cole University Choir and Chamber Choir called “We Can Mend the Sky: Choral Music for Social Justice.” Conducted by my former teacher Jonathan Talberg, the Chamber Choir did a splendid job of supporting Brittany as she wailed with depth and fervor and exquisite vocalism — the perfect voice for my piece. Brittany told me that for her, a young Black American female college student, singing THIS SONG with THIS CHOIR meant the world to her. Tears were streaming from both our eyes as I hugged and hugged her. It meant the world to me, too.

I attended Saturday night’s concert with added pep in my step over having been elected President of the George Robert Garner III Branch of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) the week prior, on October 14. I am so proud to be connected with a centuries-old Black American musical legacy through NANM. And I am filled with honor, humility, and hope as I imagine how I might serve as one of the living links between NANM and music institutions and educators that are finding ways to not only “include” Black Americans, but to give Black Americans a safe space where they can lift their voices and truly be seen and heard in ways that validate their humanity without tokenizing their identity.

I know I’ve said this before: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a hymn that connects us to our roots, honors the present, and points toward the future. The poetry is epic and sophisticated. It speaks to our common struggle with brutality and injustice. And mostly, it speaks to the value of EVERY collective human voice that has ever been imprisoned, demoralized, persecuted, and/or murdered. Anyone and everyone can and should sing this song. But for me, and for many Black Americans, this song is our pride and joy. It means more than words can say for this song to be sung to life by our prestigious local music institutions, especially when Black Americans take the lead.

There are lots of great arrangements of “Lift Every Voice” out there. If you are a choral conductor, please consider performing mine. It is published by E.B. Marks Music and distributed by Hal Leonard. For details, go to to https://www.halleonard.com/product/viewproduct.action?itemid=139863.

Choir wisdom

This recent photo of me, now featured on my personal Facebook profile, says a lot: I’m about to embark on an overnight choir retreat in the San Bernardino mountains with 35 high school students. I’m already tired. It’s 2pm – the very worst time to leave due to rush-hour traffic. What should’ve been a 2-hour drive lasts for 4 hours. I’m uncomfortable, as this bus was obviously designed for elementary-aged kids, not grown folks. The bus is noisy. The two young men who end up sitting next to me manage to talk excitedly for the whole four-hour ride about gaming, coding, and computer science stuff. Aren’t their mouths dry? But it’s good that they are bonding, I guess.

I love my job. I love these kids. I know this retreat is worth it. But in this moment, I am just trying to get by. 

In the end, the retreat was a great success. My students were delightful, warm-hearted, and perfectly nerdy! They inspired me by sharing a few fun “choir truisms” with me during our trip. In honor of my students, here are a few personal favorites I’ve collected over the years from various books, journals, choir bulletin boards, conference handouts, and websites like Brainyquote.com, Pinterest, and Enkiquotes.com.


I truly thought I was going to be in pop music. And then I joined a choir to meet girls, and everything changed in the first rehearsal.
– Eric Whitacre
Group singing is cheaper than therapy, healthier than drinking, and certainly more fun than working out. It is the one thing in life where feeling better is pretty much guaranteed.
– “Singing Changes Your Brain“, Time.com, Aug 16, 2013
Then the singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s heart. There was no sense of performance or judgement, only that the music was breath and food.
– Anne Lamott
Music will save the world.
– Pablo Casals
The most important thing in the world is choral music.
– Dale Warland
I don’t sing because I’m happy, I’m happy because I sing.
– William James
Music is exciting. It is thrilling to be with a group of people creating the same piece of music. You are part of a great, powerful, vibrant entity. Music is important. It says things your heart can’t say any other way, and in a language everyone speaks.
– Dan Rather
God sent his Singers upon earth
With songs of sadness and of mirth
That they might touch the hearts of men
And bring them back to heaven again.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Hooray for the start of the new school year!

 There have been so many meetings and trainings and lunches and dinners to prepare me for full-time teaching at Harvard-Westlake Upper School. Yes, I’m exhausted, overwhelmed, and anxious. I’m also incredibly motivated, confident, and immensely grateful to be in place where, according to the mission statement, we strive “to be a diverse and inclusive community united by the joyful pursuit of educational excellence, living and learning with integrity, and purpose beyond ourselves.” At 5:30am when I drag myself out of bed to do my 15 minute yoga routine each morning before I go to work, I remind myself that I’m doing this because I’m called to embody excellence. Since I started this practice, I have felt much more physically, mentally, and emotionally fit. I hope I can stick with it long enough for my yoga practice to become an unshakeable habit.

One of my friends at Harvard-Westlake is a new Spanish instructor from Belize. I told her of my struggle to become a fluent Spanish speaker. She optimistically told me to download an app called “Duolingo.” I’ve been having so much fun practicing not only Spanish, but also French! Apparently, I’m 27% fluent in Spanish and 17% fluent in French. I actually think I’m further along than that, but I can only complete so many exercises in a day. In any case, I’m definitely on my way. This is doable, folks!

Going national

I am pleased to announce that I have just been elected to serve on the national board of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM). If you go to www.nanm.org, you’ll learn that this organization has been dedicated to the preservation, encouragement, and advocacy of all genres of music created and/or performed by African Americans since 1919.
To grasp the breadth and scope of NANM over the last century, here are some of the notable artists that have given performances with this great organization:

Clockwise from top left:
Marian Anderson, Ellis Marsalis, Jessye Norman, Robert McFerrin, Lena Horne, William Warfield
Clinicians and lecturers of note include Wendell Whalum, Doris McGinty, Alain Locke, Grace Bumbry, Sylvia Olden Lee, James Cleveland, Robert Ray, Willis Patterson, Roland Carter, Brazeal Dennard, Robert Harris, and Shirley Verrett. These notables (my heroes) represent only a fraction of the many musicians, educators, scholars, and lovers of music who constitute the musical fabric of this organization.
During the national convention in New Orleans, LA this past week, I ran for a post on the national board of NANM because I believe in its mission, I am proud of its legacy, and I want to play a constructive role in its future. NANM is one of the most profoundly diverse organizations in this nation. Yes, we proudly claim our identity as Black, African-American, and Negro. But as a body of people, we are also multicultural, multi-stylistic, intergenerational, inter-geographical, multi-lingual, inter-religious, and socio-economically dynamic and diverse. What a gift we are to our people and to our nation as an exquisite example of how to recognize our common cultural heritage while celebrating our diversity and expanding our legacy! The National Association of Negro Musicians is a beacon of light in our country during times of great darkness, and I am honored for the opportunity to officially serve as a national ambassador for NANM. I look forward to doing my part to shine its light throughout this country.

Resigning from SGVCC with Love

Dear Friends,

Effective June 30th of this year, I will resign from my position as Artistic Director of the San Gabriel Valley Choral Company. This decision is one that I have struggled with, as SGVCC has meant so much to me over these last 5 years. The time seems right for this transition, as I have accepted a full-time position as choral instructor at Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City.

With SGVCC, I have been nurtured and supported, and I have grown exponentially as a conductor. My vision as an artistic director was realized and validated through my work with SGVCC – for this I am deeply grateful. We served children and the elderly in our community, collaborated with other arts and civic organizations, performed major works, sang a wide variety of styles, honored each other, and had so much fun! I have learned so much about non-profit arts management, board succession, fundraising, and staff management. Most of all, I have made beautiful music with a group of the most beautiful people on the planet. Our community is so special, and we should never ever take that for granted.

I have no doubt that under the leadership of the brilliant Dr. Alexandra Grabarchuk, SGVCC will continue to thrive and grow. As my work with the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Project, Street Symphony, and the National Association of Negro Musicians continues, I look forward to remaining connected to SGVCC.

My final concert with SGVCC is this Saturday, June 24 at 7pm. Our concert entitled ”Route 66- Music and the All-American Highway” features jazz and blues, folk tunes, and rock ‘n’ roll songs that explore our relationship with this historic highway. It’s a choral celebration of America’s love affair with the open road and the stories we tell on the journey of life. Our children’s choir “Kids in Concert” will also be featured. Tickets are now available at the cost of $5 for children, $15 for students and seniors, and $20 for the general public. The concert will be held in the beautiful acoustical space of The Parish of Saint Luke, 122 S. California Avenue in Monrovia. More information can be found at www.choralcompany.org or by calling 818-802- 9620.

Yours truly,

Zanaida Robles