A song for every voice — then and now

Historical musicology is not my strong suit.

I have a tough time remembering dates and details, and as a non-linear thinker, I often feel like an awkward storyteller. For this reason, I should probably always carry with me some notes on my arrangement of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, a work that will be featured in LA Master Chorale’s upcoming “Wade in the Water” concert on April 30.

Controversial issues tend to surface with every performance, raising questions that include

  • “Who should (or shouldn’t) sing this piece?”
  • “To whom does it speak?”
  • “For whom was it written?”
  • “Shouldn’t we stand when we hear it?”
  • “Does it even belong on the concert stage?”

The questions outline the impact of this song. Over the years, Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing has gained such importance in the repertoire that it is commonly referred to as the “Black National Anthem”, making it doubly important to understand that the original hymn has a life that’s larger than any one setting, and a history that can only be understood in its own context.  (For anyone who is interested, this simple Google search can get you started.)

But while historical musicology is not my strong suit, socio-theomusicology is where my mind and soul thrive. I could testify for days about how Lift Ev’ry Voice wasn’t written just to empower and/or encourage a group of people who are constantly oppressed and dehumanized. It is also a bold statement of present-day victory. The fact that this poetry even exists is a testament to the wisdom and resilience of Black Americans whose faith (rooted, for better or for worse, in Christianity) said that the time for rejoicing is now; the time of our triumph is now; that the price has been paid, death has been conquered, and while there will always be work to do, by God’s grace we are here NOW, and we should sing.

This work fills me with deep gratitude and humility, and I am extraordinarily honored that this incredibly prophetic and timely poetry was composed and embraced by my people, people who identified themselves as Negro. Lift Ev’ry Voice connects me to my roots, honors the present, and points toward the future. Yet it simultaneously connects my people to every other people on this planet, by speaking to our common struggle with brutality and injustice. Mostly, it speaks to the value of EVERY collective human voice that has ever been imprisoned, demoralized, persecuted, and/or murdered.

The Johnson brothers

What an extraordinary gift was given to this country through this work from James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamund Johnson, two brilliant brothers whose heritage was Negro. THIS is why we proudly refer to this work as the Negro National Anthem – a stirring and timeless anthem for a nation comprised of all nations, written by Negroes – like me.

Just stop

“I am ready. I am loved. And I have everything I need…”

… is the opposite of what I think and feel most of the time. It seems like this past month has been full of lessons about about endurance and faith. At the forefront of my consciousness this morning is that drive to Santa Monica I need to make… like, right now. I’ve been thinking of Daniel Chaney everyday because I love him and he’s in hospice right now. I think “I’m not thinking of the right things right now! I am supposed to be thinking something else!”

Right now, I am ready and I have everything that I need. And so does Daniel. So do my colleagues in Santa Monica. And my car has a full tank of gas, and I have plenty of time to get where I’m going because I intentionally planned ahead yesterday. My priorities ARE in order because all those things about which I think I am supposed to be thinking, those things are ALWAYS in my consciousness. I know that whether I succeed today or not, I am worthy of love everyday, and so are all of us. I get a new chance to do right everyday, and so do all of us. I get a new set of hours everyday, I can choose how to make the most of them without being “wrong.” And so can all of us.

I arrived at this understanding this morning because people I care about have been telling me to “Stop.” My support system has been telling me to stop and listen; to be mindful; to pray; to be in relationship with my thoughts and my surroundings; to respond less and listen more. And this morning, I actually chose to try it.

I think I actually meditated!

I might be a teeny tine bit late today (probably not though), but I actually MEDITATED for 5 minutes this morning!! And meditating made me feel like I was ready for the day, that I am loved no matter what, and that I had everything I need to be successful today. Meditation/Mindfulness/Communion with God: whatever you call it, I think it’s a gold mine.

This piece first appeared in Zanaida’s March 2017 newsletter.
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On Social Media

Enough is enough! I am so tired of provocative photos and videos and other various posts and tweets that offer no real opportunity for dialogue. Social media is infected with rhetoric: language and images designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience — to rile us up. But these posts are too often rooted in questionable compassion or sincerity, bound in ulterior motives, and lack meaningful content. Social media is an echo chamber: it’s all noise, where dialogue is impossible. I’m sorry folks, but provocative posts and their ensuing comments don’t count as discussion for me!

Because it’s too easy to throw out an unanswerable, unsubstantiated opinion on Facebook, social media is not where change happens. It happens when we engage each other face-to-face. Either we engage in a constructive dialogue and learn to live with each other, or we don’t engage and it kills us — socially, spiritually, emotionally, or worse.

What if we actually had a roundtable discussion, perhaps at the Alkebulan Cultural Center in Pasadena, to talk about sociocultural issues, and to interact in real life? I’d like to explore ways to encourage better dialogue about a variety of topics — perhaps hosting live events — and hope we can spark some real discussion.  If we want to see our world change for the good of us all, then we need person-to-person dialogue, so we can build relationships that can learn to withstand disagreement.

I’ll keep you posted about this idea and other developments. Please let me know if you want to get together and talk.

This piece first appeared in Zanaida’s February 2017 newsletter.
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Intersections Between Choir and Opera

In educational settings, choral programs can complement opera programs beyond just augmenting the opera chorus. Collaborative master classes, social gatherings, vocal-health round table discussions, and strong attendance at performances among students and faculty aid in building and sustaining bonds of mutual scholarship and support between opera and choral music programs.

Choral programs intersect with opera programs in terms of the students they share. Healthy singing and stellar musicianship are a priority in both areas. As someone who has had professional success singing a variety of styles both as a soloists and an ensemble musician, I know that singers can and should be encouraged to learn how to be ambidextrous, striking a balance between healthy vocalism and stylistic versatility. In my choirs, singers are encouraged to sing healthfully with their naturally vibrant voices. Blend and balance issues are most often addressed with the physical placement of the singers before addressing a singer’s individual technique.

But when I do talk technique in choir, it usually boils down to posture, breath flow, and resonance. By encouraging the development and application of these three technical skills, I can hold singers accountable for being flexible with regard to dynamic contrast and vowel color. I can insist on attention to musical details, and I can work on building the singers’ aural skills so they can make intuitive, healthy vocal adjustments informed by their own ears.

For opera students participating in choir, this means employing healthy vocalism in the choral setting that doesn’t compromise their individual technique. I’m less likely to ask for a change in vibrato and more likely to ask for a change in dynamic or vowel. In this way, operatic voices actually enhance the richness and depth of the choir; the choir sounds vibrant and healthy with the ability to be stylistically versatile and musically precise.

Featured image by B Cleary / FreeImages.com

Lift Every Voice

I think too many folks learn lessons about artistic expression either online, from television, or in other media. Maybe they aren’t even aware of their learned biases toward perfectionism and materialism. I am a singer. As a concert soprano soloist, studio vocalist for film and television, and professional ensemble singer, I have sung throughout the United States, and in parts of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. I’ve sung background vocals for various artists including the Rolling Stones, Andrea Bocelli, Barry Manilow, and have also worked as a singer and pianist on the hit Fox Television series Glee.

But my most important singing is the singing I do at home when I have a jam session with my kids – I’m teaching them how to be expressive without being judged. Or perhaps my most important singing happens in church – I use my voice as channel for healing and wholeness with the spiritual power within and around us.

Either way, my voice has worth not because I get paid to use it, not because it is beautiful or skillful, but because it is unique and has the power to touch hearts and minds. The truth is that everyone has this power, even folks who claim they can’t sing. What if we broadened our definition of “singing?” Can all of our words and sounds be melodic, rhythmic, dynamic? Can our words harmonize and create counterpoint with the words of our neighbors?

What if we learned to acknowledge and use the power of our own ordinary every-day voices, our statements and questions imbued with the energy of singing? How amazing it would be if we used this power in other disciplines and environments so our unique song may be sung boldly for the good of the community. Can we do a better job of recognizing and cultivating the relevance and power of everyday singers? What if our communities acknowledged and harnessed the transformative power of collective artistic expression; what if everyday folks starting “singing” their song?

I recall that the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s was strengthened by some of the most gravitational and inspirational songs ever sung, becoming a galvanizing force behind change. In my work as a musical artist, I am dedicated to uplifting individuals, organizations, and programs that inspire and facilitate the spiritual, cultural, intellectual, and artistic enrichment of our community. With this enrichment, can we figure out how to lift every voice and find ways to change things for the better? I think we can.

Featured image by Alexander Wallnöfer / FreeImages.com