Leach reflects on choral career, year as 2009-10 Penn State laureate

As he concludes his year as the as the 2009-10 Penn State laureate and passes the title officially to poet Robin Becker, the 2010-11 Penn State laureate and professor of English and women's studies; Anthony Leach, associate professor of music/music education in the College of Arts and Architecture, examines the past year and his greater musical history at Penn State, which began 24 years ago.

What Goes Around, Comes Around
By Tony Leach, 2009-10 Penn State laureate

My journey in choral music at Penn State began during the summer of 1976 when I arrived at the University Park campus as a non-degree graduate student. Little did I know then, as I began my association with Penn State School of Music faculty members Raymond Brown, Tommie Irwin, D. Douglas Miller and Bruce Trinkley, that our lives would become intertwined around music, travel, great food and, of course, people. All of the seeds for what would later become my professional life at Penn State were planted during this formative season of my life.

From 1977 to 1980, I served as graduate assistant with the Penn State Choirs. Raymond Brown was director of choral activities and Tommie Irwin was assistant director. Both men inspired me with their ability to successfully engage singers to "take care of your musical and academic business." So many wonderful moments in rehearsal and performance of the standard choral repertoire for choir and orchestra -- as well as smaller works for the Penn State Singers (a chamber choir) and the weekly prep for the Chapel Choir -- made our ongoing task very focused and efficient. Those organizational skills have framed my work with choirs at the middle and high school level as well as my university, church and community choirs. Obviously, there was something special that I observed in Brown and Irwin that made a lasting impression and translated into an attitude and skill to motivate others to move forward with the plan for success.

My first love in music is playing piano. This realization remains to this day; however, along the way, I realized that there was something special within the relationship of conductor and ensemble, whether in instrumental or choral music. This awareness blossomed in a profound way during my years with Brown and Irwin as I made the transition from piano performance major to choral/orchestral conducting major. My primary mentor for the choral literature and conducting classes was D. Douglas Miller, who succeeded Brown as director of choral activities in 1985. Miller opened my heart, mind, ears and hands to the core of what it meant to unlock the musical score through study and analysis, which would enable the conductor to do the same for the ensemble.

I returned to full-time teaching in 1982 with positions in Harford County and Montgomery County, Md. I came back to Penn State in 1991 to begin a doctoral degree in music education with choral conducting as my cognate study. During this period of study, my three faculty mentors, D. Douglas Miller, choral conducting/literature; Keith Thompson, music education; and Lynn Drafall, choral music education, all helped me to find my own musical and scholarly voice. On reflection, it is to all of these individuals that I owe so much because each of them shared with me their energy, musical model, professionalism and personal understanding of what it meant to help others to achieve.

The Penn State choir I founded in 1991, Essence of Joy, has traveled extensively within the United States. When we began taking extended tours in 1998, I figured that a good use of our time together while traveling in a coach was to have the students to share their reflections from each performance, our structured time and, of course, our down time. It’s pretty amazing to me how honest and provocative students are when they know that others are listening and diligently paying attention to what they are sharing. Over the years, this dialogue has become a regular component within each edition of the choir and now is shared via e-mail as well as within some rehearsals.

Essence of Joy and the Essence of Joy Alumni Singers have been blessed to collaborate with peer choirs and ensembles in middle and high schools throughout the United States. An important part of what we do beyond our singing is to spend time talking within small groups so that young singers in particular have the opportunity to interact with persons whose experience is similar or maybe very different from theirs. This strategy enables us to frame our musical interaction and strengthen those new friendships that will eventually show up in a performance setting. We have done this with elementary, middle and high school students in Pennsylvania. In the past year we also have shared our story with large and small audiences from University Park, Penn State Schuylkill and Penn State Altoona. International travel with Essence of Joy and the Essence of Joy Alumni Singers for events in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, France, St. Thomas and the U.S. Virgin Islands have provided exciting opportunities for the choirs to not only share the music but also the food, culture, dance, history and people moments that were unique in each geographical setting.

The theme that framed my year as Penn State Laureate was "Building Choral Communities." On the surface, it is apparent to me that it is the music that brings choirs together. Just below the surface are the personal and collective stories that all of us bring to the act of high-caliber music making that has enabled our choirs and me to positively interact with audiences of all ages, near and far.

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Those who wish to hear music from one of Leach's choirs can hear the Essence of Joy Alumni Singers perform at 7 p.m. Friday, July 9, at the State College Presbyterian Church, 132 W. Beaver Ave., State College, Pa., at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. Details are available here.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010