Laureate's theme, 'Building Choral Communities,' offers musical unity

By Tony Leach, 2009-10 Penn State laureate

Choral music is what I do on and off of the Penn State University Park campus. My professional journey has been positively enhanced with terrific people who are willing to join me in discovering the joy, excitement and meaning that choral music provides for singers and audiences near and far. Choirs tend to be welcoming and affirming communities whose primary purpose is to recreate, preserve and promote high-caliber artistic presentations with music as the mode of transmission. Because we use language as that entity which moves this process forward, the singer, conductor and whomever listens to the end result may be transformed into a realm surrounded by sound, understanding and the emotion of the moment.

On accepting the appointment as Penn State laureate for the current academic year, I knew that I would frame my role as music advocate with opportunities to bring the performer and audience closer through mutual opportunities for singing and listening. Fortunately, I have two campus choirs (University Choir and Essence of Joy) with which I have regular encounters and two ensembles (Essence 2 and Essence of Joy Alumni Singers, or EOJAS) whose membership involves the broader Penn State community. All of these performing entities occupy a unique place in my creative heart and provide wonderful opportunities to inspire, challenge and instruct the listener through the repertoire from the standard choral canon and the African-American choral traditions. (Click here for a brief history of the Essence of Joy family of choirs.)

Each choir within the Essence of Joy family maintains its unique function through separate administrative leadership. The outreach efforts of each choir embraces a variety of experiences that involve elementary, middle and high schools, other community-based choirs and churches. EOJAS recently participated in collaborative events sponsored by the Urban Coalition of the Eastern Division of the American Choral Directors Association. Essence of Joy recently shared in an annual Gospel Music Festival sponsored at Hartwick College, Oneonta, N.Y., that involved 400 singers from high schools, colleges and churches in upstate New York.

A special initiative that will be the focus for our international outreach activities resulted from a 2008 concert tour of South Africa, which involved singers from EOJAS, Essence 2 and New Bethel Baptist Church, Washington, D.C., where I serve as minister of music. We were blessed to spend a day in the ga-Matlala community at the Mogoshi Elementary School and Special Education Center. This community, located more than four hours north of Johannesburg, rolled out the red carpet of hospitality for us. Everyone sang! Everyone danced! The high school marching band feted us appropriately and the day was capped off with a rousing performance by 20,000 Drums Over Africa. The sobering realization that these people who have so little to offer economically welcomed us into their community is a challenge to me and those who traveled on this tour. We shared financial gifts to support the building infrastructure of the community schools through the generosity of Essence 2, the State College Choral Society and friends near and far. 

During the spring 2010 term, my goal is to continue to provide opportunities to take my Penn State ensembles to Pennsylvania audiences and to celebrate the significant events in African American culture, such as the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and Black History Month in February. (Click here for a list of appearances by Leach with Penn State ensembles through April 2010; listings as of Dec. 9, 2009, include campus visits to Penn State Altoona and Penn State Schuylkill.)

Each of these choirs provides great opportunities for singers to enter a "soundscape" that nurtures their experience beyond the moment. The people who dedicate their time and talent in building dynamic relationships with each other through music discover that they are able to transcend some of the challenges in life that might prevent them from moving forward. I am blessed that Penn State made room for my musical and instructional gifts, and now we get on with the process that brings performer and audience together -- building community through choral music -- for another great act of celebration of the human spirit.

Look for more thoughts from the Penn State laureate, appearing regularly on Penn State Live, in 2010. Watch a video of a song performed by Essence of Joy, and introduced by Leach, here.)

Contacts: 
Last Updated November 18, 2010