Anthony Leach: Penn State faculty profiles in diversity and inclusion

When Penn State’s Anthony Leach is not traveling the world with his choir, Essence of Joy, he’s right here in State College, Pennsylvania, nurturing his students’ talents. Leach, professor of music and music education at Penn State, is an award-winning educator and conductor whose talents have taken him far and wide, with several compositions under his belt. Despite all of this, his humble demeanor is evident in his work and the relationship he shares with his students.

Leach founded Essence of Joy in 1991 while he was at Penn State completing his doctoral degree. That year, he was approached to provide music for the University’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. banquet and assembled a choir, pulling students from other groups in the Penn State School of Music, and Essence of Joy was born.

Leach said he shares the following advice with his students every year: “We stand tall on the shoulders of the students who have come before us.”

Leach said a number of factors have kept Essence of Joy successful. Leach holds the choir to a high musical standard and pushes his students to be the best they can be, and to establish true connections with their peers.

“I take great care to invite them to do more than see themselves as singers because they’re part of this wonderful community of musicians,” said Leach.

Throughout his tenure at Penn State, Leach has focused on cultivating a top-performing group of musicians who perform songs in the tradition of African and African-American sacred and secular music. Leach said Essence of Joy is the first Penn State choral group to celebrate these traditions. Leach also has established other choirs, including the Essence of Joy Alumni Singers and community choir, Essence 2.

“Essence of Joy has become my ‘calling card’ to the choral profession. I embrace all of the challenges and moments of affirmation that have emerged on this journey at Penn State,” Leach said. “I am proud of my role in helping to build a tradition in this vein at Penn State, where there was none before.”

As a child, Leach was constantly surrounded by music. His father was a pastor and his mother was the church musician; there was no escaping it. So when he began on his own career path, there was really only one choice.

“I was pretty much on track to pursue music education,” Leach said.

Leach fell in love with music at the age of 3 when he first asked his mother to let him learn to play the piano. Though he did not begin private piano lessons until he was 7 years old, his experiences singing with his family at home and with his community in the church choir prepared him for his career as a professor and conductor.

“I kept my experience in church separate from my experience in the classroom for a very long time in my early professional career because it was just easier to manage it,” said Leach. “However, as time moved forward, it just became one embrace.”

Before he came to Penn State, Leach led a choir at Spring Brook High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. There, he also dabbled in teaching a gospel choir, nothing near what Essence of Joy has become, but he described it as “the germ for Essence of Joy.” This experience with his high school choir was the stepping stone for the work he’d later do at Penn State.

“My experience informs my research agenda and my scholarly writing is focused on aspects of that journey,” he said.

In a recent study, titled “African-American Conductors for Sacred Music Events,” Leach polled conductors on resources they use in their work with choirs and the ‘lost repertoire’ within African-American secular music. This study will become a chapter in a new book coordinated by Raymond Wise at Indiana University, Bloomington; and Emmett Price III, of the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on African-American Sacred Music.

The research reflects the field in which these conductors perform and contributes to the continued exploration of the genre, based on the repertoire of past and contemporary African-American composers. Leach’s leadership with Essence of Joy provided the framework for the study.

“The research justifies what we do in performing sacred and secular music from the African and African-American choral traditions,” Leach said. It justifies their work by affirming their practices, work and research into the genre.

Leach said Essence of Joy has taken him and his students on a “wonderful journey.”

“This is a whole experience,” he said. “There is a depth of encounter through the music, but also with the people who experience our music.”

In partnership with the Office of Strategic Communications, the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity at Penn State is introducing an ongoing series titled Penn State Faculty Profiles in Diversity and Inclusion. Profiles will be distributed periodically on Penn State News and will explore the teaching and research accomplishments of featured individuals. The series will cast a specific light on the ways each individual’s background informs his or her work as a faculty member and more broadly as a member of the University community.

Last Updated May 22, 2017