Living the Life We Sing About: A Gospel Choir Challenges Academe
Published online: 1 October 1995
- PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40374270
I'm gonna live the life I sing about in my song....
I can't go to church, shout all day Sunday,
Go out, get drunk, and rave all day Monday.
I got to live the life I sing about in my song.
—gospel song lyrics, Thomas A. Dorsey
The phenomenon of a 1600-member gospel choir in a university setting recently provoked a confrontation with campus keepers of academic criteria who threatened to "de-grade" and "dis-credit" the course because its procedures and learning style did not resemble existing patterns for measuring academic achievement. If not for the large scale of the choir it might have escaped the scrutiny which threatened to put a damper on the "joyful noise" being made "unto the Lord" by one-tenth of the undergraduate student body. However, it was not explicit religious reference at a state school which was at issue. What was making campus guardians of academic standards nervous was the large number of A grades being awarded to gospel choir students just for participating fully at rehearsals and concerts. How could individual student performance be measured in a collective achievement by a group too big to sing together anywhere but the local convention center, a nearby military base, or the city park pavilion? Were large numbers of students using grades from repeats of the course to burnish their grade-point average? Should course credit be restricted or the grading option discontinued altogether? When the campus overseeing committee went further and called in question the academic content of not only the gospel choir but of all performance courses offered by the Department of Music, referring to them as "activity courses" comparable with P.E. courses and clubs, collars heated up with more than gospel fervor. Given that enrollments would surely drop if grades were removed from all performance courses, a negative decision would jeopardize not only ensembles but also the logarithmic proportion of student course enrollment numbers to faculty workload hours, which acts as one of the instruments for measuring campus budget allotments to departments. Thus, money, morale, and music-making were all at stake as the committee acted to keep academic standards high, as they construct that inclined plane, and the Music Department once again tried to explain its discipline to the University in terms that would allow for the quantifying of a qualitative experience.
The campus committee announced its intention to cancel the grade option after looking at statistics on enrollments, frequency of credit received, and grading. Nothing but the facts. Occurring during an ethnomusicological study which I made of the choir, the crisis prompted an extended advocacy report which privileged the hitherto unheard voices of the director, students, and supportive administrators as witnesses to the musical and cultural, social and personal dimensions of the choir experience. It was time to let the learners lift up their voices and sing a song of protest against a "facts only," neck-up, rational, analytic, competitive, anxiety-producing, passive, impersonal, unilateral, utilitarian education which students say they mostly experience from 8 to 5. At 6:00 they go to gospel choir and have an experience of themselves learning which involves their whole person—physical, aesthetic, emotional, social, and critical—in a process more inclusive of themselves, more helpful for their living, more demanding of their character, more opening to ethnic difference, more provocative of cross-cultural inquiry and, yes—the forbidden F-factor—simply more fun than any other class on campus. They also learn to sing. As one student remarked, "This course should not be allowed. It should be required."1 Reasons why the course evokes such enthusiasm go well beyond the beat and the boost to grade-point average. In gospel choir students learn a skill, they learn a culture, they learn a way to be alive. The report argued that if the choir were to be viewed as controversial it should not be for its popularity or marginal status in academe but for the questions it poses to operative assumptions about what constitutes appropriate liberal education. The alternate course material and modes of learning under fire also enact elusive items in the wish-list of educational goals which system-wide professors and administrators had just committed themselves to promote. When the research data was presented to committee members at the time of their decision, its disclosures, manipulated by the opposition, threatened to backfire on the intentions of the report while the resolution of the conflict both served and compromised the musical purposes of the choir.
This article moves through and beyond the plot, characters, and outcome at the local level to show the general relevance of the particular case. Rather than view the choir as an exception simply because certain parameters, like its size and ethnic diversity, may be atypical of college gospel choirs, I propose that the mass choir "writes large" some of the issues surrounding gospel music, here translated into curricular categories. Along with the other performing arts, music performance, with its educational assumptions and methods, is already an exception within the university in its questioning of accepted modes of learning and means of evaluation. Campus gospel choirs take the familiar issue a step further by also challenging us as musicians, teachers and administrators, who are often about the business of organizing conducive frameworks for learning music, to reimagine our own teaching. Gospel music's complex musical texture, interactive "delivery system" for knowledge, the indelible print of interconnected information about history, culture, and art form, and the holistic effect of the learning process enact oft-touted educational principles and invite mental transpositions from the singular case to other settings. Besides addressing the recognized need to match the cultural diversity of learners and local environs with a diversity of musics studied at the college level, a resident gospel choir also prods a music department to open the academic canons of appropriate music traditions to the theory, literature and history of gospel music as meriting study within mainstream college music curricula.2
As an approach to these issues I first provide an overview of the learning experience within the mass choir as textured by the voices of those involved. The individual case is then placed in a larger comparative frame by local and national university administrators. After a summary of mutual lessons which university and choir offer to each other and to educators, the article reaches some not entirely comfortable conclusions.
II. Learning Experiences
Choir, Conductor, and Class
From the first day, the mass choir member enters a learning environment which upsets prior social, musical, and cultural stereotypes.
To my great surprise at the first practice this quarter I found that African Americans make up only a microscopic minority of the choir . . . . I estimate membership at about 50% Asian, 35% White, 10% Latino, and 5% African American. But then I realized that this is not radically different from ethnic proportions on the whole campus.
Expecting the gospel choir to be African American in composition and religious culture would have matched the club initiated twenty years ago by a dozen students who enlisted a campus staff member as director. Under four successive directors the choir gained academic status as a course with requirements, credit, and grades, and a predominantly African American membership hovering around 150 through the 1980s. As the choir grew exponentially under the present director—from 353 members in 1990 to 1623 in 1993—the ethnic composition also began to diversify, with choir size and Black membership moving inversely. A senior student saw the decrease of Black members as a function of choir growth, racial variation, and secularization of musical material, while he and his friends preferred it small and tight, like family, and explicitly religious, as they know gospel music in their home churches. The early director of the choir as a course, now a campus administrator, takes a longer view:
Now, is the choir as intimate and gospelly and funky as it was years ago? No, and that's because those were almost trained voices of kids who sang in their own choirs at home. . . . Musically, or just in terms of its gospelness, it was much more powerful. So you give up that virtue for another virtue which says, "Let's train some people to do this . . . " He's really teaching people who would have never discovered the gospel tradition. It's a new course for them . . . . But I don't think anyone has any doubt to whom the gospel choir belongs dowry-wise.
Gospel choir is like a lab to a lecture course on the history, meaning, and style of African American gospel music.Yet the primary sources are unwritten, a culture is conveyed by a single individual, and a distinctive musical style is learned by imitation and out of context. Students are aware that the manner in which the songs are taught fits the cultural mode they are being exposed to. Having been raised in a print-dependent culture, they at first find awkward the seemingly simple call and response method for learning text and tune which forces them to draw on less practiced powers in themselves until they adapt to taking in information via aural perception. Beyond vocal training, the director's principal strategy in leading the students into Black gospel musical style is to free them physically, personally and socially to sing with as much abandon as they can muster without yelling, his own voice as their guide "in the ear." Vocally and conceptually they come to learn the complexity of its achievement.
The main lesson I learned about gospel music is that there are two opposing elements which form its essence. One is that the music is deeply felt and sung full out without regard for anything but your own individual expression and interpretation. The other is that strict attention is paid to musical details: harmony, breathing, phrasing, tone. The balancing of these factors is essential for the music to work.
The songs and the singing style become doors to a culture in which song carries the history of a people's spirit. By learning to "read" the choral documents of spirituals and gospel song, students hold living textbooks of Black history, society, and culture not for a month but all year. They are introduced to the Black church in America as a composite of culture rather than simply as a religious institution. From the multiple choice of concerts provided each quarter, many students elect at some time to go to a gospel church, most for the first and perhaps only time in their lives. "I had the greatest experience of my life singing with those people at Calvary Baptist." Perhaps the strongest impression comes from students looking out to the assembly of living carriers of the tradition which they are learning into the faces of people they have known mostly as "other" and seeing them respond positively through the shared medium of the music. "It is difficult to describe the feeling inside when you are singing a gospel song and suddenly someone whom you have never met before smiles at you, stands up in front of you, and starts singing right along." This "live mirror" effect amounts to an educational philosophy for the director in his view of gospel music as, not performance music in the sense of show, but "participation music. It's focused on bringing you out of yourself."
Music, Magic, and Me
I was too busy taking chemistry and biology my freshman year to think about music classes. But after nearly having a nervous breakdown because I could not handle it anymore, my friend suggested that I take gospel choir, claiming that it was a good stress releaser.
I for one have begun to amaze myself with the way I am beginning to sing.
I realized that learning about gospel music is learning about a way of life.
Students carry out of class techniques like deep breathing and the discovery of their own voices as a readily available instrument which they can turn on at will in their "walk-person" heads, now full of highly rhythmic songs and hopeful texts. They feel empowered. Having been pushed into expressive behavior which they might not ordinarily choose, the freedom transfers to their ordinary lives. As one new male member told the director,
I just thought the rocking was too much. "This has gone totally over," I said to myself. But now I find myself singing and clapping everywhere I go, in the shower or wherever. If things get a little hard I kind of stop and take a break, sing one of those songs and get my energy back up.
As I witness the work of the course over three years I see a paradoxical process going on at the level in the self where feelings are faced: the course both evokes and evaporates fear. The audition requirement and newly added singing exams set up what seems to be one more tense testing situation. Students have been known to practice all summer, "where else but in the shower," in anticipation of that dreaded moment of public exposure. The worst is first. The test of the self is real, yet there is no failure factor in this initiation ritual. The student learns from day one that she is competing only against herself. The requirements for this "hero's journey" are set forth clearly: be totally alert, be totally relaxed, but do not be afraid. In the safety of numbers students are prodded, cajoled, wheedled, coaxed, chastened, commanded, persuaded, and, most importantly, instructed how to push beyond their inhibition: fear of singing, fear of singing full-voiced and wholeheartedly, fear of outer critique by their near neighbor or the whole room, fear of their own limits. Singing thus becomes an effective vehicle and metaphor for a widely expanded sense of self. To access this resource of power they need no machine, no money, no machismo. The high comes from within and between in a payoff that feels like bliss when it happens.
Polish isn't everything. Polish is wonderful as long as there is the spirit and the heart behind it, and they don't quite have it yet. It happens once in a while, sometimes in rehearsal but mostly in performance. They feed off of the audience who are experiencing the same feeling and the whole thing takes off. There is a joining, a coming together, the "collective mind," as they say on Star Trek, when everyone is of one accord. There is a strength, a power. It's magic.
For the magic to happen what must be learned, or, better, unlearned in the gospel music art form is that within some very conscious technical, culture-specific uses of the voice there is not only a latitude but a requirement that the individual let loose with his/her own self-expression as the animating force in a collective sound which propels to an altered state. Releasing the necessary freedom, training the instrument, focusing the energy as well as refining the sound take time, but the incantatory power of the music is there from the beginning. After all, this music does derive from a religious context laced with phenomena of spirit possession and trance traceable to African ritual. While enthusiastic singing may result, the question is whether music which is so dependent on a shared race, history, culture, and world view for its meaning can be sung convincingly by others who may not hold the belief system of the people who birthed and still carry the music tradition. Can gospel music be sung with spirit without the singers acknowledging the Holy Spirit?
Religion, Reception, and Reasons
One of the several paradoxes enacted by the choir lies in the very words "gospel" and "choir." Neither is strictly necessary to the conduct of the course. To join and to benefit from its learning process one need not be religious and one need not be able to sing. Yet it is certain that all of the students come out singing better. Do they also come out more religious? This question, which no one seems to be asking, may cause a few squirms in the context of a public university. However, conductor, students, and administrators alike treat the religious content of the musical material as a cultural manifestation not inappropriate for study and performance at a state school.3 Within this tacit understanding of the choir's non-proselytizing purpose lies a spectrum of personal stances on the part of students. Some members stand in close to the theology and religious sentiments expressed by the songs and identify with the faith of the original singers; others declare their distance and select various stategies to explain that to themselves. One senior, self-styled as an "infidel infiltrator," said that his brief tenure as a member of the choir had proven to be one of the most interesting experiences of his college career. He began with the incongruity of singing words based on a belief system he does not subscribe to. "I occasionally felt strange singing my heart out in praise of a god I do not personally acknowledge, a factor which added to the novelty of singing in the group." He went on to frame the lyrics in terms inclusive of religion, culture, and history. At the other pole, a fundamentalist Christian had to reconcile the fissure between her personal belief system and the apparent non-belief of her singing companions. The inner confrontation stretched her tolerance of difference and her awareness of what the choir actually does do. Most students fall somewhere in the middle, mentioning the religious factor only in passing or not at all. Others find the encounter with religion as novel a topic of inquiry as the other new subjects they are meeting at college. There is no preaching nor required prayer to offend divergent personal belief or raise church-state issues. The fact that no student in a survey made distinctions within the wide spectrum of Christian theologies suggests that the choir does not provoke sectarian questions for them; students take gospel music as whole-cloth fabric. The associations which they make are expressed not in religious but personal terms like serenity, nourishment, contentment. As one male member told the conductor, "I don't want anything to do with religion. But I still get a sense of peace when we sing."
For the director, the religious question comes up in a practical way on those occasions when he receives a request from off campus for the choir to come sing "but not about religion, not anything about Jesus in the music," says the inviter. The director will suggest that what they want is just another choir, not a gospel choir. "We must keep Jesus in the music, not in order to make a religious statement, but to keep the music's integrity." Whether or not being in the choir prompts students to ask personal or intellectual religious questions, it is certain that they come out of the gospel choir with heightened understanding of the music and manner as an expression of African American history and community often mediated by the act of performance. "All quarter I had sung the religious words of a faith different from my own. Seeing it performed I understood the value and expressive power it holds for those who are part of the gospel culture." The biggest draw for the choir to sing at local community events, ranging from churches to an AIDS Benefit and Earth Day to the inmates at the local brig, "is the fact that they are young and multicultural."
Reception is uniformly enthusiastic, even by the demanding audience in a Black church. One student interviewer asked the director, "How do your own church members feel about all of us culturally diverse people singing your songs? Do they feel we are appropriating the music?"
One thing about a Black audience, it is unlike any other audience. You know, a White audience, for the most part, unless you got a bunch of rowdies, are going to be polite. Whatever you do, you are going to get applause. They're going to sit there. But a Black audience will sit on you and look at you and eventually will get up, they'll get up right during the song. "Later for this. I have a life to live. This isn't happening." I think my church is like any other gospel Black audience anywhere. When that choir stands up there, quite frankly, there's this attitude, "Now what are they gonna do? All that straight hair, all those blondes." They'll roll their eyes and everything. And then the choir blows them away.
The director knows from long years that the home audiences first need to hear the anomaly—a non-Black gospel choir singing their songs—before endorsing them. He himself has to face both ways, representing his tradition out to the larger community and answering to those inside who are not so pleased about "giving our music away." To them he responds with characteristic largesse of spirit, "Why were we given what we were given except to contribute it to the whole?" When the choir began to expand noticeably, the media caught on quickly; twice the choir received appreciative reviews from the music critic of a major national newspaper.
This choir does not have the rich color and textual inflection unique to the choirs of African American store-front churches, but their zeal and high spirits proved ample compensation . . . . The phenomenon of the . . . Gospel Choir demonstrates the migration of a rich musical tradition from its isolation and ardent cultivation in the African American community to a wider audience and more diverse community of singers.
On campus, the literal level of discussion concerning the course by the investigating committee led me to examine the validity of existing lore as to why students select it. To ascertain the degree to which the prospect of an "easy A" motivates students, I set up a questionnaire which removed each or both parts of the equation. Would they take choir if fulfilling the course requirements were not "easy" but as "difficult" as other courses or if there were no prospect of a grade, no "A" motive or GPA lure, but only Pass/Not Pass credit? Questionnaire results from 821 students indicated that more than 1/2 (53%) would take the course if it were not "easy" but as difficult as their other classes, 2/3 would continue if it were Pass/Not Pass, and practically 2/5 (44%) of all the students would still keep taking gospel choir if it were both as difficult as their other courses and not possible to get an A. One interesting codicil to student responses in the last figure concerns a gender difference between "altruists" (would take the course if were as difficult and if it were P/NP) and "pragmatists" (no way). Of the pragmatic 22% of the total sampling, 18% were women and 82% were men. Just when the director had succeeded in breaking down stereotypes associated with music for men (witness the expression "music major" connoting nerd or homosexual man in student parlance), the musical and social strategic balance of male presence in the choir would be jeopardized by a change in grading policy or a set limit to choir size. My contention was that many of the men would not even have registered if there were no grade incentive and thus not have walked in the door to discover if they wanted the "amazingly challenging" experience found there. As to committee concern that the choir was too big for any one person to handle, the director responded: "Numbers [of students] never bother me. Numbers bother everyone else."
III. Comparative Perspectives
For perspective on the choir I interviewed a set of five administrators who understand both the nest of issues which make up the political context of the choir on campus and the technical side of courses which the supervisory committee has to handle. These local college administrators value the experiential entry into music-making provided by the gospel choir, its accessibility for the maximum number of students from any discipline without musical prerequisites, the multicultural element, the blend of academic and personal benefits to students, and the opportunity it offers for getting at serious social and historical issues which students might not meet in their other courses. Here excerpted as a virtual conversation, their interpretation of the challenge to the choir's status as a reflection of attitudes towards music in the university context may sound all too familiar to readers of this journal.
Administrator 1: The grade part of this issue masks for a fundamental institutional distrust of music in the academy. Not just gospel, but all music making. I don't hear anyone saying we should do away with credit for calculus because we don't like the students' "attitude" [in a math cheating syndicate].
Administrator 2: I agree. There's an institutional prejudice. In Phi Beta Kappa, for example, we require a certain number of humanities courses. There is a bias for art history as opposed to applied art even though the actual experience in making art, like our course here in collage, may in fact give a student a much better sense of the choices that Leonardo had to make than an art history class does. So, too, the gospel choir might give students a much better sense of what happens in four-part music than all of the lectures on harmony would ever do. But somehow there is a university bias towards all of these things.
Moderator: I think there's also a class bias at work in tacit categories of "low" and "high" art, a clash of cultural sound ideals implied in talk of technique. As one music faculty member complained, "It's so hard to teach a student bel canto after they've sung in the gospel choir."
Administrator 3: Bel canto is also a cultural sound, a different cultural sound. I think there are just so many prejudices—pre-judgements—about music. The colloquialism with which music is handled by our colleagues in other departments is not true of any other discipline outside the arts.
The administrators favored retention of a grade option for gospel choir for a designated period since, contrary to campus folklore, statistics showed that few students took choir repeatedly, that the course was not being abused for its grade yield, nor were grade-point averages (GPA) being inflated to any significant degree. On the contrary, in petitioning to add choir to heavy course loads, students insisted that they were able to study better because of the stress relief and energy charge of being in the choir.
Racism and Neighborhoods
If recommendations by nationwide educators on goals and strategies to improve the undergraduate educational experience are read with the gospel choir course in mind, one often has cause to exclaim that the class is already "living" what the educators are "singing" about in consensus opinion as to what is good for undergraduates. One of the four basic findings of a 1992 conference convened by the University of California was concerned with the interaction between students' social and academic lives.
Our student cohorts are wonderfully more diverse than they have been. And yet the dreary fact is that the students tend to stay among their own kind, with "kind" defined in the most reductive manner, by ethnic likeness. In this manner our scope or diversity becomes null or worse, reinforcing the ignorant prejudices any education should remove.4
The initiating university countered racism with a requirement.
Students must take a course from among a large menu that in some real ways includes a consideration of race and of race-bias . . . If we can encourage that searching profundity among students which is perforce self-examining then we may get somewhere on racial and gender understandings.
Even a cursory reading of student testimony about the choir shows that participation invites rather than forces students to consider race and race-bias in some "real ways," both pleasurable and painful. They learn about institutionalized racism in songs that resist it in clever code and peaceful protest. Through musical documents of Black history—spirituals and gospel songs—they focus on the content of character, not the color of skin of the composers and tradition-bearers. Their musical history lesson persuades rather than lectures. It prods them to reflection when they look out at their Black audiences or sing between an Asian and a Latina or cheer on an Anglo friend trying to capture the coveted African American gospel singing style while assisted by a role model in musicality and humanity whom they are eyeing for every cue.
A strategy to counteract the atomizing and centrifugal forces on a huge campus entered the language of the conference report in an expressed need to create "neighborhoods" on the campus. These would serve as both intellectual and social forces of cohesion and integration of knowledge for the students. The initial campus considered theme semesters, living-learning dorms, an ambitious Athenaeum, an overhaul of distribution requirements: anything that would tap the spontaneous interest among students to match the "variety of life to a variety of knowing within themselves." As a "neighborhood" constituted by a cultural exposure through communal effort, the choir course does what the conference proposed: it establishes a place and creates a structure for "bringing diverse groups of students together." The ethnically and socially diverse students in gospel choir do not simply sit side by side but interact at class, go off campus together, and face conquerable crises together. "So does the rowing team," a wag might counter. My point is that the social medium of interchange with difference—"the variety of life"—matches the message of the musical material, therefore rendering it all the more effective. In this class, "varieties of knowing," which, because of their rootedness in the body, might be relegated in academe to "recreational activity," are opened through the rocking, the clapping, the singing, the breathing, the laughing. Because a choir section of 300 to 400 makes it difficult for the conductor to connect with each one, he teaches the students how to share energy with their near neighbors to form cluster communities as they sing en masse. The gospel choir already constitutes a "neighborhood" where students meet each other and themselves in an expressive learning mode. It is an enjoyable experience. They keep coming back for more.
IV. Mutual Lessons
While committees, administrators, and scholar continue to scrutinize the choir, the students go on joining for whatever reason, have their transformative experience, and come out converted to singing away their troubles and seeing African America and more of America through a kinder, gentler scrim than makes it to the main stage of the media. The joy they've "got," that no one can take from them, will not be squelched by the small print in the program of their elders who accredit courses.5 The conductor will remain their aid to memory of what it felt like to be fully alive and engaged in their learning, model of a teacher whose instructional equipment consists of a piano and the dormant instruments they carry inside themselves
For the more thoughtful who mull over the play after they have left the theater there are plenty of paradoxes enacted by the choir. One student wrote his own best thoughts in two contrasting descriptions, the first more warm and fuzzy and the kind of statement on experiential learning that could be copy for an undergraduate brochure.
I feel I have experienced, rather than just read about, looked at, listened to, or tried to imitate a unique type of music-making. In so doing, I have been able to feel the excitement, learn the conventions, understand the motivations, and appreciate the trials, if only to a very limited extent, of the gospel choir singer.
This is Jeff the receptive and impressionable student whose imagination has been captured by the vivid material vividly presented. The second observation is more cool-eyed and critical, noticing incongruities between the setting and the spiritual experiences which inspired the songs.
Though I believe students also take the course because it is enjoyable, something still rests uneasy with me. The notion of so many (upper) middle class students assembled in an ultra-sterile, positivistic-science atmosphere in the highest-priced city in the United States (I read it in the newspaper), taken in combination with the substantial GPA perquisites mentioned above, seems to detract from whatever spiritual or grassroots authenticity I have deluded myself into believing a gospel choir should have. I try not to look at the director's Rolex.
This is Jeff the political science senior then on his way to graduate school in political anthropology and now in medical anthropology studying self-help cooperatives in Bangladesh. He, too, is in touch with his learning but stands back from the scene, his perceptions sharpened by exposure to critical discourse. The two Jeffs represent alternate dynamics which are available and, I would say, necessary in the educational process of the choir and, by extrapolation, in the undergraduate experience. The vignettes also herald ways in which the choir both poses a counter case to academic culture and belongs by right, if not custom, to the university setting. The first Jeff reverses the pejorative label attached to the choir by declaring that the best teaching and learning come in "activity" not "passivity" courses. To "read, look, listen, imitate" may be a beginning but it is not enough to engage the whole man who now knows the difference and may not be satisfied with a less inclusive experience. The second Jeff has tasted or intuited enough of the gospel tradition to catch its seminal spirit, but the ideal of "spiritual or grassroots authenticity" has been disappointed by the casing in which it comes. Even if the director switches to a Swatch, Jeff will probably still be blocked until he moves on to more not less thinking about the disparities between rocking pews and student chairs as site for the "migration" of ecstatic behavior to a physics lecture hall.
The university could teach the gospel choir students to be more analytical of their experience, more alert to the possibility in mass movements, even a mass choir, of being carried away by unthinking enthusiasms. The critical eye of the second Jeff looks with some wariness at what is happening in and around him in those moments when the music takes off into high emotion. By not only allowing but fanning these high-energy flames within the academic environment the gospel music class makes the experience available for reflection and critique within the same setting. This may not happen at the moment of class—the singers are not going to learn if they do not let go of their usual restraints and self-consciousness for a while—but later and elsewhere. Making this music "at school" helps break down an artificial border between strong emotion and strong mentality by bringing them together within the same "neighborhood."
On the other hand, the gospel choir could teach the university to integrate in the sense of student interaction, curricular balance, and the totality of the learner. Any public school lecture hall full of students in this state already looks diverse. The necessary next step of facilitating positive social contact finds a "real way" in every meeting of the choir on or off campus. In its membership and procedures, as well as its material, the class focuses on issues of race and race bias, not in the abstract but sensuously and dramatically. It also offers a corrective to curricular imbalance. Campus priorities and most courses, like the questionnaire results, lean "to a great extent" towards developing students' information-retaining and analytic skills with "little or none" of the attention, aside from one fine-arts requirement, directed to raising, refining and validating their aesthetic/emotional side. Gospel choir provides many students a venue for the integration of the math and the emotion of music, of the aesthetic and historical faces of art. In a university which serves from a seemingly infinite menu of choices moving towards a future when impossible-to-absorb quantities of data will be accessible, students have little or no structured assistance in putting it together intellectually and personally. The gospel choir could teach the university how to help students integrate their knowledge so that their exposure to a world of information also includes encouragement to make personal sense of the multiplicity for more of themselves.
The gospel choir could teach the university to be local in the subjects considered appropriate for research, study, and teaching, in this case a distinct music culture in the county. Distance from the Black community folds when a woman stands up within arm's reach at a church they are visiting and students discover that the congregation knows "our songs" carried by their own tradition-bearer directly from his home neighborhood in a rough part of "town" to their university "gown" site in a wealthy suburb. On a young campus focused on the newest science, in a department devoted to the making and performance of the newest music, the gospel choir connects the university with time past and time present mediated by a living musical tradition which deserves direct contact and study. Would it not be strange if a great coastal research university were to grant more validity to knowing about the local fish than the local folk?
The gospel choir could teach the university to be lively in the way it "delivers" its goods through interactive teaching and learning. Call and response are embedded in the music, message and medium of the gospel class. The words, the melodies are only the call; to hear the response, students must "answer back." The "spiritual authenticity" which Jeff missed somewhere between the course rewards and a Rolex has to be created every time out of the unlikely material of "MiMeMaMoMu . . . Hats off . . . Sit up straight . . . When you stand, stand to sing . . . ." History in this framework comes alive for the students along with reverberations between the campus committee's threat to the status of the choir and the director's particular incantation of oral history: "When the Africans were brought to America against their will, they were using instruments to communicate. When their masters caught on to what they were doing, they took their instruments away from them." Sometimes the spirit is there, sometimes it isn't. But choir members know it is up to them to make it happen or, at least, to prepare the space where it might.
The gospel choir could teach the university to relax, not its standards, but the tension triggered by an ethic of competition, here replaced by one of cooperation. Instead of the usual pressure to succeed in the system, choir members learn that they learn best when both alert and relaxed. How to calibrate that individual effort and collective result stymied the existing mechanisms for assessment on the campus. In not quite knowing how to gauge the educational economy of a communal achievement the committee simply reflected the dominant culture instead of recognizing a healthy alternative.
V. Uncomfortable Conclusions
The penultimate scene in the drama of the choir's official status came with a flourish of crafty intrigue and campus politics. Two weeks after the potential protest bodies of students and music faculty had departed for the summer, the committee chair announced that they had cancelled the grade option for gospel choir. The Music Department administration fired back its own extreme proposal: that gospel choir either be fully justified on academic grounds and receive appropriate academic credit or that it be deleted entirely from departmental course offerings. The risky move wagered that the committee would not want the bad press nor a student uprising over dismissal of the most popular course on campus. The Department in turn worked out more precise procedures which would produce a span of grades. A pivotal element in the committee's final decision was the seeing and hearing-is-believing experience of the new chair and several members who attended a Fall choir rehearsal and concert; they came to the next meeting aglow and convinced. There the committee decided to reverse its earlier decision and approve the choir's credit status, but on a limited, provisional basis subject to review in two years time. As a result of the changes, a year later the choir size was one-third the size but growing once again. For a time students had been scared off by uncertainty about the grading option and the addition of two written exams and two singing exams beyond the initial audition, raising a fear factor which the director finds contradictory to his purpose of confidence building and inhibition release. Positive results following the exodus of less engaged choir members and the addition of more stringent requirements include a strengthening of student attention, initiative to learn, and music-making power.
At one level the protagonists in the campus drama—a popular alternative choir, a campus investigating committee, a protective music department—were acting out classic dynamics aroused when an existing paradigm, in this case an assumed model for measuring knowledge, proves inadequate to the situation. At another level, the story of the mass choir presents a concrete case of the kinds of attitudinal and structural adjustments which may be required when multiple musics are taken seriously, not only within individual courses and department curricula, but also in the status roles assigned to certain musical traditions within academe, carrying more than musical implications. If it had been the symphony chorus which had grown to the proportions of the gospel choir, it is questionable whether campus guardians of academic standards would have been quite as nervous about numbers of students gaining credit for singing a European-based art music which involves note-reading, deeply-grooved repertory, and performance at the best hall on campus in concert decorum, thus fulfilling latent prerequisities for the assigned rubric of "serious" music.
Some aspects of gospel music itself can be highlighted as probable cause for the responses it elicits in the local and larger academic scene. Whether in church or on the pop music air waves, gospel music is a hot cultural medium, a living tradition still ardently practiced by a socially and economically marginalized community. In ritual settings, it continues as an orally-transmitted repertory and musical style open to elaboration from impulses not customary for art music, like being moved to ecstasy in flamboyant behavior which does not hold still for the usual methods of inquiry. In popular music, gospel stands as a category and a seminal influence on multiple styles. I propose that it is these very factors of vitality and living tradition which act as a deterrent to gospel music being accepted comfortably into the canon of appropriate subject matter for academic legitimation and transmission. If it were less connected to an actual community and religious/cultural tradition or had less popular appeal, gospel music might be more acceptable company at the university table of curricular menus. To the degree that a complex musical tradition like gospel, coming as it does from outside the pale of academic culture, begins to impinge on our own habitual attitudes as to what constitutes a musical tradition meriting sustained practice and study, we face opportunities to match "Monday" practice to "Sunday" theory. As a father of gospel music has urged, it is up to us as college music educators to take up the challenge to "live the life we sing about" as we reimagine our musical offerings in order to present the world of music in its diverse reality.6
1Quotations included in the advocacy report and this article derive from interviews of the director, students, and administrators which I conducted from 1992 to 1993, from an extensive questionnaire, and from student reflection papers. Material from the three sources is used with permission to cite anonymously.
2This journal and society have issued resounding calls for a more "comprehensive perspective" on musics, motives, and methods for introducing undergraduates to music in a formal way, as in "Music in the Undergraduate Curriculum: A Reassessment," CMS Report, Number 7, 1989. See also articles by Parakilas, Rideout, and DuPree, CMS, vol 30, No.2, Fall 1990. The conversation is reinforced by data in the study of first-hand narratives about music in people's daily life in Susan D. Crafts, Daniel Cavicchi, and Charles Keil, My Music (Wesleyan University Press, published by Hanover & London: University Press of New England, 1993).
3To defend the religious neutrality of the gospel choir, several interviewees posit a parallel case in the religious language of texts for classical Western choral literature where the religious significance to the singer goes unquestioned. I find the relation of text and personal belief more interesting in their non-parallel aspects, in that gospel music does not come disguised by a remote Latin text which few understand; its lyrics are by definition personal in reference (as the director often cites: "He's been so good to me," "He brought me out"), and it reflects a living tradition of belief and life experience for communities close at hand.
4Robert Weisbuch, Keynote Address, University of California All-University Faculty Conference on Undergraduate Education, February 13-15, 1992. Weisbuch spoke from his experience as chair of a university-wide task force on reforming undergraduate education at the University of Michigan.
5The reference is to a gospel song, frequently sung by the local choir, which loaned its title to my initial study: "'I Got Joy,' Jesus, and My G.P.A.: A Preliminary Study of the . . . Gospel Choir."
6While participation in the campus gospel choir is clearly good for the student educationally, that is, musically, intellectually, socially, and personally, more elusive of verification is whether the campus context and uninitiated students are good for the gospel choir tradition. At the same time I am arguing for academic inclusion, it needs to be asked how far gospel music can be separated from its religious and ethnic roots and community of cultural carriers and still retain its integrity. In an ongoing study of gospel choirs within the same nine-campus system, I entertain the possibility that the collegiate context, taken to its ultimate in many features by this particular multicultural case, may be contributing to a process of secularization and change in musical repertory and performance style which compromises the gospel music tradition at its core.
Last modified on Monday, 22/10/2018