Stepping Out of the BoxBy Jason Max Ferdinand and Makeda Hampton
What The Aeolians of Oakwood University Have Been up to This Fall – from the Aeolian Chronicle
The Music Department at Oakwood University has been bursting at the seams with various musical groups, recitals, open forums, master classes and various activities in a bid to provide a world class music education to our students. It is without question that over the decades the Music Department has produced some of the nation’s finest musicians and musical aggregations. This present group of apprentices is building upon that solid foundation.
Our students had the blessed privilege of singing to our world church at the recent 59th General Conference Session of the Seventh-day Adventist Church held in Atlanta, GA. That experience —without question—was uplifting. The Oakwood University Aeolians have taken a bold step in a bid to garner where the choral music program stands in relation to the outside choral world.
The American Choral Directors Association, the flagship organization for choral directors in the continental United States and abroad, hosts many festivals/adjudications that are precursors to both the divisional and national conventions where some of the best choirs are showcased. On November 4, 2010 the Alabama region hosted one such event at the acoustically friendly Trinity United Methodist Church in Huntsville. Dr. Daniel Bara, one of the leading and most sought- after clinicians, served as the clinician for the day, listening to and working with 15 ensembles. Our students were nervous; for many, this was their first experience at something like this. Our safety net was that we had had solid rehearsals in which we reinforced old techniques and were getting used to brand new and fresh choral approaches.
After prayer, the group went in at 9:20 a.m. and did their set. “This group sings with a level of sophistication that is very rare. The various colors that you create are simply compelling and astonishing. …Can I take you guys home with me?” Dr. Bara said, as he described the things he loved about the Aeolians’ performance. One new trend in choral singing is the relationship between singing and movement. Dr. Bara and his stellar groups are advocates of this and loved how our choristers moved, each independently of others, internalizing the physical effect of the music. As opposed to some of the other ensembles that day, he did not work on any musical elements of the performance, but simply ended his remarks with a couple of preferential concepts for the group to chew on. Well done, Aeolians!
With that affirming experience under our belts, 40 members of the Aeolians flew to Maryland to participate in the iSing College Choir Scholarship Challenge during the “2010 Music & Worship Conference” at Reid Temple AME Church in Glenn Dale, Maryland, on November 5. The challenge was divided into two categories—High School and College/University— featuring the top four groups that made it through the audition and application process. Ten thousand dollars in total scholarships was awarded to the participating colleges, including $5,000 to the grand prize winner.
After some recruiting activities at Takoma Academy and a late hotel check-in, the Aeolians headed over to the empty, 4,000-seat edifice for their sound check. Our students carried themselves like true professionals and worked hard at the sound check time to ensure all elements were intact. It was with intent that the other participants were not made known to the choir or even to the director, but we learned of the line-up and realized this competition was going to be stiff.
The high school presentations were very diverse in repertoire and full of youthful energy. Negro spirituals, gospels, unaccompanied music in Latin, and very well thought out choreography were all done tastefully. It was a rare opportunity to sit and listen to other choral programs and the work being done with such precision throughout the nation.
The time quickly came for the tertiary institutions to present: Bowie State University, Oakwood University, Howard University and Norfolk State University. Bowie State got things going with lots of energy, and the audience loved it. Midway through those presentations, the Aeolians were escorted out to take their positions backstage. It was apparent by their facial expressions that some were nervous, while others seemed very poised. All were visibly excited.
“Let’s do what we rehearsed guys,” was the word that went around. You see, there was an element of our performance which was brand new. To insert some diversity and showcase one element of gospel music, we adapted and arranged Kirk Franklin’s Hosanna, which came in the middle of our well known Jerusalem anthem. The arrangement included some tough acapella transitions, a vocal percussion section, solo trio and the remaining choir filling in the harmonies. Just when the audience was getting the hang of the gospel section, another harmonious phrase led us into the familiar ending of the aforementioned selection.
Without much fanfare, the Aeolians took the stage in their formal wear. Whitney Morrison, soprano, started her solo for the first selection, My Soul’s Been Anchored, filled with tough harmonies, poly-rhythms, and musical surprises. The audience throughout the rendering made audible sounds in support, and before the group could plant the last chord, everyone in the huge sanctuary was on their feet screaming and applauding. “Seemed like it took forever for it to curb,” said one Aeolian. The sounds of the Rodgers organ started the next piece, with Neil Thomas at the console, joined by Dennis Baptiste on the piano. Calm was restored to the listeners as Jerusalem started. Then came the adapted section. The Aeolians nailed all the transitions and the gospel band was on top of the groove for those few measures. Then all of a sudden, the instruments cut out and our vocal percussion guys took over. It was simply amazing and again the audience erupted. Just as soon as they were getting into that, we transitioned to bring it all home with the last chorus of Jerusalem. Some audience members were seen as if in a trance making their way to the stage, having heard the glorious sounds of our young people.
We left the stage feeling we had done our best; that was all that really mattered. We then sat back and watched the Howard Choir put on an impressive set with wardrobe changes in the midst of it. Norfolk State, which has been led for over two decades by Dr. Carl Haywood, took the stage next. The celebrated choral legacy at Norfolk State University was displayed in their performance. It was now up to the judges.
The waiting time for the results seemed like an eternity. Bowie State was announced as 4th place winners. When Howard was announced as 3rd place winners, the Aeolians gasped and all grabbed hands, embracing one another. The announcer kept delaying the proceedings heightening the tense atmosphere. “In second place…..we have…..Norfolk State University!” Wow, there were tears of joy, knowing that this semester we have been toiling and laboring to better master our craft. “Is this real?” was another student comment. “The winning choir for the 2010 HBCU choir challenge is Oakwood University Aeolians from Huntsville, Alabama!” The faces of our students said it all. When a goal is set and one does the best you can, even without a prize, satisfaction is felt. We should all be proud of our Aeolians who have stepped out of the comfort zone of our denominational surroundings. Isn’t that true ministry? Pray for the ensemble as it continues to take this treasure far and wide.
“I have no pleasure in any man who despises music. It is no invention of ours: it is a gift of God. I place it next to theology. Satan hates music: he knows how it drives the evil spirit out of us.”
~ Martin LutherJason Max Ferdinand is an assistant professor in the Music Department and director for The Aeolians at Oakwood University. Makeda Hampton is a music instructor in Oakwood’s Music Department.
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