Meet the Behold! directors
SPU is premiering Behold! A Sacred Sounds of Christmas Virtual Experience on Dec. 12, 2020. In this episode of the SPU Voices Podcast, we meet three of SPU’s music faculty involved in the making of Behold!: Beth Ann Bonnecroy, adjunct director of Treble Choir and adjunct instructor of voice; Director of Gospel Choir Phillip Ferrell; and Christopher Hanson, director of music education and orchestra and an assistant professor of music.
Beth Ann Bonnecroy
Amanda Stubbert: Beth Ann Bonnecroy is in demand as a conductor, singer, and teacher of voice. Her foundation as a singer and extensive experience as a voice teacher shapes her priorities as a conductor as well. Healthy singing and development of a singer’s personal vocal technique are emphasized in her choir she conducts and it contributes to the free and beautiful sound her choirs achieve. She joined SPU as a voice teacher and conductor of the treble choir in 2013. Beth Ann, thanks for joining us today.
Beth Ann Bonnecroy: You’re very welcome.
Amanda: Well. Let’s just jump in with your journey into music and how that ultimately led you to SPU. That’s not usually a short story for musicians, but-
Beth Ann: I’ll try not to make it too long of a story. I have been a musician all my life, I majored in music in college, went to graduate school in music, and then moved to Seattle in ’89. So by the time, so I had been doing music both in performing, church music, community choirs, that kind of thing for quite a while in Seattle, and had worked in those circles with several people who were on faculty at SPU. And then when a position came open at SPU, those friends recommended that I apply and so that’s how I was led to SPU.
Amanda: Were you, I think when you hear choirs, there’s usually a sacred aspect to those choirs, a church aspect somewhere along the way. Were you looking to work in a faith-based institution?
Beth Ann: Actually when the position came open and when friends recommended that I apply for it, I really wasn’t looking to teach on the university level at all. I was very happy with the balance of jobs that I had, so I hadn’t really sought that out, but when the opportunity came up it just seemed like a great opportunity and one that I just couldn’t pass up, that I really needed to apply for that position. And it’s worked out so well that the experience that I have brought from working in churches for most of my life and being a person of faith and experiencing worship from childhood on has really helped my teaching at SPU. They’ve really gone hand in hand. And it’s been much more rewarding I think than if I had been in a university situation that was not a faith-based one.
Amanda: Right. Where you couldn’t bring your entire self with you to your job every day. Yeah.
Beth Ann: Right.
Amanda: That makes a lot of sense. So when you decided to come into the university setting, did you have specific goals in mind? When you work with a whole set of students as they come all the way through their university experience, do you have like if every student I work with comes out with X, I will feel successful?
Beth Ann: I would say if every student learns something about their voice, I will feel successful. I want to add to that, too, that by that I mean not only their singing voice, but their unique voice and way of communicating and way of making an impact in the world. That we all have a voice and it’s not just a singing voice. But it’s our being and what we want to communicate to the world. And if people learn more about that, while they’re in my groups or in my classes, that would definitely, I would feel successful.
The second part of that is particularly in the choirs. I hope that each student gets a sense of being part of something greater than they could achieve on their own. And I think this is a… But all of our choirs and our choir concerts and making music together, have that component. I think it’s especially true for Sacred Sounds because that’s such a large project. That everybody gives up a little bit of himself, but we end up with an end result that is so much greater than any of us could achieve on our own. I think that’s a very important life lesson to learn. And I think that music uniquely creates space for that experience to happen for our students.
“If every student learns something about their voice, I will feel successful.”
Amanda: Oh yeah. I absolutely agree with that. Anyone who’s been a part of any arts ensemble and creating whether it’s a player, a choir, or an orchestra, that you described it really well. I have to bring the best of who I am to the table. And yet I must compromise and give up a little bit of that to the group as well. And that’s when the great gestalt happens, right? That’s when the sum of the parts is so much greater than … the whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts.
Beth Ann: Absolutely.
Amanda: Do you have a Sacred Sounds memory that when people say that word that you think about?
Beth Ann: Not a very specific memory, but just in general over the years, the experience of all of our music students being together for this project, for this concert, it’s the one time of year that all the singers get to work with the orchestra and wind ensemble. And then to have that further magnified by this huge community of alumni and supporters and family and friends, and this amazing audience that comes together as well in the beautiful space of Benaroya, or in my first couple of years in McCaw Hall, to have all of that come together. And I guess especially to see the students that are experiencing that for the first time to realize that this is what Sacred Sounds is all about. Because we can tell them, but it’s theoretical up to that point. And then when they’re in Benaroya Hall and they hear the wind ensemble and orchestra and everything starts coming together, and then they see that amazing audience. The whole package is just such an amazing experience for everyone. And it’s great to see that reflected in the excitement of the students and particularly the students that are experiencing it for the first time.
Amanda: Yeah. There’s something about that. The synergy of all those people filling that beautiful house coming together. I know one of my favorite memories is being up on one of the higher balcony levels and looking down. For those who’ve never attended a Sacred Sounds … there are a couple of times where the entire audience, the audience is asked to stand to their feet and they sing with the combined choirs and orchestra to sing a Christmas carol. And when I’m looking down into this huge audience and they all turn the page of the program at the same time, and this is…. I’m going to drop this name for the music nerds out there. It’s a Philip Glass moment when you hear this. And everybody turns the page at the same time and starts to sing. It gives me goosebumps every year.
Beth Ann: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Amanda: When you think about this year and not being able to come together for the Christmas, what’s Christmas going to be like, how’s that going to be different this year?
Beth Ann: Yeah. My whole holiday season is going to be very different because it’s not only not having the Sacred Sounds concert. It’s the other organizations that I work with that also aren’t having concerts and are doing virtual things instead. I also still have a church job. And so all of that music is going to be prerecorded in some way rather than people being able to sing together in person. So the strategizing around all of that and trying to plan meaningful experiences for the people that I work with and the people that I serve without being able to do the thing that we really love to do is very, is going to be very different and is disheartening at times. I think we are holding onto the hope that this situation is going to get better.
That some day we will be able to sing side by side again, and make music together that way, and we hold onto that hope, but there are with our Sacred Sounds recording so much of the preparation for the prerecorded things that are going to be released around the holidays have to happen so much earlier because of all the editing and all of that. But it’s actually going to make December fairly quiet because a lot of the prerecording is already done. And now that music is off to editors and which is not something that I have responsibility for in most of my situations. So for me it’s going to be a fairly quiet December, I think. We’ll wait and see, I suppose.
Amanda: Yes. I think that’s going to be true for a lot of artists this year that instead of traveling or performing for other people’s family Christmas moments, they will have done that already, and they’ll be home with their own family and friends. And I just wonder if there’s a little bit of hope and bright side that we can all look on this year of having done some of those things ahead of time like our own Behold! A Sacred Sounds of Christmas Virtual Experience, all the stories and the music and the alums that have been put together for this beautiful Christmas special, but then we all get to enjoy it together with our own families instead of being on stage. Right? With our families and the audience. So I hope that it will be just this year and everything will return to our normal or a better than normal. But I do hope we can look at the bright side this year.
“I think that all of us are trying to continue to form community with our students and give them the best experience possible in this, even though it’s a very different experience.”
Beth Ann: Yeah. I think that all of us are trying to continue to form community with our students and give them the best experience possible in this, even though it’s a very different experience. And I agree. I think that people are going to find different ways to celebrate the holidays. And maybe those will be more quiet or maybe those will be more virtual, but there will still be Christmas just like there still was Easter last spring, even though most of our churches weren’t worshipping in person at that point. And we’ll celebrate the birth of our Savior. And maybe this gives us a little bit more time to reflect and hold in our hearts to those things that are most important because we won’t have the rush and the hubbub and the full calendar that we would have had in a normal year.
Amanda: Yeah. Amen. Well, Beth Ann, we like to end each of our conversations with the same question that I will ask you now. From your unique perspective, if everyone in Seattle could wake up tomorrow and do one thing differently that would make the world a better place, what would you have us do?
Beth Ann: Well, this would be a really big thing. If I had the power to do so, I would have everybody wake up and take action on behalf of those most vulnerable in our community and in our world. I think that the challenges we face around poverty, homelessness, inequity, and injustice are issues that it’s going to take all of us to make any progress in those areas. And so if everybody could get up and take one action to help alleviate those issues, I think it could make an amazing difference.
Amanda: I absolutely agree with that. All right. Thanks, Beth Ann, for joining us, and I hope you’ll come back again someday.
Beth Ann: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you.
Amanda: So almost in the truest sense of the word, Phillip Ferrell, has been making music for most of his life, both vocally and as a keyboardist. He began professional training at the age of 12, first studying classical music and ultimately jazz. Eventually Phillip became as fascinated with the technical aspect of creating music as he had been performing it. Consequently, he began working with bands and singers all over the country. He continues to be in demand as a guest worship leader, songwriter, and producer, traveling throughout the country and abroad. Phil, thank you so much for joining us today.
Phillip Ferrell: Well, thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here.
Amanda: Well, let’s start with the question of the day. Tell us about your journey into music and how that led you, ultimately here to SPU.
Phillip: Well, my journey into music is kind of a lifelong thing. My father has been a singer and choir director, so I grew up in it, hailing from Detroit, Michigan. And so fast-forwarding a few years, I’d been working in the music industry, really loving it, and I decided I wanted to go back to school. I ended up going to Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. And I knew when I finished school, I was moving to Seattle. I really felt like that was a nice place to have a family and loved the terrain and all of those things. So I really felt like God was leading my wife and I to move to Seattle, Washington.
About a month and a half before we were finished with school, I got a call from a friend saying that the Seattle Pacific University Gospel Choir and Dr. Stephen Newby were in Boston and I had to go see them. And it happened to be that he was doing a workshop, Dr. Newby was doing a workshop, at a church that was literally maybe a mile and a half from my house. So I jumped in the car and headed over and met Dr. Newby. And I said, “Hey, I was told I needed to meet you. And I’ll be moving to Seattle in about six weeks.” And he said, “Wow.” He’s like, “Well, let’s exchange info. And maybe we can meet up.” Well, fast-forward, maybe three months, four months, I am walking into Staples up north of Seattle, and Dr. Newby is walking out of Staples and we connected then. And since then, we just remain connected with various different ideas and projects, things like that. It was really an honor to connect with him.
“I really felt like God was leading my wife and I to move to Seattle, Washington.”
And so the first real connection to SPU was the recording, Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. I believe it was the third volume, but I was a producer on that particular project. And most of the audio was actually recorded in my own studio. And so that was my first connection to SPU. But fast-forwarding, maybe about a year and a half, I got a call from Bo Lim and said, “Hey, Dr. Newby said I should call you about maybe filling in as the minister of worship as an interim.” And so I was able to do that for a little over a half a year, finishing out the school year. And then here more recently, I was called to be the director of the Gospel Choir and an adjunct professor at Seattle Pacific University. So it is an honor to be a part of that. And so currently I’m teaching an arranging class. I’ll be teaching songwriting here next quarter. And then of course, I’m still doing the Gospel Choir.
Amanda: Well, that is a lot to handle. I think most people who make their living in the arts, end up doing multiple things creative with that art. And so I see in your background, classical and jazz and church music and worship leader and technical producer. How do you juggle all those balls? How do you do all those things at once?
Phillip: Well, let me first say, my wife is amazing. We have four children and she pretty much holds down the fort, which gives me the freedom to be able to take care of a lot of those things. My main source of income has been through the church, as either a worship pastor or creative director, technical director. I’ve pretty much done that since I’ve been able to vote. I have been blessed with lots of opportunities to do lots of other things, but those have always been the addendums. I always think of those as, they’re not on my main plate, they’re on my bread plate, the small plate. I get a chance to do a little bit here and there. And so that would be the main way that I’ve been able to do those things. Currently, I am serving as an artist-in-resident for Messiah Community Church, which is actually all the way in Baltimore, Maryland, and COVID has allowed us to be able to do a lot of things virtually. And this is one of the big things I’ve been able to do.
Amanda: Wow. That’s amazing. All right. I’m going to ask you a slightly, possibly strange question, and I will relate the question to an experience I had. I’m going to date myself here, but when I was in children’s church and I got to be the ripe old age of 10, and I got the coveted role in service of sitting at the projector and changing the paper that would show the lyrics up on the screen for everyone to follow. And here’s the thing, at the ripe old age of 10, I didn’t even realize I thought it, but when I realized that it was all planned, that the band knew not just which songs they were going to sing and in which order, but how many times they’d sing through the chorus at the end, it almost was a disillusionment moment for me because I had thought, “Oh, they’re just following the Holy Spirit. This is just all God. And this is so where they just get up there and do it every time.” And I realized, “Oh, it’s all planned.”
And so I just wonder when you’re that deep into the technical aspects of worship, is it still that Holy Spirit-led experience for you? How do you balance that very technical “must stay in my intellectual brain” the whole time, and really the whole point of worship, which is kind of letting go?
Phillip: That is a fantastic question. Thank you for asking. So right now, so many of us are heading into the holiday season, and specifically, even into Christmas. And so I’m sure that we all have been inspired to do different things. If we talked about a holiday meal, we may be inspired to say, these are the elements that I feel like would make the perfect meal. Now, once we have that inspiration of what we feel like would make the perfect meal, we may still have to go to the recipes and do the planning part of it to actually execute it on time for the meal. So it still can be, and it should be, Holy Spirit-led and Holy Spirit-inspired, but the inspiration doesn’t have to be an instant inspiration, but it can be something that was inspired even three months before, three weeks before, three days before, as the planning was being worked out.
I personally tell whatever band I’m working with, this is the plan. I rarely will say that we will only do this thing for a certain amount of courses, especially in just contemporary church music. Obviously in classical music, there is a very specific number of dots and sticks on the page to go for a certain amount of measures. But in jazz and the other genres, there’s a little bit more freedom. And so normally I’ll say, this is the contour that we want to go. We want to build up to this point and then we’re going to start bringing it down. So that way they have a general idea of the way we’re going to go without necessarily locking into a very specific form, as much as we can.
“Obviously in classical music, there is a very specific number of dots and sticks on the page to go for a certain amount of measures. But in jazz and the other genres, there’s a little bit more freedom.”
Amanda: I think there’s a bit of a life lesson in there, don’t you? I mean, I keep thinking of what Dr. Newby has said multiple times, that you work like you’re in control, but you pray like God’s in control. And there’s the bigger lesson, of you live your life with space for God to take over, but that doesn’t mean you can’t plan to the best of your ability, right?
Phillip: Absolutely. And to think about the work that you’ve done for so many years. I think the first time I was involved with Sacred Sounds is when Dr. Newby had asked me to arrange something for the Worship Arts Ensemble. And I wasn’t affiliated with SPU at that time. But then he’s like, “And I want you to come and conduct it.” And I was like, “Really? OK.” But if I got up there to get ready to do the piece, and I said, “Now, miss, man, I just want to let you know that I have no idea how long this is going to go and what parts we’re going to do.” You probably would look at me with a very fake smile and say, “Tell this guy it doesn’t work.”
And we’re in this huge facility. And at that time it was at McCaw Hall. It was before we had switched to the Orchestra Hall. But, we have to have both, and we have to believe that the inspiration will still come. And then we go with the plan, so that all the players at that time, I mean, what was it, maybe 300 different people that might’ve been involved in some way, whether that’s technical or they are actual musicians on stage. We can’t just fly by the seat of our pants and expect everybody else to be able to follow that so easily.
Amanda: Awesome. Well, we’re so glad that you have been a part of this for so long, and excited to see this year’s Sacred Sounds, now that we’re able to produce this beautiful Christmas special. And I feel it’s really the epitome of what we’ve just been talking about. It’s a lot, a lot of planning. And yet as we look back over the planning period, just so many Holy Spirit moments along the way, working hard and yet letting God work at the same time.
Phillip: Wow. Wow. That’s awesome. And I’m so glad to have a part in this. Glad to have led the Gospel Choir to participate in the large number, O Holy Night. It’s OK for me to say that, at the very end, which everyone raved about, just being able to be a part of that experience. I think the importance to me of Sacred Sounds is it’s the first time, or for me it’s been, oh yeah, now it’s actually Christmas time. Because traditionally on our schedule, it was the week of Thanksgiving. And so it was that shift of, oh yeah, it’s now. It’s actually now. But a relief that it’s now as opposed to, oh no, I’m not ready. I’m not ready. Just no, this is great. Christmas for me is the most favorite time for me and in my house.
And I think it’s, I’m just trying to make sure that our posture is Christmas has God coming to us and my goodness, all the things that we’ve dealt with in 2020, we need God coming to us. We need a reminder of that is what the season’s about. God comes to us. And he came to us to help us, to save us, to bring peace, to bring love, to bring light, all of those things that we all need. So I’m really looking forward to us being able to hopefully remind the public at large, that God came to us, and this is our way of expressing that to you.
Amanda: Amen. Amen. All right. Well, Phil, I could chat with you all day long, but we will wrap up with the last question we ask all of our guests. From your unique perspective, if you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow, that would make the world a better place, what would you have us do?
Phillip: I would have everyone intentionally help someone with something that they do not know. That could be buying a coffee, that could be holding the door extra long and saying, “I hope you have a wonderful day.” Or giving them an amazing compliment, but it has to be someone you don’t know. I believe that it would make such a huge impact to the region and hopefully bring a bright spot in, what has seemed like a bombardment of not-so-bright news.
Amanda: Absolutely. I’m going to second that, and I’m going to write it down that I’m going to do it, and what a way to usher in the Christmas season, but really to bring that spirit to everyone around us. Thanks so much, Phil. I hope you come back and talk to us again another day.
Christopher T.F. Hanson
Amanda: Conductor, violinist, composer, pedagogue, and musicologist Christopher T. F. Hanson enjoys working with a large variety of musicians and educators in multiple communities from around the world. As a violinist and composer, Christopher Hanson has premiered several works in multiple genres and serves as the chief arranger and first violinist of the Sacred Ensemble with Dr. Shana Mashego. Christopher currently serves as assistant professor and director of music, education, and orchestral activities at Seattle Pacific University. Christopher, thank you for joining us.
Christopher T.F. Hanson: Thank you so much for having me.
Amanda: Tell us about your journey in music. How did that lead you to SPU?
Christopher: My goodness. There’s so much to be said, but I will limit you and save you from the long versions of stories. I have been so blessed to have so many incredible experiences in music. It has, although it might seem cliche, been absolutely transformative in my life and brought me into higher education, not as an educator, but firstly as a student, as someone that considers himself a lifelong learner, and it really was somewhat divisive if I’m being totally honest.
So I grew up on the southwest side of Houston, in Texas, with a single mother, who is one of the most extraordinary people that I know in my life. We were living in a pretty tough neighborhood, and I found out much later, several years later, that my mother had introduced me to the violin, which was an instrumental music program that was available at my intermediate school, because she wanted me to just stay inside and become sort of a hermit.
“My mother had introduced me to the violin, which was an instrumental music program that was available at my intermediate school, because she wanted me to just stay inside and become sort of a hermit.”
She didn’t want me playing in the apartment complex and running around with my friends, and she thought, “How can I get him tied up with something that’s not going to cost a ton of money, that could be something good for his education?” So she enticed me, and as all parents, I think, do very well. I don’t know when this training happens, but she used reverse psychology to introduce me, through Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, to this instrument called the violin.
By the end of my summer before my sixth grade year, I just was chomping at the bit. I had to get a violin and learn it. I studied my violin all the way through public school, six through 12th grade, and was, I tell my students, just sort of the uber orch dork, which is a badge I wear with pride, was the president of the orchestra in high school, and our concert master, and just loved music, but it was not necessarily something I was going to study in college.
I had applied originally to go to college as a poli sci major. I was very passionate about social justice, and seeing change in my community, and being a part of that, did a lot of volunteer work. I wasn’t a great student. I’m a first-generation college student. My mother and father didn’t graduate high school. So I was excited at the prospect of going to college, and when I didn’t get in, because I didn’t have great grades, I wasn’t a fantastic academic student, I was really distraught.
Lo and behold, through the grace of God and some extraordinary educators I was working with, I was given the opportunity to audition for Texas Southern University, a historically Black college in Houston, Texas, and I was offered a scholarship. I thought, “OK, don’t go to school, or go to school and receive a scholarship and get to study music.” Like most of the artists I know, I said, “Well, I’ll try this for a year. I’ll go for a year, and I’ll see how it goes, and it’ll be a great way, and then I can transfer somewhere.”
So lo and behold, four years later I graduated with a bachelor’s of arts in composition, and knew that I was going to be making music the rest of my life. Went on to grad school and studied composition, and studied conducting, and education, and ended up leaving grad school determined that I wasn’t going to teach in public school because I knew firsthand from friends and colleagues how difficult it was, but I established a community music program in Central Texas. I helped get a string program restarted in the community I was living in; it had been dormant since 1957.
Amanda: Oh, my goodness.
Christopher: So this was back in 2011, I petitioned the school board and helped to advocate to get the program started up. Similar to my journey into college, I thought, “Well, I’ll do this for a year. I’ll try this for a year and support this program.” Eight years later, I had been teaching the middle school and high school orchestras in Central Texas and just absolutely loved it, and recognized again God’s calling in my life to be an educator.
It was definitely one of the more difficult decisions that I made, but there was lots of prayer and lots of advice to see if I was ready to make the transition into higher ed. I still believe in and am still very passionate about social justice and the transformative power of the arts in our communities, and I wanted to see a real change in public schooling and music. Through, again, lots of guidance and mentorship, I realized I could be a part of that change if I was teaching teachers. So I heeded that call and thought, maybe I have the opportunity to prepare future educators for the field and share my experiences, and it was so serendipitous.
To be brutally honest, I had never been to the Pacific Northwest, had never been to Seattle. I had sent out all of my applications, and sort of at the last moment, I had, like most people do, anybody that has been through the job hunt, I had all these Google alerts for when jobs would get posted. I got this Google alert that there was a job posted in Seattle at Seattle Pacific University, and I thought, “I’m going to look at this.”
It was a liberal arts college, which is something I wanted to apply for, it was a Christian institution, which I thought was amazing, and they wanted someone that could be the director of music ed and conduct the orchestra, and I was looking for that. So it was, like most people that answer to God’s calling, it was like, this is it. This couldn’t be more obvious if he came down and tapped me on the shoulder and started filling out the application for me.
“I got this Google alert that there was a job posted in Seattle at Seattle Pacific University, and I thought, ‘I’m going to look at this.'”
So I filled it out, and was so blessed to make the final round of interviews, and was offered the position, and moved up here with my family, my incredible wife who made the journey with me and my two children. I have a 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, and we have definitely realized we were meant to be in the Pacific Northwest. We just, we love it up here, the weather and the communities that we’re being involved with. It’s just extraordinary.
So needless to say, reluctantly, I can openly admit that music is a huge part of my life, and I feel so blessed to have come into music and education in these unique ways.
Amanda: Well, we share one thing in common, probably more than one, but the thing we do share for sure is being raised by a single mom who did a lot of sacrificing to let us be artists and be in the arts. So I’m just wondering, as you’re a dad and a teacher, if you think that, really, that fairly unique upbringing, does that shape how you teach your students?
Christopher: Oh, definitely. One of the big things is being a first-generation college student. I really strive to make sure that all of my students know, not just the students that I have that are pursuing careers in music education, that all of them understand how important education is. I mean, how liberating it is to come into an environment in which you do not know things, and to be challenged to understand the world in new ways, through collaborating with others, through hearing others’ experiences, and really re-imagining what the possibilities are in your life.
When I was growing up in Houston, there were a lot of things that my community expected to be predetermined. I remember distinctly, this is a story I tell often, I remember being on my bus, heading to school with some friends, and I was in seventh grade. The local paper had published this report where they were looking at crime statistics and demographics in our neighborhood, and it specifically had targeted poor white citizens in our community were statistically at the highest risk of committing a crime, usually related to drugs, and ending up being incarcerated.
A lot of my friends were circulating this paper and going, “Wow, I can’t believe this,” and they said, “Well, watch out, Chris, you’re next.” I remember seeing that and saying … I definitely, later in life, can appreciate the importance of statistics and the importance of data like that to better understand how we can serve communities. But I also remember how insensitive it was and how condemning it was to see that and have this path laid out for me, that like, yeah, this is what my community expects from me, this is what data is showing, and how can I combat that?
I was invigorated to get into school and find opportunities that were not available to me if I had not been in a public school with nurturing educators, and music happened to be the thing that I got tapped into. Really, the arts in general, because I did theater, and choir, and music, and all kinds of stuff through middle school and high school. But I remember recognizing at a really young age that the things that my teachers were doing for me, the opportunities that my mother supported me taking advantage of, were only accessible to me through public education.
So when I’m preparing future educators, I try to communicate that story with them, and I try to make sure that they understand the significance of what they do. We bring people into our classroom from all types of backgrounds, and we challenge them to empathize and to see the world in ways that they’re not used to seeing it, and for them to recognize how complicated the world is.
“I remember recognizing at a really young age that the things that my teachers were doing for me, the opportunities that my mother supported me taking advantage of, were only accessible to me through public education.”
It’s not simple, but that complexity generates such a beautiful opportunity for us to create community with each other, and I believe the arts is the best way to do that. That music is this incredible unifier that brings us together. Whether we’re making music or listening to music, it’s just such a great opportunity to learn with each other, and yeah, it’s something I talk about with my students quite frequently.
Amanda: Yeah. I have a very specific memory of a student in my office, right before she was about to graduate, virtually in tears because she had gone all the way through school with this goal of a very specific job, a very specific role, and the reason she was upset was because she was realizing she actually now had bigger dreams, and it’s a little bit scary to not know what’s coming next, right. So really just that eye-opening, that, “Oh, my goodness, I actually have much more potential than I thought I did,” it was scary, but wonderful at the same time. It’s what I pray for, for all of our students.
Christopher: It’s amazing to witness students that finally realize that they have dreams, in contrast to so many students that have been dreamt for, if that makes sense?
Christopher: That they’re coming into school because their parents, or their family, or their friends, or the community they’re coming from has dictated these expectations, that this is what you’re going to do. But it is truly a magical moment. I know we’re speaking in so many cliches, but it really is extraordinary to see that in a student’s face, that they recognize, “Wait a minute, I am in control of my life, and I have been opened up to these opportunities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. My curiosity is what gives me these opportunities, and these resources are what allow me to achieve the things that I strive for.” I love that, for them to break away from tradition, for them to break away from inheritance, and create their own path. It’s just such a beautiful thing to witness.
Amanda: Absolutely. Well, let me ask you this. I know you’ve only been a part of a couple of Sacred Sounds concerts now, but what are your special memories around the Sacred Sounds experience?
Christopher: You know, it’s interesting. I think I can say with a relative amount of confidence that I’d never really participated in an event like Sacred Sounds. I mentioned earlier, I feel so blessed to have been a part of so many different musical projects and performances, but it’s extraordinary to be at an institution and to be a part of an event that not only appreciates and accepts the very rich cultural and religious heritage of the repertoire that we get to celebrate at Sacred Sounds, but really requires that all of the musicians, and conductors, and production team recognize that this is an event that is rooted in faith, and in a religious concept of our world and our lives.
So it has this sort of heightened meaning in everything that we do. I mean, and it’s not to diminish the significance of other performers, other conductors, or even the other events that I’ve been blessed to participate in. But I distinctly remember last year, getting to conduct in Benaroya Hall and do the big hymn sing, everyone in the audience was singing, and immediately being overwhelmed by the fact that everyone was there, everyone was making this joyful noise to the Lord, and lifting up this praise to God.
It was so amazing because at that moment, it was no longer just music. I don’t say that to be condemning. It’s not to say that you can’t have significant experiences with music alone, but to be involved with an event called Sacred Sounds, where we’re examining and look at this repertoire in the classroom, and in our rehearsals, and talking about where it comes from, and who’s written it, and the significance that it has on our lives, and then sharing that experience through performance with others, and then inviting them to be a part of it, not just as listeners but performers themselves when we go through these hymns.
It was so extraordinary to experience that on such a large scale and to know, sort of be humbled by how many people are involved in the production, and how many people have invested themselves into making this event happen every year.
Amanda: I would absolutely agree with that. So much fun to be a part of it. Well, everyone that comes on our little podcast here, we end with the same question. If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have us do?
Christopher: I would encourage people to connect with someone in their daily life and share music with them, whether it’s just a playlist, or they tag them in a YouTube video on social media, to share some music that you listen to on a daily basis with someone that you don’t usually engage with in that manner.
I think, I have discovered in my own life, that our musical tastes and opinions speak volumes of our character and who we are as human beings. Again, there is no judgment or condemnation to that. I’m sure there are some things in my playlist that would shock people, but it is a part of who I am as a human being, and I have experienced transformative events in my life when I am being challenged to listen and consider something that I wouldn’t usually do otherwise.
“I have discovered in my own life, that our musical tastes and opinions speak volumes of our character and who we are as human beings.”
I remember, particularly, it was in my second to last year teaching in high school, and we were getting ready for our summer break. We spent our last class on my music appreciation course creating a playlist. Every student in class had to offer a song and we wrote the playlist on the board. It was extraordinary to see the diversity of artists from so many different genres, and what was magical was the conversations that came from it.
So it wasn’t just that someone would offer a song, but you would see students connect with each other in new ways, to say, “I didn’t know you knew about that artist,” or, “You listen to that music?” “Oh, yeah. My father introduced me to them, and I love them.” It was, I mean, every genre, every type of music, and it was amazing to see that the connection that that music brought.
I really do believe that if more citizens in any community had the opportunity to connect with each other and found a medium in which they could do it without bias or pretense, and I think music is one of many avenues that can do that, to sit down with someone and say, “I want you to hear something, and I want to know what you think about it.”
Even if that person says, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t stand that music. How could you listen to it?” you’re engaged in a conversation about something external that’s brought to you together for a very intimate and important moment. Just for that brief moment, you start to begin to understand that everybody has a subjective opinion of the world, everybody’s experiencing it in a unique way, but we can still come together and have conversations and appreciate how diverse the world is. In this case, through the arts, although there are so many other examples that are worth offering.
But that would definitely be something I think could change the world in a positive way. Sit down with someone you know and just share your playlist. Have them listen to the stuff that you like, and listen to the things that they like.
Amanda: All right, I’m in. Anyone who wants to sit down and compare playlists, you just let me know. All right. Thank you so much for joining us today, Christopher.
Christopher: Absolutely. Thank you again for having me.