Lift Every Voice Symposium
This fall, the University of Illinois School of Music and the Illinois chapter of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) are sponsoring an exciting mentorship program. Now in its second year, the Lift Every Voice Symposium aims to support young choral conductors from underrepresented groups. Last year, the program focused on female-identifying conductors. This year, Lift Every Voice will serve conductors of color. Six students nearing the end of their undergraduate education have been selected to come to the U of I campus to work with world-renowned conductor–teachers at no cost to them. During the week, the students will receive private conducting lessons and take part in conducting classes, graduate-level choral courses, sessions on underrepresented composers, and round-table discussions on navigating the unique challenges of being a choral conductor of color. At the end of the week, participants will rehearse and conduct U of I ensembles in a closing performance at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, which will open the IL-ACDA Fall Conference. Information and tickets can be found here.
To learn more about this exciting initiative, we reached out to Dr. Andrea Solya, Interim Director of Choral Activities at the University of Illinois School of Music, who was instrumental in getting this program off the ground:
KB: How did the Lift Every Voice Symposium come to be?
AS: Our former director, Dr. Andrew Megill, and I noticed that year after year we only received applications to our doctoral choral program from a very particular group of our population. Female conductors and conductors of color were rare; the combination of those two was basically nonexistent. We noticed that while there are plenty of talented female choral conductors in schools (K-12), they were not applying for graduate school. We started to ask questions. We talked to teachers and concluded that most female-identifying conductors had male mentors in college, and they simply could not see themselves doing the same. They do not/did not believe they could. We decided that through this program, we would invite young (undergraduate only) conductors from underrepresented groups and pair them with accomplished and well-respected conductors from that same group for a few days, simply to show them that it is possible and worthwhile to nurture their talent beyond a four-year degree. Thanks to Ms. Robin Sahner’s extremely generous gift to our Choral Excellence Fund, this idea became a reality.
KB: How long has this program existed, and what were the focuses of previous years?
AS: The first symposium was held in April 2022 and focused on women. The second symposium will take place October 24–27, 2023, with a closing concert on the October 27 at Krannert. This time we are focusing on conductors of color. I managed to commit a wonderful group of mentors to this occasion: Dr. Anton Armstrong (UI alum), Fernando Malvar-Ruiz (who will mentor Spanish-speaking participants, among others), Dr. Andre Thomas (UI alum), and Dr. Pearl Shangkuan.
KB: What do you hope participants will gain from the experience?
AS: They will learn, interact, and exchange experiences with conductors who look like them at no cost to them.
KB: Where are the participants coming from this year, and about how many applicants did you have?
AS: Our budget allows us to bring six students to our campus. We received 13 applications this year, which includes a letter of support from a conductor. When we focused on female conductors, we received 40+ applications for the six spots. This year, I was sad to see such a low number of applications, despite personally trying to convince choral conductors at other institutions to send their students to us. Sadly, many wrote back to me saying, “We simply do not have students who fit your criteria.” However, our six finalists are all wonderful and it was very hard to narrow it all down to just six in the end. The final group has been selected by Dr. Barrington Coleman, Dr. Ollie Watts Davis, and myself. Students are flying in from all over the country.
KB: Can you tell us any more about the closing performance?
AS: Our choirs serve as “lab choirs” for our participants during the week. Black Chorus, Chamber Singers, Varsity Men’s Glee Club, and Women’s Glee Club will perform a segment on this concert, and each symposium participant will direct one piece on the program. Dr. Andre Thomas will conduct the closing number, “Lift Every Voice,” arranged by Roland Carter, with all the choirs singing together! This concert serves as the opening concert of the IL-ACDA Fall Conference as well (October 27–28).