It was just past 10 on a Saturday morning in the LaSells Stewart Center on the Oregon State University campus, and more than 100 OSU choral students were warming up their vocal cords.
“We’re doing what not so many students are doing right now,” joked Steven Zielke, OSU’s director of choral studies, as he led the exercises from the stage in the Austin Auditorium. “We are conscious.”
As it turns out, “conscious” – or, more precisely, “raising consciousness” – was a good way to set the stage for what took place over the next 90 minutes.
The students, along with a scattering of older souls, gathered on Saturday, Feb. 5, for a workshop led by Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, an assistant professor at Minnesota’s St. Olaf College and a national leader in the “Justice Choir” movement, which seeks to encourage community singing on social and environmental justice issues. The slogan is “Start Local, Stay Vocal.”
Saturday’s workshop was the culminating event in Wondemagegnehu’s OSU residency. Originally, his trip to Corvallis (with accompanist Will Rand, a student at St. Olaf) was intended to end with a Justice Choir concert, sponsored by OSU and the Corvallis Repertory Singers, but the rise in omicron coronavirus cases forced organizers to cancel that event. But Wondemagegnehu (a longtime friend of Sandra Babb, OSU’s assistant professor of choral music education) and Rand still made the trip to Corvallis to work with OSU music students.
On Saturday, with members of OSU’s Meistersingers, Chamber Choir and Bella Voce ensembles in the audience, Wondemagegnehu began by telling his story – growing up in Memphis, dozing on his mother’s lap during three-hour services at Greater Middle Baptist Church, but waking up when the congregation sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the hymn that is considered the Black national anthem.
“I had to wake up,” he said. “You know why? Because everyone had to stand.”
Soon enough, the assembled singers in the Austin Auditorium were on their feet as well, as Wondemagegnehu ran through some of the selections in the Justice Choir songbook – “Be the Change,” “Courage to Be Who We Are,” “Love is Love is Love is Love,” “One Foot/Lead with Love” and “We Shall Overcome.”
All the while, Wondemagegnehu shouted encouragement from the stage: “Use your outdoor voice! “Make mistakes, boldly, proudly! Be the light! Turn it up! Walk around! Walk around!”
And that’s what the singers did, embracing each other and linking arms around shoulders to form lines along the aisles.
“Music can change the world,” Wondemagegnehu told the singers. “That’s real. You know what you just felt inside yourselves.”
But, he added, it requires courage.
“Peace requires work,” he said. “It requires us to be willing to walk toward people who are different.”
But there’s a payoff, he said: “On the other side of the fire, there is peace, there is boundless joy, and an infinite amount of love.”
For her part, Babb believed it was essential for the students to hear Wondemagegnehu’s messages over the three days of his residency.
“He challenged them to sing the old melodies born of slavery, to understand where those words came from, and to make them relevant for current society,” Babb said. “Singing together as a community is such a powerful, transformative experience. Tesfa helped us to reconnect with our community of singers at OSU in a way that has been so needed as we have come out of quarantine. We are relearning our identity and our mission as a choral department, to promote equity and justice for all people.”
During a question-and-answer session that ended the workshop, questioners – many of them still students or teachers just starting their careers – focused on one theme: How to keep their passion for music burning in the face of workaday challenges.
“Just hearing you talk and hearing the passion” made a difference, one questioner said. “I’m a first-year teacher. Knowing what I go through every day, I really needed that.”
And that, Wondemagegnehu said, was precisely his intention in the workshop: “You can tell when you look out and you see these people committing. You can tell that seeds are being planted. … The people who were in this space today, they’re going to leave and share their light.”