Personal Journeys, Collective Change

A Conversation with Maria Ellis, Reginald Mobley, Zanaida Robles, and Anthony Trecek-King

The closing plenary at the 2021 Chorus America Summer Conference, a panel discussion titled Personal Journeys, Collective Change, centered on Black voices in the choral community. The plenary served as a follow-up to a similar event at the 2020 gathering during which longtime African American choral leaders reflected on their careers and experiences. This year, representatives of a younger generation described the paths they have followed in choral music and where they find themselves today.

The 2020 and 2021 Conference closing plenaries bookended a year of both peril and promise. One of last year’s speakers, Morehouse College Glee Club director David Morrow, returned to introduce this year’s discussion, leading off with the exclamation, “What a difference a year makes!” The global wave of racial justice activism that formed last year in the wake of George Floyd’s killing continues to build. The global pandemic that upended business as usual in most walks of life and virtually shut down the performing arts shows signs of abating in several countries, including the United States.

It was a year that presented the speakers in this year’s closing plenary with much to contemplate as well as the time to do it. One of them, Reginald Mobley, is a singer and a newly minted artistic advisor in Boston. Zanaida Robles is a Los Angeles-based composer, singer, conductor, and teacher. Maria Ellis, from St. Louis, is a conductor, consultant, educator, and entrepreneur. During the panel discussion, the three of them reflected on their multi-faceted personal journeys and shared hopes that their paths will intertwine with those of fellow travelers.


A Seat at the Table

One reason “there’s so little diversity in classical music,” said Reginald Mobley, is that people of color “feel as though we've never really had a place at the table.” An acclaimed countertenor, Mobley has worked closely for several seasons with Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, directing its annual program Every Voice. The goal of that initiative has been “to spotlight parts of the community that make Boston Boston,” such as the Black and Jewish communities, youth, and women. “If I better understand the Jewish community and the Latinx community as a Black person,” Mobley said, “I begin to expand my bubble. I begin to see them as part of my tribe, seeing that we are all the same.” He believes that a community “is better served if we understand all the parts that make the whole.”

Last year Mobley became Handel and Haydn’s programming consultant, a role he was supposed to take on in 2022, but the society seized a chance to make the move just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning. The idea was to introduce ideas forged in community concerts to Handel and Haydn’s regular subscription programming. “My role is to recognize that the world is getting Blacker, it's getting more femme, it's getting more queer,” he said, “and we need to represent the world that we serve.” Welcoming a diverse range of performers to the stage is one way to do that, but in addition, Mobley is focusing much of his effort on “trying to bring more diversity to the spots on the page.” In the realm of early music, where he and Handel and Haydn spend much of their time, “the things that we perform are just as White as the people we see around us. I feel like it's on us to show everyone that Black people in classical music didn't start with Scott Joplin or Harry Burleigh.” In other words, to return to his metaphor, “we aren't bringing a chair to the table; we've always had a seat at the table. It's just someone else is sitting in it. And it's time for them to move.”

Panel moderator Anthony Trecek-King, named this year as a resident conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society Chorus, echoed Mobley’s assertion: “There are composers of color that absolutely belong on a period music stage. And that's not something that is common knowledge.” Mobley went on to list several examples, among them Chevalier de St. Georges, who was Marie Antoinette’s private tutor; Mexican Baroque composer Manuel de Zumaya; and Classical-era Brazilian composer José Mauricio Nunes Garcia. “Sometimes we assume they're second-rate composers,” observed Trecek-King. “They're not. The music is really, really good.” The reason we don’t know about them, he said, has to do with “how we’re being taught, how we’ve studied our music. We know how many symphonies Beethoven wrote, right? We know how many symphonies Brahms wrote. Do we know how many symphonies William Grant Still wrote?”

Another way of bringing diversity to the spots on the page is to “retroactively expand the canon,” as Mobley put it. He hopes to work with contemporary composers of color to create new music designed to complement the old, “like songs or small minuets, something that works” for an orchestra and chorus like Handel and Haydn’s, his aim being to “show that this music, no matter the scope, or the scale, is just as beautiful and just as deserving as anything we've known and accepted as the actual canon.”

One of the composers Mobley has already turned to is fellow panelist Zanaida Robles. Her response to the plans Mobley described made it clear she considers an intentional focus on composers of color much more than a welcome gesture; it’s a difference-maker. That’s especially true when this focus includes studying the full complexities of composers’ identities and influences. “When those composers, like Zumaya and Nunes Garcia, were presented to me, they were presented to me as Latin composers.… If, in my studies of those composers the totality of that identity, including their Blackness, had been included, that would have been hugely impactful for me to know.”

In recent years, Robles has experienced a process she described as coming into a “new sort of identity as a real composer.” She’s been writing music since she was seven, she said, “but I never saw myself in the field, and so I didn't really think what I had to say compositionally was important enough, or it wasn't needed, it wasn't necessary.” Now things have changed. “So many organizations are bending over backwards to try to find Black composers or female composers,” she said. As she’s been producing more work amid this new attention, Robles has reassessed early ideas she’d only sketched out before, realizing “this counts. This counts as real. So a lot of my work has been kind of backwards-looking and saying, ‘I've always been this composer. Why did I never share? Why did I never put this out?’” Her first commission, “Can You See,” written for Tonality in 2018, proved to be another turning point. “I'm super proud of that piece, because it was the first time where I was like, clean slate. I wrote it from scratch using skills and experience I had, using techniques that I had learned like a real composer. It's about being given that opportunity and being seen as someone who has something to contribute.”

When she was in high school, Maria Ellis told the plenary audience, she wanted to be a conductor. “I never saw women doing that. I only saw men.” Her choir director gave her “as much knowledge as she could about going into that path, but it wasn't enough to take me where I needed to go.” Ellis took a detour into the business world, but she returned to music in 2013 as an educator. “I still didn't see enough women, and especially not enough Black women,” she said, and “I never saw Black women on the podium.” That inspired her to launch Girl Conductor, LLC, which provides resources such as individual consultation, choral workshops, and online courses for music educators and aspiring conductors. She sees it as “a brand where I can champion women,” she said. “And then it kind of morphed into championing diversity, so that people can see themselves.”

When the pandemic left the web as educators’ primary option to connect with students, Ellis realized it would be a challenge to replicate the energy she found in the classroom. “So I had to go back into my elementary brain, to when I was a kid, and think, what made me love Sesame Street?” What came out of her brain was the Soul-fege Slide, billed on YouTube as a dance that “teaches the Curwen Solfège Signs with a 21st-century appeal.” One early comment on the video reads, “This is my new jam. My music teacher plays this every day.” At 15,000 YouTube views and counting, “it just went crazy,” said Ellis, “which is just so fun for me. It blesses me every time I see little Black kids doing their solfège signs. When I was growing up, we didn't learn that in our school. But now they do.”

Conductor and music educator Maria Ellis, in a scene from her YouTube video Soul-fege Slide.


Connections Forged Despite Isolation

Ellis’s experience with Girl Conductor led her last year to a joint venture with Nyadia Thorpe, director of Navarro College Choir in Texas: the Black Women Composers and Conductors Network, a Facebook group where “brilliant women are able to get together and just help each other and mentor and just provide advice and just really be a blessing to each other.” For Robles, that’s just what it has turned out to be—“a balm to my soul,” she told Ellis. “I didn't realize how much I didn't see myself reflected in the field. I've kind of always just had these blinders on, just for survival, just to focus to get where I need to get.” Trecek-King understands where she’s coming from. “Being an African American musician—no matter if you're a singer, conductor, whatever—it's very isolating,” he said. “And when you've got your blinders on, you're not always able to connect with people who are like you.” Only after discovering Ellis’s network and other opportunities that put her “a room with people who did look like me who did share similar experiences” was Robles able to appreciate the importance of an “affinity space, that place where we can just kind of get together and see each other and hone our pride and our support of each other. I had no idea how much I needed that until I saw it.”

Ironically, the isolation that came with the pandemic did a lot to enable the connection Robles and many others have experienced. Musicians are “all little points of light,” said Mobley. “And when the world went completely dark, we suddenly recognized that there were other points of light.” The darker it was, the brighter they became, he said. “And so our instinct was to draw ourselves closer.” In Mobley, that instinct plays out in his contacts with younger musicians. Asked about advice he gives to aspiring singers, he answered, “Be bold. If you see someone whose career you admire, find them, talk to them, write them.” Mobley said he answers every Twitter and Facebook question he gets “because this career, this community, it can't die with us, it shouldn't die with us. And your success is our success.” Amid the pandemic, he said, “it seems like we've all been reaching out to these other little points of light to try and create something brighter that so the world can see again. And I found myself extremely busy because of it.”


Points of Light and Lightning Rods

During the past year, Mobley and each of his fellow panelists have grown more visible more broadly in the music community as well. “Because of what happened not just with the pandemic, but with Juneteenth, and also the tragedies of last year with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a lot of organizations—typically White-led musical organizations—are damn near breaking their legs, rushing to find a Black composer and a Black director and a Black singer and a Black instrumentalist.” More than points of light, they’ve become “lightning rods”—in a good way, he said, because awareness of them is growing, “and everyone is coming to us to do the work.”

The attention may be welcome, but at the same time “our radar is up,” said Trecek-King. “We're really being careful and choosy on who we work with right now.” Ellis picked up the thread: “We, as Black people, can see through whether somebody's intentions are real. If you're just hiring me to check a box, we can see through that.” After being invited to join numerous advisory committees on diversity and inclusion, she started wanting to say, “I've been here, I've been around for years. Did you not see me before? Was I not qualified then?”

All of the attention has another downside, encapsulated in a question submitted from the virtual audience: "So many of my African American friends and colleagues use the word exhaustion to describe their experience of this past year. What would support look like from the choral field to dispel that exhaustion?" The panelists seemed to agree there’s no way to avoid it because, as Robles put it, “the work is exhausting.” She’ll feel able to rest, she said, when she no longer has to worry that the work is being done. “So that means we can't be the only ones doing the work. Those of us who are in this broader community have to do the work to lift up the voices of those that aren't like us.”

As a way to point out more immediate relief for people like her, Robles reminded the audience that she is not a unicorn. “Now, especially now, there are so many of us that that can provide a perspective on the Black experience.” With that in mind, advised Mobley, when you approach someone like him or Robles for help and learn they’re too busy, remember that you can also ask them to recommend someone else. “Once the four of us is 16 or 30, once it grows, there is so much more that can happen,” he said. And realize, too, noted Trecek-King, that a “no” today does not mean the answer will be the same tomorrow. “It means no for now. So go back and ask again a little bit later.”

“We’re trending,” Ellis said, and for that reason she’s “trying to push out as much information as I can to keep us still trending, to make sure that people are still seeing us.” To her, now does not feel like the right time to slow down. “My fragility says that if I stop, then people may forget about us.”


More than a Trend?

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing last year, organizations of all kinds—including many in the choral field—issued statements via social media and other means taking a stand against systemic racism and declaring their solidarity with Black Lives Matter. That response was “amazing,” said Ellis, but she can’t help wondering how long it will last. “Sometimes what happens is those become trends and then, in 2022, those things don't exist anymore.” She said she will be convinced attention to racial justice issues is not just a trend when these same organizations recruit people like her to work as something other than “your diversity and inclusion person. I'm more than that,” she said. “Come on, hire us! We can do this stuff. We've been doing it. You probably just didn't know because we weren't on your radar.”

Mobley will believe the movement is more than a trend when being first no longer feels like a significant accomplishment. “I'm not impressed that I'm the first programming consultant,” he said. “I'm impressed by seconds. I'm impressed by thirds. I'm impressed by breaking the idea that we're racing to see who can have the first Black person's position.” When a Black person is hired, he said, “it shouldn't be for any other reason than we are who we are, we are qualified, we are needed for that moment. Then I'll feel like we're actually making some sort of progress.”

Robles said she has found a number of reasons to be hopeful. After deepening connections in the past year with Ellis, Mobley, Trecek-King, and many other people of color in the field, she said she knows “I'm not going to be left out left hanging out to dry. I know that there's going to be support around me. I know who I can call on for help.” Knowing her audience was “looking for resources to help spread the word about diversity, equity and inclusion,” she told them, “you now know, you can never not see all the people that you've now seen.”

We are still a long way from the promised land, she cautioned. “We're all now in this new woke state,” but “we can't go back to not being thoughtful. We have to think before we act,” she said. “We have to think about the whole community, we have to really pay attention to who is in our midst. We have to insist on continuing to build meaningful, authentic relationships.” Inevitably, she acknowledged, there will be stumbles. “But if you're really listening, and you're really in touch with the community, somebody's going to help bring you back. And that's the beauty of being in community.”

Don Lee is a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singer who lives in St. Paul Minnesota. At NPR in Washington DC, he was the executive producer of Performance Today.