Meet A Member: Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, Classical MPR

In the chorus-crazy land of Minnesota, there’s a charismatic new face in town putting a unique stamp on the area’s choral scene.

“There’s a little bit of Memphis in me that I’m super proud of,” says Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, the vibrant representative behind Classical Minnesota Public Radio’s Choral Stream and manager of the station’s choral works initiative. Although he is a trained choral conductor, clinician, lecturer, and soloist, the most visible way Tesfa touches the choral community is through the public radio airwaves. That doesn’t mean you’ll only know him by his voice – he is constantly out in the community, making dozens of appearances with the help of his Choral Car.

Tesfa credits his Classical MPR colleagues with helping him translate his infectious passion for choral music into the more soft-spoken tone of public radio, including the likes of the popular “Sing to Inspire” program. “These people are phenomenal at what they do,” he remarks. “The public radio world is so new to me, and learning from them has been quite a treat.”

Chorus America president and CEO Catherine Dehoney sat down to talk with Tesfa over the phone for our latest installment of our “Meet A Member” series.

Q: What got you hooked on choral music?

A: Actually, I was kind of forced to audition for a performing arts school. I was not a bad kid, but I was a “wannabe” – I was that kid who was trying to fit in to my environment. My ninth grade year, I got suspended from my school for selling stolen pagers. I was told that I had to go to my neighborhood school, and my mom was very worried about that, because she thought that would exacerbate my problems. But there was a talent-based transfer program in the city, and she forced me to audition for this performing arts school. I was in choir at church and in junior high, but I was not serious about it. It was hard – I wasn’t really sold on it.

I went to this audition and I sang for this lady – she wasn’t mean, but you could tell there was this swagger about her. There was this extreme confidence. She looked at me and she said, “There’s something about you. I’m gonna take a risk on you and put you in my program on probation.” Within two months, I was staying there until 5, 6, 7, 8 o’clock at night, and she was driving me home some nights. I was a choir addict. It was because she was so invested in me. I don’t think it was necessarily my talent. And it wasn’t that I wasn’t loved at home. But she took a special interest in me.

In December of my first year at the performing arts school, this lady suddenly died. And at that point is when I really got my butt in gear, and started working hard, and sight-reading every day, and I really wanted to get my act together to make her proud and to do better for my mom and make her proud as well.

Q: In your role at Classical MPR, you make quite a few visits to schools. As a former high school choral teacher, what’s that been like?

A: I do miss having my own program. I don’t miss the daily structure of being a teacher. I love the structure of being able to go to 35 different programs. But being able to have a group of kids where you can say “these are my kids” and see them every day and work with them every day? That’s special. You can take me out of the classroom, but I’m always going to long for those moments.

Tesfa group picture choir program
High school choir programs are one of Tesfa Wondemagegnehu's favorite places to hang out.

Q: How did these classroom visits begin?

A: In a way, it just started with emails to teachers saying, “Hey, I would love to come inside your program and build awareness around all the amazing things that you’re doing.” There was a huge social media push that I came up with last year. I thought it might be a cool idea to post as many pictures and videos as possible promoting choral programs all across the country, and highlighting the importance, showing kids having fun in these classrooms. So when people are voting and deciding to cut the arts, we need to say “No – look at the joy on those students’ faces. Look how much fun they’re having.” The hope is to build more awareness around all the amazing activities these educators are doing across the country.

Q: What’s a typical school visit like?

A: I don’t come in with a pre- prescribed plan. That’s the beauty of it. I don’t have an agenda. I say, “I just want to be an asset to you any way I can.” If you want me to barbeque – there’s pictures of me actually going to choir retreats and barbecuing for choir programs. If you want me to come in and do vocal technique workshops, I can do that. If you want me to do a sectional, I can do that. If you want me to do officer leadership training, I can do that. Whatever you need, I just want to be a resource to you. Because I know how tired teachers are and how overworked and underpaid they are. So if I can help in any way without an agenda, so be it. Let’s make that happen.

Q: Do you have any big projects planned for the immediate future?

A: We’re doing auditions for our Radio Choir coming up in the next few weeks. This is a choir that’s built on one big performance a year, and everything else is about community engagement. Let’s say a choir teacher says, “I would love to have a quartet from the Radio Choir come out,” and we’ll go do sectionals on a piece of music, come back together, and eat pizza together. Or let’s say we get an inquiry saying, “We would love to have a group of people come out and do a singing workshop in a prison.” Or “Would you come out to this retirement community and just sing for 15-30 minutes?” That is the bulk of the choir. But what’ll be really exciting is that we will also record in the studio – traditional choral literature as well as literature that will be more accessible to a younger, more diverse audience. We’ll have resident arrangers and composers take a piece of music by a huge pop star, and arrange it in a traditional choral style – a middle ground between Pentatonix and The King’s Singers. But in a full chorale – maybe we have 120 people singing it.

The idea started a long time ago when I sat on a bus with a composer named Tim Takach, and I told him I was really interested in the idea of choirs singing pop music in a traditional way, and also singing traditional choral literature. It shouldn’t be about selling tickets, but just making the art form more relevant to a larger demographic. He and I talked for about two hours about different ideas that we can work on and collaborate on, and actually Tim is going to be our first resident arranger and composer for the project.

Tesfa and choir in shades

Q: Any other initiatives in the pipeline? Where in the community will Tesfa pop up next?

A: The project that I’m actually most excited about is called “Bring the Sing.” We’re trying to encourage people regardless of their ability level to sing. Anybody can sign up. We’ll provide you sheet music, and we will provide you with practice tracks that you can download and access online whenever you want at home. And we want you to come in on Saturday morning. We will rehearse together for an hour. We’ll take a break to build community– have coffee, doughnuts, talk to each other, have different community vendors set up in the space. Then we’ll come together, rehearse again, and we’ll record those pieces. And those pieces that we record will be broadcast on the Choral Stream. Regardless of your experience, regardless of your ability level, we want you to sing. We want to share your contribution with the world and we’re going to broadcast it.

We’re doing two this year – this is the pilot year. You sign up online – the first 1,000 people in the Twin Cities and the first 600 people in Duluth. Hopefully we start it in Minnesota and take it across the country. I’m excited to see where this goes. And hopefully we can get a lot more people singing together. And yes, it’s nice to have that high artistic quality, but it’s also nice to celebrate people just singing.

Q: Where do you see choral music going in the future?

A: I think choral music is about to explode. To hear groups like Pentatonix say, “it all started in a choir” – that’s pretty powerful. There are more groups out there with the creation of YouTube. There’s an incredible musician named Jacob Collier who multi-tracks his own voice and creates unbelievable vocal arrangements. I think it all falls under the umbrella of vocal choral music. I think the art form will be better because of it. I don’t think we should try to box it in. It’s such a powerful medium, and to allow it all to resonate whichever way it decides to touch people, so be it. Good singing is good singing. Period.

Tesfa as Santa Claus
Creativity and social media savvy: two of Tesfa's strengths.

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing choral music today?

A: I do see that the professional landscape is shrinking somewhat. I think that being fiscally responsible in 2015 is so crucial for a lot of the professional choral ensembles (and any kind of music) just because to pay the bills, they have to sell tickets and so often, selling tickets doesn’t even cover the bills! Figuring out ways that they can keep their relevance and appeal to a broader audience is definitely a must. I think that there are so many professional ensembles doing that now and it’s so exciting to see. For example the Minnesota Orchestra just got back from Cuba – that was such a huge cultural exchange for Minnesota and from what I’ve heard, it was great for Cuba. To have more activities where we’re collaborating with communities that might not be exposed to the classical genre – or even music. Everybody wins in that scenario.

Q: Why are you a part of Chorus America?

A: The fact that Chorus America provides such an important resource to a large demographic – children’s choirs, community choirs, professional choirs, arts administrators – is gamechanging. And I love Chorus America because of that. I’m excited to see Chorus America grow and keep providing this extremely useful resource to the community. I gotta tell you, one of the most inspiring sessions I’ve seen in my life was watching Alice Parker at the Chorus America Conference in Washington DC lead a community sing.

Q: Outside of your choral music life, what’s something that people don’t know about you?

A: Actually, I am a huge fantasy football nerd. I average eight fantasy football teams a year, somewhere around there. I am not kidding you! Just for the record, this year I am down – I am only playing four fantasy teams this year, but I’m still playing daily fantasy, which means I pick a new team every week. 

Mike Rowan is communications manager for Chorus America.