Chamber choir explores current social issues through music


Josiah Taylor

Current social issues in America have led Chamber Choir to focus on these events through song

Last summer, the country caught on fire, not only from high temperatures and actual wildfires, but also in our social discourse during a worldwide pandemic. Screens filled with videos and posts about the deaths of Geogre Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbury and teargas was thrown at Black Lives Matter protests. Advertisements popped up for “proper” COVID-19 masks, and people were either scared or eager to go outside and face the roaring fire around them.

Hope Milthaler, Head of the Music Department and Choir Director, realized that the best way to face the summer was to put it into music. 

By incorporating the songs “We Shall Overcome”, “Love Has Broken Down the Wall”, and “We Remember Them” into Chamber Choir’s repertoire, the class has been able to use their observations and voices to learn from the events of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the 2020 Election, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the summer, Milthaler worked on a music compendium with the Aeolians of Oakwood University and their conductor Dr. Jason Max Ferdinand to help choir students focus on important messages from current social issues happening in America, including the Black Lives Matter Movement against police brutality.

“The whole country, especially, and the world watched us deal with the social injustices that we’re seeing, and we have seen, for a long period of time, but have never, except for back in the

60s, really been so at the forefront of what’s happening.” Milthaler said. “And so there was a plan to make sure we were focus[ed] on what music could be in terms of bridging over those gaps.”

 The compendium leaders chose “We Shall Overcome,” a gospel song important to the Civil Rights Movement, and the main song the Chamber Choir performed for their fall concert in October. The song originated as a work song sung by enslaved people, then traveled into churches until it was published as “I’ll Overcome Someday” in 1901. In the 1940s, black and white workers harmonized during strikes with “We Will Overcome.” By the time Civil Rights protesters sang the anthem in marches, and as they sat in jails, the name “We Shall Overcome” was used consistently, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches. 

 Today, the choir version is arranged by Robert T. Gibson, an African American composer, and whom Milthaler interviewed about the importance of the song, and how to best respect the song and the stories behind it.

 “I mean, here we are, we are not a diverse school,” Milthaler said. ”And luckily I was not the only person on this [compendium] team that fits that bill but to finally have someone say to me, ‘You are released to ask some questions.’ Like, how does a predominantly white choir take a piece like ‘We Shall Overcome’, and not just sing it but talk about its message, without trying to imply that we fully understand? And that’s…that’s tough.”

 Milthaler and her Chamber students would come to learn from Gibson and Ferdinand that sharing the story of “We Shall Overcome” with genuine care would show they were attempting to understand and learn about the hardships African Americans faced in the past and today.

 “When we first received this piece I was worried about upsetting the black community at our high school,” Katie Dykhuizen said. “This piece is one that is rooted in black culture and I didn’t want to be a part of the problem I see in our society today. While speaking with Dr. Jason Max Ferdinand, I realized that ‘We Shall Overcome’ isn’t just about the oppression black communities around the world have faced but about the challenges one faces every day. ‘We Shall Overcome’ isn’t just about rising from the ashes after life puts you down but it’s about making sure no one defines who you are or what you are meant to do.”

 As the summer died down and election season began, the flames shifted, creating further division between the two largest American political parties. To counteract this, Mitlhaler added “Love Has Broken Down the Wall,” a song composed by Mark A. Miller, to the students’ practice. After a few days and a little bit of set-up, Milthaler was able to professionally record the students singing the song and released that official version on Election Day.

 “‘Love Has Broken Down the Wall’ is about how love conquers all, everyone is loved and accepted as they are,” Dykhuizen told The Knight Times. “During the election, we needed a reminder of this meaning because we all have opinions but we can still love and accept each other for who they are and accept their opinions.”

When 2021 rolled in, the new year brought with it a reflection of 2020 and the path laid barren by its destruction, including the loss of over 2 million people worldwide due to COVID-19. The song “We Remembered Them,” composed by Susan LaBar, and currently being rehearsed by the choir, provides a kind message and space for mourning those no longer with us.

“‘We Remember Them’ is more like an ode than anything. Not like the actual structure of an ode, but there’s not a lot of words in the song. But it’s basically saying as long as we live, the seasons will change and things will continue, but we will still remember them. And the ‘them’ is left ambiguous. You can pop it in wherever it needs to be, but I think there’s been a lot of ‘them’ over the year,” Kirienne Hodges said.

With these songs allowed the students to learn about parts of life not easily found in a traditional curriculum, at a time when everything is but traditional. In many ways, their voices provided enough air to cool down and access the flames.

“I realized I can’t do that thing where you disregard people and you throw them away, and you continue to box yourself in,” Hodges said. ”Because, you know, that’s not how you begin to change anybody’s mind. That’s not how you begin to change anything. And I think ‘We Shall Overcome’ felt like that to me. It felt like, if there’s one thing I can do, I can sing.”