A Gleek at heart? Raymond Wise wants you for the African American Choral Ensemble

Here’s a guest post about the African American Choral Ensembly courtesy of newsroom colleague George Vlahakis, who typically blogs at IU Inc.:

One reason that the television show “Glee” has been so successful is because viewers can relate and reflect back on their experience in choirs in high school or singing in their churches.

Once many students reach college, they feel they don’t have time or the energy to continue performing in musical choirs. Those are some of the students who Raymond Wise, the new director of the African American Choral Ensemble at IU Bloomington, wants to reach.

Raymond Wise

“One of the challenges that I’ve seen at many schools is that many students who sang in high school or sang in other environments cut out all of their music when they get to college,” said Wise, who previously has taught at Ohio State University, Denison University, Trinity Lutheran Seminary and the Columbus School for Girls.

“They feel they don’t have what it takes or they just don’t feel prepared,” he added. “Our idea is to invite them back and give them an opportunity to use the gift that they have. Let’s equip them with what they need, so they can continue to sing, make some music and enjoy the arts. If you want to be a singing doctor, that’s fine, but come on and sing while you’re getting ready for med school. I often say I take ordinary people and do extraordinary things.”

Since its founding in 1975, the African American Choral Ensemble has been devoted to performing the rich and varied traditions of African American choral music. It is one of three performing arts ensembles at the African American Arts Institute, which strives to promote and preserve African American culture through performance, education, creative activity, research and outreach.

Members of the performance ensembles earn academic credit through the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies in IU’s College of Arts and Sciences. Wise hopes that, by the end of each semester, choral ensemble members will have learned more about stylistic elements, vocal technique and music theory as well. The ensemble also features students who are studying at IU’s renowned Jacobs School of Music.

Charles Sykes, the AAAI’s executive director, noted the choral ensemble fills an important need on campus for some IU students who want to be music educators.

“There are students who go through music education who never had the opportunity to experience African American choral genres and yet they graduate and they get a job in an inner city school, where they need to have a gospel choir,” Sykes said. “It’s an important part of their education, just like they need to learn the classical and romantic literature. It’s essential that music educators have experience with black music genres, and the choral ensemble provides that opportunity.”

Wise follows in the footsteps of the beloved James Mumford, who directed the choral ensemble for nearly a quarter century, and Keith McCutchen, who led it since 2006.

“I’m here because they want to continue that tradition,” Wise said. “The legacy he (Mumford) left was significant.

“While the academy has been talking about preserving traditions, we have been very selective in the past about the ones that we want to preserve,” he added. “What is so unique about the African American Arts Institute is that it celebrates all African American music.

“This is not just music for African Americans,” he added. “If you go back and trace the lineage of how all the music has developed, you will see that every other American musical form has been touched by this music. The coming together of Africa and Europe in this country has affected all of our music in some way.”

Wise and Sykes hope the choral ensemble and other AAAI groups can contribute to creating greater understanding, which leads to bridging cultural divides between Americans.

While Wise said he’s setting his goals high for the African American Choral Ensemble, he also recognizes that its members bring their own individual gifts.

“Everyone does not come with the same level of skill, but it doesn’t mean that everyone doesn’t have the potential to produce excellence,” he said. “My goal is to meet folks where they are … and take them where they need to go.”

Each fall, the choral ensemble performs at the annual Potpourri of the Arts in the African American Tradition. The annual concert this year will take place at 8 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in downtown Bloomington.


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