Brandon Waddles is not only a renowned composer, conductor, educator and music director, he is also steadfast in his commitment to community and encouraging continued music education in our schools. So when Hope Kesling Milthaler, Director of the Kings High School Chamber Choir in Ohio, reached out to him with a challenge and a request, Brandon Waddles responded with an instant affirmative.
“We all have the right, responsibility, and opportunity to sing spirituals.”
— Brandon Waddles
The Kings High School Chamber Choir, from a predominantly White community in southwestern Ohio, in an intentional effort to effect cultural change from within, commissioned Dr. Brandon Waddles, a prominent Black composer from Detroit, Michigan to arrange an African-American spiritual crafted specifically for them.
A Commission for Cultural Change
Fighting for the survival of choral music and using its rising to heal and teach.
By Hope Kesling Milthaler
I grew up in a small town with zero diversity. Being born into a disparate community is not my fault. My students are growing up in a suburb of a big city with very little diversity. Being born into a disparate community is not their fault. Seeing that similarity with wide open eyes and doing nothing to cease the cycle of cultural breakdown, however, would be my fault. This reckoning ignited a passion inside of me to put the unifying power of choral music to an unprecedented use in my program.
Beginning in 2020, when the global pandemic threatened the existence of singing, the choral community at large united in an unprecedented way. Barriers between preexisting hierarchies of classroom teachers, collegiate conductors, composers, performing artists, et cetera were demolished. Almost simultaneously, the murder of George Floyd woke us up to the realization that our society is (still) light years away from healthy. A phoenix rose from the ashes of the unrest in the form of a unified platform: we would not only fight for the survival of choral music but also use its rising to heal and teach.
Enter Brandon Waddles.
Having performed “Cert’nly Lord” the year prior, I knew his music was right up our alley. My Chamber Choir craves challenge, and Brandon Waddles’ music is just that. I also found in his compositions a fiercely nuanced juxtaposition of spirituals or gospel texts with the spice of jazz harmony. My Chamber Choir also craves musical diversity. The match was made in heaven.
On a whim, I contacted Brandon Waddles to see if he would be amenable to a commission for the specific makeup of my incoming choir (18 SATB with female tenors and an alto voice just begging for a rich solo), and he answered with an instant affirmative. We scheduled a Zoom conversation.
Brandon Waddles and Hope Kesling Milthaler’s first conversation through Zoom.
The Depth Behind The Commission
Meeting and chatting with Brandon about the depth behind the commission only confirmed the match. I relayed my intentions for the piece very transparently. I also shared with him the summary from my module in Teaching With Heart, Volume 2:
We love elephants! If they are in our space, we must tend to them, yet to approach them without wisdom and respect would lead to disaster. As leaders, it is our deepest hope that the teamwork, joy, and passion with which we ask our students to sing is organic and felt within and throughout the ensemble. Unfortunately, left to human nature, no random selection of passionate individuals will naturally operate in that way. This is, in large part, because there are elephants in the room that we must tend to before such an environment can organically grow. Several years ago, my Treble Choir was, as a result of district lines, infamous for its flammable mixture of differing ages, ability levels, personalities, social and socio-economic status. I thought I was doing the best I could by keeping the focus away from the division, essentially ignoring it for the music’s sake. It never worked. It wasn’t until I finally addressed the elephant in the room and confided in a Treble Choir alumna that I heard the resonating phrase that would change the trajectory of our program forever: “If not you, then who?” Taylor’s boldness impelled transformation in the culture of an entire program. The classroom faces many elephants in our present cultural climate. In this module, I will share just some of the action steps that have taken my program from a place of trying to ignore elephants to tending them and using their natural beauty to foster greater cultural health.
I added that the very specific elephant I hoped to tame within my scope of influence assumes the form of predominantly White choirs and their conductors and their tentative approach to the Negro spiritual.
Upon receiving my intent, he took to the Johnson & Johnson book to seek out the melody (which became melodies) and text. He landed on them almost immediately, as did the inspiration for the rest of the spirituals’ construction.
We Now Have Our Own Spiritual
Once I had at least a skeletal structure in hand, I delivered it to the choir to begin preparing for lab rehearsing and a remote clinic with Dr. Waddles. But before a note was sung, I sent a Google form to the students with just one ellipsed prompt: “So we have our own spiritual…”
For some, there was an innocent enthusiasm that a composer, especially one of Dr. Brandon Waddles’ stature, was writing a piece just for them. For some, the deeper implication hit home right away. To focus everyone’s attention on the matter I intended to be at hand, I named the elephant. “You know what a spiritual is, right? You know their origin, their purpose, their history, right?” Tragically, some did not. So we briefly reviewed, then I said again, “So we have OUR own spiritual…” I allowed them to revisit their answers on the form and some made modifications.
“Spirituals are very connected to gospel music, and those genres come from black people in America, many of them tracing back to pre-Civil War era. It’s…interesting that we have “our own” spirituals, as a bunch of white people. It’s a weird thing to have to make ours. It’s weird that it “belongs” to us. It’s allowed to, it certainly is, and I’m glad it does, but it will be difficult to make authentic as the first people to perform it. We have no Aeolians to take inspiration from on this particular piece like how we did for “We Shall Overcome”, which had similar roots to Spirituals. We have to find the balance between ourselves and the history we are trying to connect to without being too much “ourselves” (Midwestern white people) and without becoming someone we’re not.”
“I feel that as a choir full of white kids from the middle of the midwest we shouldn’t have this spiritual for us. There is a disconnect we won’t possibly be able to completely understand because it isn’t our ancestors’ pain or strength that is being described in these spirituals, and we shouldn’t try to pretend that we completely understand it. It’s important for us to sing spirituals, but we also have to realize we can’t possibly sing or understand it in a way that black choir would be able to connect with it.”
“In my opinion, the fact that our choir, which is a 100% dominantly white choir, has our own spirituals shows a push in the revolution in cultural acceptance and pushing for recognition of different cultures from other cultures. I don’t think it should be offensive or wrong for an all white choir to sing a spiritual, in fact I think it is very appropriate and in the choral world I think this could bring us even closer together.”
“It will be interesting to create a song and a story with a different group of people than spirituals are typically created for. The connection to the people these songs were made for, will definitely be crucial in order to get into the mindset that the spiritual was originally created to put you in.”
“I’m very honored that we have our own spiritual composed specifically for us! However, I am kind of scared that I personally won’t be able to live up to the set expectation. After singing “Cert’nly Lord” last year, I personally think it’s going to be hard to find that certain gospel tone that our voices biologically lack, and because of that might ruin the sound of the spiritual itself. But, I hope I”m proven wrong, and I’m determined to work hard on this piece.”
I sent the responses to Brandon, and after reading them, he requested an immediate Zoom conversation with my kids. Witnessing my hopeful sparks catching flame was incredible! The conversation (in the video below) between Brandon Waddles and my choir kids was life changing. We ALL learned. The two most important takeaways, the latter of which I will take into every piece of music I teach for the rest of my career:
We all have the right, responsibility, and opportunity to sing spirituals.
There is a human in every score. Find that human, connect with them in authenticity and vulnerability, and find the relationship to your own human journey.
Here are the extraordinary student reactions. I was now witnessing the incremental turning of a cultural tide!
It. Was. Happening.
“The responsibility that I recognize we hold by singing this song is much stronger. At first I was very confused and sort of uncomfortable about having a spiritual written for us, a completely white choir in Kings Mills, Ohio. Hearing Dr. Waddles made me realize that it is very much appropriate, if not honorable, to sing this song and carry all of its weight and responsibility.”
“It’s more than just black and white, there is a mix of colors and emotions and experiences and people.”
“I’m serious in saying this is a response I am proud of and has come truly directly from my heart. Now since both seeing the piece and Dr. Brandon Waddles, this spiritual has taken on a whole new light. Not only this spiritual, but my entire perspective of music and choral music has changed. Talking with Dr. Waddles has opened my eyes to music’s true purpose. Well, music has thousands of purposes, but I now feel like I have found its purpose for me. And that is to get to honor other people. And that is how I have always approached acting. I am honoring the character I play, I am serving as a sort of representation of their experience, my own experience, and also ever-reaching towards the audience’s experience. My job is to tell a story bigger than myself, and bigger than I’ll probably ever realize. There is a reason why stories live for so long. They ascend beyond their original author and get reinvented again and again through each and every interpretation, from generation to generation only continuing to undergo metamorphosis after metamorphosis. There is so much more in that music than what we see. Just like Dr. Waddles said, there is a person in that score. But not just one, though it starts with one, but each time another person lends their heart to the music another person enters that score. The fact that a couple pieces of paper connect 100’s of years of people, is incredible. I mean, if that’s not just magical, I don’t know what is. There is so much more between the lines. Between the notes, between the text, just all throughout it. It’s more than just black and white, there is a mix of colors and emotions and experiences and people. All of our collective hopes and dreams and trials and struggles. It’s just so beautiful.”
“I’ve always had a hard time with spirituals. Feeling connected since I didn’t feel that it was right for me as a white girl from suburban Ohio to sing spirituals. After we connected with Dr. Waddles I felt more connected to the spiritual. I felt that it was my responsibility, not necessarily just mine but us as a choir, to sing this song and provide the change that I want to see in this world. I’m very passionate about changing for the better in every way possible. I believe that everyone has a right in this world to be equal because there’s no reason that we need to discriminate. I’m excited to sing this spiritual and begin the change I want to see in our world.”
“Music is such a universal experience that it shouldn’t be excluded from any one group”
“Hearing Dr. Waddles was so important because he really brought this super important insight to me. It was nothing but incredibly profound to say that music is such a universal experience that it shouldn’t be excluded from any one group.”
“Brandon Waddles helped me to understand that all music should be sang by everyone as a sign of respect”
“I felt uncomfortable singing something that was made and sung by a people who I technically could not relate to. I thought that because my ancestors did not struggle in the same way, that I was not allowed or wanted to sing such a piece. However, after Brandon Waddles spoke, my opinion is completely changed. He helped me to understand that all music should be sang by everyone as a sign of respect and that I am entitled to carry a banner and sing it with emotion that I can relate to.”
“I am PUMPED and so incredibly honored that we have our own spiritual. Originally I was really nervous, but after zooming with Dr. Waddles and hearing his thoughts on how music is a gift, I feel relieved. Even after class was over, what Brandon Waddles said still stuck with me for the days that followed after. “Americans have the right to Negro spirituals. And we have the responsibility of keeping that memory alive and honoring those who were oppressed. I am White, I have never been enslaved, and neither has Brandon Waddles, but we both have the right and responsibly to Negro spirituals. I am grateful for Dr. Waddles’ input and am very excited to continue working with him.”
“I am definitely more excited to sing this song, and make sure we fulfill our right to it. I am excited because I know that it is our job to ensure this song that was once sung keeps being heard, and just to make sure it doesn’t die.”
The Surprise…And a Decision to Make
All of that being said about my chamber choir chowing down on a challenge, the choir that entered this year was physically lacking. We had no male tenors. We had half the personnel we used to have. It was going to be a year that really tested my mettle with regard to sculpting a final product that demonstrated an incremental rise in advancement using half the amount of clay. So early in the conversation with Brandon, I made certain he knew this commission had a broader vision: it was already intended to be included in our Teaching With Heart second edition, perhaps it could be a feature at ACDA 2023 in Cincinnati, perhaps Dr. Ferdinand would be interested in using it with the JMF Singers…and as for us, we would use it in discussion and as a vehicle for the internal work cultural change requires.
Then I received an email I could never have anticipated…
We had been selected to perform as the Featured Choir at Carnegie Hall during our upcoming National Youth Choir experience.
I blocked out the voice whispering, “What a perfect opportunity to premiere a piece” until the whisper was a holler that would not be ignored. We were about to sing a piece we should never perform in a location we should never have performed…what a time to be alive!
Preparing The Music and Turning Our Technique Towards Spirituals
We moved into rehearsal, tried to find our way, and during our Zoom clinic with Dr. Waddles quickly discovered we had lost it. We knew we would need his help with this, and discovered that in our attempt to channel the intentional joy once summoned by the slaves responsible for the birth of the spirituals, we were missing the mark entirely. Instead, we needed to channel movement, vibe, and soul via a similar connection with our own human experience. We are not called to emulate those who originally sang a spiritual, or those we think have the right to do so as a result of their race. In fact, one of the most important things Brandon said to us was that even he isn’t connected to the injustice that impelled the slaves to sing. Furthermore, his style of composition infuses new harmonies with old melodies. He beautifully and masterfully creates a musical representation of what I am failing to explain with words.
“Do everything you do with the highest level of vulnerability.
I didn’t say the highest level of excellence, I said the highest level of vulnerability. And humanism.
I promise you will surprise yourself every time if you do.”
— Brandon Waddles
I think it is this turning that is most difficult. It is daunting to be this publicly vulnerable in this day when the world is uninterested in seeing the intent behind our errors. But Brandon Waddles released us from that fear when he said, ”Do everything you do with the highest level of vulnerability. I didn’t say the highest level of excellence, I said the highest level of vulnerability. And humanism. I promise you will surprise yourself every time if you do.” He then helped us infuse our singing and physical energy with the style needed and that he intended.
Here are some of the students responses to this part of the turning experience:
“It was important for Dr. Waddles to clarify that we aren’t supposed to “go to church” but instead go wherever we need to as individuals to connect with the piece. Before, I wasn’t really connecting because the church narrative we were trying to create was not something I felt like I could represent.”
“For a lot of my life, I’ve been told to soften my dramatic voice, to blend in with other voices. And that works fine with traditional choir music. But it has stifled my individual abilities, and I have struggled greatly with working with a teacher to restore my projection and individual tone. Working on this song has helped a lot. Given Waddles’ permission, I am less afraid that my own voice will stick out. It is hard to get used to, but I’m really glad to have the opportunity, and I love hearing everyone else’s individual voices as well.”
“We need to connect to the music just as we hope others do when they hear us.”
“Being told to sing as ourselves when it came to our style and tone was something that I believe caused me to change how I was singing this song a lot. It was really nice to get to sing the song without having to put so much attention into blending. I’m struggling to describe this in words but I was just able to sing, able to make music. Overall I think a big part of this song is authenticity. We can’t fake this, it’s not going to work. We need to be able to sing with our own sound, move when we feel it, and let things flow from the heart. As a choir not very used to movement, in addition to many of the other stylistic elements that come with this piece, I think it makes sense to start off by being “taught” how to do this. But now that we’ve started in the right direction and have been given permission to sing differently than we are used to for this song, we will all need to continue to find what this song looks like for each and every one of us. We need to connect to the music just as we hope others do when they hear us.”
“The joy of this piece is evident in every word.”
“There was a lot that I personally felt that I learned from Brandon Waddles even just during the zoom. It seems as though every time we talk with him he teaches me something new. He taught us that we are honoring the people who were singing this song years and years ago when they still did not have freedom and we are a voice for them. We are sharing their stories, even though it might not be too obvious at first. We’re sharing all their love, their pain and heartbreak, and their happiness. The joy of this piece is evident in every word. So when we sing it we need to put all of our positive emotions into it and really show how beautifully emotional it can be. Dr. Waddles was teaching us to do small things here and there that changed the song tremendously. It added more heart and soul into this piece. The movement added on top of the singing helped us all to pick up our energy and have more fun with it.”
“Dr. Waddles helped me on Thursday break out of my shell. My whole choir life pretty much I have always been told don’t move, have good singer’s posture with a pretty smile on your face. That’s how I was trained so to speak but with Dr. Waddles instructions and Mr. Terribilini’s (student teacher) movement fun on Friday, I have been able to let go when I’m singing music and embrace my dancer side who every time she hears music wants to move and dance in some sort of way.”
“The idea of letting go, accessing a spot that you can pour from emotionally, is a new kind of experience for me.”
“For me personally, most of my musical experience has been through the lens or choral performance. In doing that style, there’s also that implicit structure. Obviously, the intent is still to express emotion in the music, but it is much more musically… timed and structured, is really the best way I can say it. The idea of letting go, accessing a spot that you can pour from emotionally, is a new kind of experience for me. I focus a lot on that structural aspect, and I’ve always struggled on expressing my emotion on my face and body, more so because my natural emotion is much more inward-focused. Expressing myself physically through music has always been this heaving step, but after our zoom I’ve begun to think of it differently. My emotion, my connection, it’s not something I should feel pushed to explain, it’s something that I should just allow to emanate. A lot of my musical life has been spent attempting to blend in and not draw attention to myself, and though the idea of expressing something so individual to me does challenge me, I’m very excited to welcome it with the knowledge that my friends and choir members are each drawing from the same individual well.”
“I liked how Dr. Waddles expressed how important it was for us to go where we needed to go during the song and not just a set place. I liked the idea of everyone going where they needed to go to achieve the sound they needed and not just trying to get a desirable sound from everyone going to one place.”
“Vulnerability was the key.”
“I had a slightly different experience in this zoom because I wasn’t able to sing, but I GOT to listen. Not only did the choir increase in volume, intensity, movement, and overall tone when Dr. Waddles was done with them, but I could emotionally FEEL an impact from the song. Vulnerability was the key. In softball we call it a coach’s “Resonating Indicator.” Something you’ve known all along but the insight didn’t hit you until you heard the words differently from someone else. Waddles was the coach, vulnerability was the indicator, and he hit the nail on the head.”
“The major takeaway I took from this zoom is that we are all our own voice and person, despite being in a choir where we are mainly intended to blend around. This really speaks to me because it is a different approach and it’s good to know the actual composer of the song thinks it should be sung in a more unique way instead of a choir like way. Thinking of the ending section as a pop song instead of a church section gave it an entirely different feeling for me, and I can hear the change in approach from the whole choir too which I think I like a lot better.”
“I think our conversation over zoom was very interesting, in how Dr. Brandon Waddles spoke so much about how each of us should get to where we need to be differently. I could compare it to the “Same Today” section of the song, where the notes are ever-changing, but the song and its overall message stays consistent, similar to God and how we view him, his image evolves with society, but the core message stays the same. It’s like that with how we need to get to where we need to be to sing this song, we all have different methods to reach the endpoint, but the general feeling we’re aiming for and end goal we’re trying to reach is the same. In fact, this does tie into how we are a largely white choir singing a spiritual rooted in black culture, while we are singing it somewhat differently, since we connect to it and approach it differently, the sentiment we are conveying is the same. Thanks to this zoom, we’ve been able to delve deeper into the discussion of the complexities of how we are singing this song. We’re all different, and individuals, but together, we are united under the same collective spirit.”
“The concept of being vulnerable in our singing is so refreshing and felt like an excuse to let go! It felt amazing having the permission to use my natural tone, and just to sing from my soul!”
Editing Our Spiritual Score
I was already thrilled when I received Brandon’s text indicating our spiritual had been picked up by Fred Bock Publishing Group/Gentry Publications, so when I found out it would be the first publication in a new series called “Rock My Soul” co-edited by Brandon Waddles and Dr. Brandon Boyd (University of Missouri), it sent me over the moon!
Interestingly, the first edition of our spiritual contains evidence of our editing involvement, as the second half of the first edition score contains errors we’d not yet rehearsed to discover prior to the first publishing deadline. Honestly, we decided it was more personal in its raw imperfection, and it will be special to have both editions as an artifact of the journey.
The Reality of Recording
Anyone who has attempted to record anything knows that it is not for the faint of heart. When our publisher requested a recording, we certainly hoped for one perfect capture out of the several attempts we planned, but I’m not certain there is such a thing. It was during this part of the process that our original intent was momentarily lost, and the thrill of the unexpected successes we were experiencing made us quick to forget our limitations. Gratefully, I snapped out of it in time to remind us all of the “why” as I advocated for the inclusion of our premiere on the publisher’s website. I imagine a perusing director with the passion for being a catalyst for change, wanting to be abreast of the “now” in choral music, uncertain about how to begin, reading our story.
Then, they hear and see both an audio example of its potential with a collegiate or adult level Black choir, juxtaposed with the raw video offering of the premiere from the commissioning advanced White choir from a high school. Add to it that it’s picked up by a specific publisher and kicks off a specific new choral series, and seeing that the whole team from student to director to composer to publisher joined hands in the fight?! Whew!! Add to cart and let’s go.
I imagine after that there will be reviews, requests for clinics, and future commissions, all with this greater goal in mind, an added depth and breadth to the unprecedented level and style of composition people have already come to expect from Brandon Waddles (the whole reason I chose him) or whomever comes next and continues the series. I imagine this going beyond typical business, an opportunity to vulnerably enter the deep end of the ocean where other publishing companies and advanced composers have not yet dared, and that the results may be culturally exponential and may even broaden the scope and ignite the trajectory of the entire series and set it apart from all the rest. And, maybe none of that will happen, but I sure wouldn’t want to be responsible for the missed opportunity.
One of the attempts was actually a 90 minute closed session one evening in our classroom, thanks to the INCREDIBLY technologically savvy Scott Hayward (my assistant choral director and right hand man). I am grateful that we had that time together, because it may have been the specific recipe for the choir to finally discover what their spiritual would sound like for specifically them.
I was in awe of these completely unexpected student responses, one who even had to come back to her thoughts the next day:
“I’m a perfectionist. I’ve known this for a while. If I’m doing something, I will continue to do it, over and over again, one more time, a dozen times, trying to achieve flawlessness. Last night, I had to let that go. I had to know that we could not keep going over and over as I would’ve liked, that it was not possible. I just had to give it the emotion it deserved. Speaking of, something happened while we were singing last night that I’ve never felt before. I didn’t have to think about moving- I just did it, all of me, and I forgot I was moving at all. I think I let go of how I control myself in public. I’m jittery and energetic and impulsive, and I try my best to keep all of that at bay. It’s become natural to me. But I was able to shed that last night, for one or two runs, and it was nice. I don’t know if I was moving to the rhythm or what I was moving or when, but my body and my brain became separate for the first time in a while. It was nice.”
“Every voice of reason is trying to tell us that we can’t do this, it won’t work out. But we sang louder than those voices.”
“LAST NIGHT: It would be an understatement to say that I found my person in this score tonight. I found myself in that score. I always knew that music could do incredible things far beyond what most people even realize or take the time to note but I’ve never experienced anything as transformative as this. As someone who ended up getting diagnosed with chronic migraines a year ago, experiencing constant streams of pain hitting my head to the point where it hurt to even think, it took a toll. I had been feeling like I lost myself somewhere along the way. Tonight I realized that I hadn’t found all of me yet. The old me was incomplete, it was a rough draft and who I am right now in this very moment is the best I’ve ever been. I found that in my sound. I developed a tone and a vibrato and a level of confidence and emotion that I never thought I’d see leave my lips. And for that I am forever grateful to this masterpiece of a piece, this masterpiece of a choir, a team, a family. Every single one of us sang with a sense of belonging. We belong in this room with one another singing this song that in theory we are drastically under qualified for. Every voice of reason is trying to tell us that we can’t do this, it won’t work out. But we sang louder than those voices. We could’ve sung louder than that darn fire alarm for crying out loud. And this intensity, strength, emotion, everything that makes this song great, comes from our vulnerability. We walked in that room and all 18 of us knew it was time. We had to look our fears in the eye, and push them aside as the whole world watched with bated breath. At least that is what it felt like. We were forced out of our comfort zone, but we made it. We sure made something alright. We made one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. Hands down we made the most transformative and impactful song I’ve ever experienced in my life. I sang today. Without my mask on. In the choir room. The same place I was when I got covid. The same place I was when the chronic head pain started. I took it off for this team. For this music. I remember at the start of the pandemic my mama told me something very important to me. “There are some things in life that are worth the risk.” This was one of them. It was worth the fear of vulnerability. For crying out loud, I don’t have a natural vibrato. That has never been a thing for me. I had one today. It was there and beautiful and strong and so strong it shocked and scared me all the same. But I didn’t want to stop. And after hearing the recording, in the moment I was in shock as well. The fact that that was us, all of us, was crazy. That we could sound that good was mind blowing, that I could. I wasn’t born with a naturally good singing voice. I wasn’t born with a choir like tone to my chords. I wasn’t born with good pitch nor was I born with a good ear for music and harmony. The only natural talent I have ever possessed was an understanding of human emotions. I’m an empath, I’m an actress, I’m the mom and therapist of practically any group I’m in. I was reborn tonight. Like a Phoenix from the ashes, we were flying. We were on fire, set the fire alarm off (whoops) and then rose up again. Only higher and farther this time. We flew so close to the sun but we knew our limits. Thank you for this experience. It has been truly life changing. I will cherish it for the rest of my days and am so grateful for you deciding to take a chance on us. To see the potential in us, or at least feign the confidence in order for us to get there. I could go on forever about this, and I will be for the rest of my life goodness those around will need earplugs because I don’t know if I’ll be shutting up much for the century and a half. It’s almost tomorrow morning so I’m going to get at least some sleep. (all last night)
TODAY: I’ve never spoken up as much as I did yesterday. I asked dozens of questions and suggested dozens of things. I was afraid that my questions were dumb, that they were a waste of time. But something in me said ask them anyway. We made some beautiful mistakes last night. Truly being musical is going beyond the score. It’s all the things that are in between the lines. We had to be vulnerable. You have to be vulnerable to lead with strength. You have to be vulnerable to try things, even when you know you have a good chance of failure. Every single one of us agreed to be vulnerable. To show our humanity on full display. This was a room where I felt the most comfortable and me I’ve ever felt in my life. This was also the room where I felt the most pain. Music can’t be forced. Emotion can’t be forced. Music is emotional release. We want to strive to do it better to best hone those emotions for good. Cathartic release. Every single one of us understood that we were important. We were not replaceable, we could not do this the same with even one person absent.”
“I knew that our energy would be different than that morning, based on the the time of day and the choices we would make, but the atmosphere in the room was better than I anticipated. I loved walking in and feeling the buzz of excitement and purpose in the air that fueled our singing, making the song come more alive than it has in the past.”
“I felt a mind blowing level of connection was in the room.”
“I’ve never felt closer as a choir.”
“Wow. You know that high you get after exercising? That is the only way I know how to describe it. What Reagan said was perfect, outside of the music I’ve never felt closer as a choir.”
“I have never EVER connected to this song the way I did last night. You’d look around the room and everyone was smiling and dancing and happy. The energy we had last night was crazy. It makes me so happy seeing everyone else so happy and connected with each other. The tenors last night hit notes we have never hit before, and I was beyond proud.”
“It was so wonderful hearing all of us work together and get excited to make something the best that it can be together!! We all were working so hard, and we just really pushed so hard, and it felt so good to get something that we all collectively felt proud of.”
“Choir is family.”
“Standing next to my fellow female tenors and creating such a different experience with recording this piece that was created especially for our choir was truly magical. We had worked so long on specific parts that tripped us up, and when we finally nailed those parts, we exchanged excited glances with giant smiles on our face. We go through life seeing pop stars record their songs in professional recording studios, and this experience is very similar I imagine. Except, we’re different from those artists, because we can’t take apart parts of our song and replace it with a better recording. So, to then hear a full refined and polished recording of our song after we sing is truly rewarding. I can’t name a time where I had as much singing a song as a choir as I did last night. I never wanted to leave. I wanted to stay in that moment forever. I’ve built a special kind of relationship with every single person in my choir, and this song is a reflection of that. I’ve never been able to say this confidentially until this year but: Choir is family.”
With Brandon Waddles Guidence, Our Spiritual Premiered at Carnegie Hall
In spite of every single possible odd, on Sunday, March 6, 2022, we premiered our spiritual at Carnegie Hall in New York City! It was inexplicably, almost supernaturally, beyond what anyone expected, and I was approached by Jeffery Redding (our National Youth Choir director), Greg Gilpin (who conducted the MultiGenerational Choir), fellow conductors from around the country who were in attendance, and even random audience members about the piece and its composer following our performance.
Listen to the Kings High School Chamber Choir Recording Session of “Sing All Along the Way”
Sing All Along the Way
Arranged by Brandon Waddles
Available for purchase from the Gentry Publications “Rock My Soul” Series.
The entire process has never once been about a perfect delivery. And yet, with Dr. Waddles’ guidance, we adjusted our focus toward vulnerability and humanism and it all culminated in a synergy of musical proof of the power of collaboration (TEAM!), and a product beyond expectation was achieved.
Brandon Waddles aforementioned promise to them held true, and as you will read in their responses, my kids will never forget that.
“I still haven’t really registered that it was a premiere because that piece of it doesnt really matter to me. What mattered to me was that I got to sing a song written for us with this choir.”
“Of course we had our share of hiccups. But they felt as insignificant as ever. Cause- LAUREN? WHAT? And the TENORS SLAYED??? And the BASSES???? Pop off Soprano 1s on those high notes. The clapping went surprisingly well. (Added by composer with only one rehearsal remaining prior to the performance.) I wish Dr. Waddles could’ve been there!
“Getting to premiere the Spiritual was so amazing.”
“Beyond words. It was cool to get to have this song that we could make our own, since we were the first ones to get to sing it. We got a blank slate to establish it however we wanted. And getting to record it and watch the process of it being developed and edited along the way, I got to learn so much from that. And it has become such a special song for all of us and brought us closer because of the vulnerability we shared with one another to bring the song to life.”
“The fact that we have a song written for us is awesome in of itself, but singing it on a world-renowned stage is another thing. I honestly can’t describe how fun and right the song felt on that stage. Even if there were mistakes here and there, they didn’t matter in comparison to what we accomplished.”
“When I saw in the playbill next to the title it said “World Premiere” is when it really hit me what was about to happen with us premiering it. I can only imagine what Dr. Waddles must be thinking, knowing that his song was premiered at Carnegie of all places.”
“We have a spiritual written SPECIFICALLY FOR US by THE BRANDON WADDLES!”
“I didn’t realize how big of a deal premiering our spiritual was until AFTER we premiered it. I mean, we have a spiritual written SPECIFICALLY FOR US by THE BRANDON WADDLES! A school in Southern Ohio HAS A SONG WRITTEN FOR THEM! No one had ever sung this before we did! No one had ever even heard of it! That’s AMAZING!”
Our Choir is Forever Grateful to Dr. Waddles for Turning Our Stage into a Platform
Our original agreement with Dr. Waddles was, in addition to the composition, that he would join us for one remote and one in person clinic. Since we wound up pressing for the premiere before he could visit, we modified that agreement to include him in our culminating concert for the year, and “our” composer joined us at the keys on our own stage for the final performance of our spiritual on May 14, 2022.
This was a level of involvement above and beyond what is typical for such a renowned composer, and I know it was a lot for him to add to an already mind boggling personal schedule. But the aforementioned disparate community in which my singers live was in attendance. We brought intentional diversity to the table in a way never before presented to them – through the music they have praised and enjoyed from their children for 18 years in what has come to be referred to as a choral dynasty.
It was an honor for my students to meet Dr. Brandon Waddles in person and beyond words to sing our spiritual with the master at the keys…but it was unprecedented for our audience to bear witness to the use of our stage as a platform for an entire team effort for cultural change.
To Dr. Waddles we are forever grateful.
And ah, the students’ reactions…I’m including quite a few of them here, as a reminder of their innocence and youth, and that if we never provide the opportunity for them to meet living composers, their hidden perceptions of them will remain reality.
Brandon Waddles draws people in and remains grounded, even with his great success.
“I was fully prepared going into Saturday to be intimidated by this genius musician before me. He has every right to be flashy and a bit aloof- he had an incredible education and has a lot of experience. But then this 5′ something sweet looking guy, built like a cross country runner, warm and inviting walks in wearing all black and some inexpensive fun glasses. Not exactly what you imagine when you think of a powerful jazz musician. Maybe it was my bad for assuming. But it was nice to realize that he’s just as human as I am. Humble, perhaps to a fault, soft-spoken, dedicated, surprised at his own success. He sort of looked like what I would be, if I went down the same path. (Especially with the shoes and jacket he wore for the performance- totally my style.) I felt connected to him the moment I walked in. He wasn’t rigid, and though reserved, wasn’t cold or distant. When he got on stage, he was there to create music, not to receive applause. It was beautiful to see that. I could really imagine him sitting at a piano and having fun with his compositions, as opposed to the powdered-wigged 18th century White aristocrat people think of when they hear the word “composer”. He was so natural at the piano, it re-inspired me to continue my studies. (Which I began because I was inspired by the pianist on “Jerusalem” by the Aeolians. Side note :)) I don’t plan on going into music. But what I saw last night was someone whose music wasn’t work- it was play, it was passion, it was an extension of his fingertips. He radiated music. In the way he spoke, the way he carried himself, in his artistry, of course. I want to be like that, even in my life outside of music. To draw people in and always stay grounded, even with great success. That is what music does, after all. It connects people and brings them together regardless of their circumstances. I find that I am not drawn to the untouchable stars of Hollywood. I am not inspired by the perfectly-crafted images of celebrities. I can’t connect to flippant millionaires that keep themselves a hundred floors above their fans. The best role models are people I can see myself in. I can see their personality surviving through the difficulty of fame. Those are the strongest people. It is difficult to be inviting when you’ve got so much to your name- I even notice that here in high school, as underclassmen fear talking to “juniors” and “seniors” I try to be warm to my underclassmen, but it’s natural for them to be nervous around me. I appreciate that he keeps his feet (clad with magnificent footwear) on the ground. It makes him accessible. I would like to hear his critiques and reactions to our performance. What he would’ve wanted differently, how we contradicted his vision of how it would sound.”
“I have learned and gained so much from this song [Sing All Along the Way], it has truly been a turning point and defining moment for me.”
“It has been an amazing experience throughout all of our time working with Dr. Waddles and it was just so cool getting to meet him in person. Getting to meet him in person was like getting to truly see and meet the human behind our score. We were able to see him as another human instead of the larger than life persona that goes along with all of his accomplishments. He was so humble, and after talking with him he just seemed like such a down to earth and approachable person. I just am so thankful that we have been able to have this experience working with Dr. Brandon Waddles. I have learned and gained so much from this song, it has truly been a turning point and defining moment for me. I found my own voice by being forced to sing as myself with this song. I learned how to feel the music and let me be moved by music. When I think back to the stiff singing I used to do, I can’t believe I used to be so stiff and unmoving when I would sing. The journey of this song and what I have learned from it has just carried over into so many other parts of my life. The lessons I learned will stay with me for the rest of my life and I am just eternally grateful for this experience. There is just so much I have gained and will cherish, so much that goes beyond words and has been encapsulated in that moment Saturday night. Thank you, Dr. Waddles, for all that you have given to us with this song and experience. There are nowhere near enough words for me to be able to explain how much this experience meant to me.”
“I don’t even know where to begin. Saturday was freaking cool. To get to work with the man who wrote a song for us in person was awesome. To have our own song is crazy cool. Just simply getting to hear him play was beautiful, I could sit there and listen to him play all day it was amazing.”
“I LOVE HIS ENERGY!!!!!”
“He’s just such a cool dude and hearing him play!!!! OH MY GOD!!!!!!! The way he pianoed it up was amazing with all the trills and flourishes, I smiled so much it hurt when we were performing and I really hope he found our heart in our song. It was awesome to actually be in the room with him, get to feel this buoyancy in his direction and personal attitude and his attitude towards music. I love his tattoos. That is all. :)”
“The spiritual felt different with him there. Still the same energy but a different synergy that was there because of his presence and piano. Really the only reflection I have on meeting him was the fact that he was way more chill than I expected. It was a welcome change of pace to be honest.”
“He was nothing that I imagined, not sure what I was expecting but it wasnâ€™t that. He has such amazing energy and presence and I am so honored that I got to meet him.”
“He was a lot different than I thought he would be! Chiller, cooler, smaller. All in all a great experience though! Listening to him play was wonderful and enhanced our group sound.”
“Having Dr. Waddles there on the piano in that awesome yellow jacket was truly amazing, along with the inclusion of additional notes on the keys in the song. It was just a fascinating experience.”
“I don’t know what I expected, but I feel like I expected him to have a more, large and commanding presence, but he was far more laid back and relaxed. He did change how I sang the spiritual, though. Before, I had a more smooth and connected approach to the song, but after his instruction, it changed to something with a bit more bounce and jump, if that makes sense. He also had really good shoes, ones to rival Mr. Adamson’s, even, and it takes some cool shoes to rival Mr. Adamson, so props to him on that (really his whole outfit was great).”
“When I first saw Brandon Waddles walk in, I was completely caught off guard. He was not at all what I expected. But, despite his height and his style, he brings a very big presence when he walks in a room. He seems to know his worth and value, he seems to know his strength and his weakness. He automatically had my respect. But the best part of being with Waddles was him messing up at the piano. Besides it being genuinely hilarious, his mistake reminds us that he’s a human too. Sometimes we get caught up in praising composers as literal gods, but sometimes forget that they’re humans too. They mess up, even at songs they freaking wrote and have been practicing. I felt it was a good bonding moment between him and the Chamber Choir.”
“It was just absolutely amazing that we were able to meet Dr. Waddles on a personal level.”
“It was a very full circle and very cool moment for me. I just couldn’t believe that this song has come that far, and it is just crazy to me that we got to sing along to the piano of the composer of our spiritual. It was so crazy to me when he told me that I had a nice voice after we sang it for the first time, and it was just something I was scared about and it meant so much to me to feel as though I did it justice. It was just absolutely amazing that we were able to meet Dr. Waddles on a personal level that I never would have imagined.”
The Work is Never Done
We must resist any concept of “arrival.” This was one experience with an exceptional story, but it was a beginning, not an end. There was discomfort along the way. Discomfort in me, in the composer, in the students, even in the broader community. For example, as trite as it seems to include in such a written piece, one social media moment was poignant for me: an acquaintance of Dr. Waddles put a laughing emoji on the photo of him with us at our final concert. Perhaps it was just an accident. Perhaps they hit the wrong button. Or, perhaps, a frustrated person of color saw a White suburban choir with its token Black composer. As I considered that possibility, I honestly felt no anger, only sadness. It was removed, but I’m grateful to have seen it before it was, because it gave me just a tiny glimpse of what it must feel like to be seen for your skin rather than the heart inside it. And, it reminded me that if my entire intent behind this commission and this journey was truly genuine, I can never put down this particular baton. If the trajectory of behavior of even one human was changed as a result of this effort, it was worth it. But my Hope(s) are and have always been that our spiritual will now take wing and and impel incremental cultural change beyond my wildest Dreams.
The 2021-2022 Kings High School Chamber Choir
(Left toRight) Abigail Noble, Sofia Canino, Emma Hoolehan, Mckenzie Blair, Amelia Ballard, Emily Lynch, Kirienne Hodges, Blake Rainey, Jake Allgeier, Reagan Milthaler, Thaddeus Brockwell, Joedy Burnside, Luke Royer, Amanda Woosley, Sammy Patterson, Katie Dykhuizen, Bella Cantrall, and (our soloist) Lauren Sawhook.
Also pictured are Dr. Brandon Waddles, Hope Kesling Milthaler (director), and Scott Hayward (assistant director & audio technician).
Sing All Along the Way - SATB
Brandon Waddles special gift of arranging spirituals will make your choir want to “sing ll along the way.”
A Note to Our Composer, Dr. Brandon Waddles
Ah, Lord Christian. What can one say in response to the time, energy, and heart you gave to this composition, to this endeavor, to me, and to my students? Grazie. Danke. Merci. Gracias. Efharisto. Nope, still not enough. To you, my friend, I make three promises:
Promise #1 – I will support your continued growth in the area of discernment by issuing the following statement:
To any conductor who decides to give this sort of thing a go, please understand that this was no typical commission experience. Dr. Waddles was certainly compensated, but we all know that composers are overworked and underpaid, especially in the current climate. Remember, if you want to take a journey like this, it will first require the composer to be physically and mentally able to accept your invitation. Second, should they accept, you must be able and willing to foot their bill. Lastly, it is important that you let them know what they’re getting themselves into from the start (something my poor partner very graciously learned as we went), so that everyone is on the same page with regard to both the financial and the physical commitment being made. This journey was what Brandon and I would refer to as a very “violent” venture. It was worth it…but it was a lot.
Promise #2 – I will forever find and teach others to find the human in every score.
With this one sentence, you have changed the trajectory and character of the breadth and depth of the education that will take place in my personal studies, in my rehearsal room, and beyond. I, and all who benefit, are forever in your debt.
Promise #3 – I will never put down This Particular Baton.
Hope Kesling Milthaler (b.1977) has served as the Director of High School Choirs, AP Music Theory Instructor, and 7-12 Music Department Chair for the Kings Local School District in Kings Mills, Ohio since 2004. She holds a double Masters Degree in Choral Conducting and Music Education from the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music, as well as a Bachelor of Music Education degree from Wright State University. She grew up in New Lebanon, Ohio, where she graduated in 1995 and eventually began her teaching career alongside her beloved mentor, Mr. David L. Keener. Her greatest motivations are her two sons, Reagan and Harrison, who will both sing under her proud direction in the 22-23 Kings HS Chamber Choir. Hope’s favorite place to be is in front of her choirs in any capacity, and her passion is using her influence and understanding of music as a vehicle for establishing a genuine, safe family atmosphere in her program and beyond, without sacrificing even one moment of musical excellence. She relentlessly cultivates positivity, character, and progress in her singers, and remains committed to providing boundless, personal musical experiences partnered with challenging repertoire for all of her ensembles.