Body, mind, spirit, voice

August 21, 2007

Anton Armstrong stands in front of the adult choir of Seventh and James Baptist Church during a June Wednesday night rehearsal. He's leading this practice session as a demonstration for church music ministers and school choir directors attending a Baylor summer choral directing workshop. He purses his lips in thought, then his eyes sharpen as an analogy comes to mind. "Sing like Julia Child," he suggests to the sopranos and altos, referring to television's best-known French chef whose distinctive, flutey accent endeared her to fans. "Shape your mouth like this"--he drops his jaw and tightens his mouth into an "O"--"and sing A-A-A," he says, his vowels taking on an arched, deeper tone as the choir follows his lead. "Don't sing like Edith Bunker," he continues, shifting to another television personality known by baby boomers. Armstrong's mouth flattens into a flat smile and his vowels turn screechy. "E-E-E--not that." The mouth purses again. "A-A-A--that." His arms go up, his hands and fingers ready to stroke and caress tones and phrases into beautiful singing. He has the choir repeat the last passage and, as the women sing in their Julia Child voices, the sound appreciably shifts into the floating, ethereal lines Armstrong wants for the anthem.
More tactics follow, duly noted by workshop students. To get sopranos to lighten their stress on a phrase, Armstrong asks them to hold their palms up, as if catching their notes as they sing them. To loosen singers from a rigid, mechanical rhythm, the director tells them to sway as they sing. His arsenal of strategies, his philosophies of singing and his success in leading the world-renowned St. Olaf Choir of the Lutheran school St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., make Armstrong one of the top 10 choral directors in the nation, perhaps one of the top five. The combination of the man and his work led him to Baylor University this spring as the winner of the Robert Cherry Award for Great Teaching. 
Then, as Baylor music students and faculty repeatedly learned this spring, the church choir gets a reminder from Armstrong on what it's all about. "This is why you're singing," he says, finger pointing above his head. "To give praise to God in beautiful music. We're not here to entertain the congregation."
The youngest son of an immigrant tailor and his wife, Armstrong found music his key to a wide world, singing for a pope and a president. 
Armstrong's own story underlined the transforming role music can play in a life. His father, William, immigrated to New York City in 1933 as a carpenter from the Caribbean island of Antigua, but the racial prejudice he encountered in labor unions led him instead into tailoring. Armstrong, born when both his father and mother, Esther, were in their 40s, followed older brothers Garry and William. "Dad couldn't sing, but he could whistle in tune. ... I grew up with hymns at home. Dad would be whistling, Mom would be singing hymns--Sunday mornings are pleasant memories," he recalls. 
Witnessing an American Boychoir concert galvanized his interest in singing, and in eighth grade Armstrong won selection to the American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J. His two years with the choral group opened his eyes to horizons far beyond New York. The choir sang for Pope Paul VI and President Richard Nixon; it also toured the South and exposed the young Armstrong to segregation as well as to his director's principled stand against it. In the American Boychoir, Armstrong saw hard work and excellence transcend skin color. "When I went to American Boychoir, they valued me for the content of my heart and mind and for my work ethic," he says. "They didn't deny me anything because I was an African-American." 
Armstrong studied voice at St. Olaf College, then earned a master's degree in choral music from the University of Illinois and a doctorate of choral conducting from Michigan State University. He taught choral conducting at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., beginning in 1980, then returned to St. Olaf College in 1990 and has led the acclaimed 75-voice St. Olaf Choir since that time, only the fourth man to head the a cappella ensemble since its founding in 1912. The director and choir have toured Scandinavia, Europe, Australia and the United States, singing for President George W. Bush and his wife, national and international choral organizations and on the syndicated radio program "A Prairie Home Companion."
The St. Olaf Choir may be best known for their annual St. Olaf Christmas program, for which Armstrong serves as artistic director. He also works extensively with children's and youth ensembles, leading the Oregon Bach Festival Youth Choral Academy and the Troubadours, a 30-voice boys ensemble of the Northfield Youth Choirs. Threaded through all of his choral activities, no matter the level, is a mantra Armstrong attributes to his mentor, children's music educator Helen Kemp: "Body, mind, spirit, voice. It takes the whole person to sing and rejoice."
Armstrong's selection as the 2006 Cherry Award-winner not only drew academic attention to Baylor, but attracted students who came to the university to study under him. Choral conducting graduate student Joshua Brown, 23, came from Dallas Baptist University largely because of Armstrong's presence on campus this spring. "I followed him everywhere with a video camera," he jokes. Music composition major Margaret Crites, a transplant from Hanover, Germany, encountered Armstrong through the Concert Choir. "He was pretty harsh at the beginning. He wanted the choir to know he's down to business," she remembers. "It was like an elementary school teacher who seems mean at the start of the year, but later you realize she loves you." 
And the chance to study under one of the nation's leading choral directors persuaded 52-year-old Lynn Shaw Bailey to move to Waco from Atlanta with her husband and join her two sons Paul and Mark as a Baylor student. Bailey, a freelance composer and arranger, sampled the School of Music's classes in choral singing, children's choir ministry, jazz, theory and private lessons in composition and piano. "I can't say enough about the Baylor School of Music," she says. She even got to teach Armstrong something, introducing him to a Baylor tradition. "Dr Pepper floats--I got him hooked on Dr Pepper floats for Dr Pepper Hour," she laughs. 
Armstrong took the opportunity of his Cherry Award lecture to speak on the calling of choral work, and he takes seriously the spiritual dimension of his own vocation. "Our art needs to be serving others," he says. "For people of faith, we are called upon to re-create with the same beauty as God created. ... We are called to create positive things to give life meaning." The choral director says service and excellence were modeled for him from boyhood. "I grew up with the thought that when you volunteered, you gave the very best." As the Baylor choirs that sang under his direction this spring learned, Armstrong's demand for tonal precision and verbal communication speaks to why people of faith sing: to praise God and to share a message with audiences.
Those two emphases underlie Armstrong's defense of traditional church music against the contemporary praise music at a growing number of churches, though he's quick to note that both camps have much to teach the other. "Praise and worship music is more shallow, but it's presented with an energy and enthusiasm that's too often lacking in our choirs," he says. "Both have to learn from each other." At the same time, he fears the growing shift to more contemporary songs is severing a connection to hymns and anthems that taught believers the faith. It was that concern that led the St. Olaf Choir conductor eight years ago to record with his choir two CDs of those songs, Great Hymns of Faith, Vols. 1 and 2.
He didn't realize then how that decision would touch his own life. Days before Armstrong was to begin his work at Baylor, his mother died after a long struggle with dementia. Armstrong remembers one visit last December during which his mother was irritable and agitated, not recognizing her youngest son. Armstrong thought music might calm her and put Great Hymns of the Faith on the CD player. When the choir came to "Beautiful Savior," the St. Olaf Choir's signature hymn, his mother visibly changed. "That was the first solo she could remember singing in church," he recalls. "She sat up in her wheelchair and said, 'I know that. I really know that,' and began to talk with me like nothing had happened before." Armstrong pauses. "That gift of music helped bring my mother back."
A good choral director, like any good teacher, changes lives. In his career, Armstrong has had the chance to change lives of students on every level, from young people to college students, from music majors to community leaders who simply like to sing. "The most basic instrument is the voice," he explains. "You're tapping the very nerve of being when you sing." Choral singing adds a layer of skill and demands to those needed for a soloist. "In this age of instant gratification, a choir teaches self-discipline and self-awareness," Armstrong says. "It builds community. It builds a type of introspection. It requires a discipline that's often lacking in our society." That communal spirit and discipline is reflected in a long-standing St. Olaf Choir tradition: Members hold hands when they sing.
For those who participate and persevere, whether in community or church groups, the rewards of singing with others are lasting. "I do believe singing is a lifelong experience," he says. "My mother sang in the choir until she was 80. That kept her young." 
Great teachers learn, too, and both Armstrong and students drawn to Baylor because of him found much to praise in Baylor's choral music program and directors such as Donald Bailey, Jeffrey Ames, Michele Henry and Randall Bradley. 
"I've been impressed with the depth of talent at Baylor University," Armstrong says. "Donald Bailey is a wonderful servant leader." A man whose life and passion is choral music, Armstrong found that his time at Baylor expanded his circle of friends and colleagues. "I go back to Minnesota with very good feelings about this place."