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Music! Music! Music!

By John Bryant ′11
Photography by Justin Fox Burks

The Rhodes Singers at the National Cathedral in February

It’s Café Eclectic, a local hot spot, famous for its diced potatoes. The place is packed with the young, the old, the eating. A denomination of Rhodes student musicians stands in its proud corner, dapper and awkward, swaddled in guitar straps and garlands of brass. I hear the nervous plink of strings and keys, warm air coiled through trombones and trumpets. An announcement, a shuffle of hooves, and music begins.

Emmanuel John-Teye ’13 performs with the Rhodes Jazz Ensemble at the Mose Allison concert in January in the McCallum Ballroom The awkwardness stops being awkward. Because these Rhodes kids, these Rhodes kids can really play. The music is loose, slack and electric. It sounds very—I search for the perfect word—jazzy.

“Because it’s jazz,” someone offers.

Yes, the Rhodes Jazz Band has indeed gotten more ambitious. It’s spread off campus, it’s ready to announce to Memphis, “We’re here.”

A bluesy rapport gets going at Café Eclectic. We strike a deal with the band—they play, and we applaud, with feeling. They get to rocking. Old jazz standards accented with students’ own untested riffs, carousels of solos, flights of fancy smoothed back into melody.

The Rhodes MasterSingers Chorale and Memphis Symphony Orchestra in concert at Evergreen Presbyterian Church in April People start to sway. I dance, unashamed. We begin to think the song’s over. The crowd’s about to clap. But the piano comes back alive. Emmanuel John-Teye ’13 pilots a neck of ivory, threatens to lap the speed of sound. My ears sweat to hear, to understand, to cope with lightspeed beauty. It’s inconceivable. His fingers relax from a hard flurry to a mere splash on the keys. In the interim, I run my eyes across his face. And I have to laugh. Because Emmanuel, Emmanuel is not even sweating. Emmanuel is just smiling.

He laps round the melody in a run of arpeggios; the place erupts. People stand to laud him.

A few more songs, and much more jazz applause later, and the Rhodes Jazz Band has sated the crowd’s every jazz desire. Everyone’s on their feet, ecstatic, eclectic, sated. The musicians retire their instruments in snug stalls of fur, snap cases shut.

I run up to Emmanuel, earnest tape recorder in a hand that sweats.

“I had no idea you were a music major!” I pant.

He smiles, pats me on the back—the run of my spine feeling musical now.

“Nah, man. Biology.”

I’m incredulous. We swap stories. He’s from Ghana, and I’m not interesting.

“How’d you hear about Rhodes?”

“My high school pre-calc teacher recommended Rhodes since I was looking for a good pre-med school situated in a ‘musically-nourished’ city.’”

“And then you just joined a Rhodes Jazz Band?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Perhaps Emmanuel is the exception at Rhodes. But actually, he’s not. The fact is, Rhodes attracts Emmanuels from all over. Not just because Memphis is the home of the blues, not to mention and rock ’n’ roll, but because as a liberal arts college, Rhodes offers what many schools do not—the chance to fold robust musical expression into the traditional academic experience. Emmanuel better articulates this himself, “I always felt like I wanted to be a musician. But I also wanted to be doctor. And I was torn between the two. And then I came to Rhodes.”

How was this possible? Perhaps Rhodes Singer/History major Emily Main ’12 says it best: “Rhodes knows we’re interested in lots of different things. They know that’s why we chose a liberal arts college. And so they give us every opportunity to do those things, and that’s what I love about it.”

True, the Rhodes student is a peculiar species. Part mammal, part Rhodes student, part sound aficionado. And Rhodes, with its special emphasis on cultivating the whole human person, seems to draw in these renaissance men and women at a rate that can only be described as allegro. On any temperate day, one can be walking on the lawn outside Paul Barret Jr. Library and run earfirst into a sonata or guitar riff, soared from the walls of Hassell Hall. On that given day, one could then peek in to find the sound’s owner— an Economics major!

Fooled again!

There is not only room for individual musical brilliance like Emmanuel. Rhodes indeed has a true feast of options for any student, especially those wanting to make beautiful, corporate noise, if not in the Rhodes Jazz Band, then perhaps in Rhodes Singers, or the Rhodes Orchestra, or one of the two Rhodes a cappella groups, or in one of the abundance of music ensembles offered. Or, if you’re a bit of a loner—one or two of the abundance of private lessons offered. Quick, I’ll give you a tour.

First, the Rhodes Singers.

“To talk about what it was like to sing in the Washington National Cathedral would be a kind of great sacrilege. It was just too beautiful for words,” says Joseph Hiller ’11, one of the Rhodes Singers who performed in DC in late February.

William Skoog, professor of Music, department chair and director of choral studies, is just as unhelpful: “It was absolutely exhausting, absolutely exhilarating, all at the same time. That’s all I can say. It was almost like we got home and said, ‘Did that really just happen?’”

But it did.

In fact, the Rhodes Singers gave five performances in Washington, DC, in February 2011, two of which were “mountaintop experiences,” according to Professor Skoog: one in the Washington National Cathedral, the other at Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, an unprecedented privilege for any choir.

The Rhodes College Orchestra plays themes from popular films at Rhodes Night at the Movies III in McCallum Ballroom Following those ultimate gigs, Skoog will usher the choir to greater feats, to the Salzburg Choral Festival, singing also in Prague and Vienna, in 2012. How has he done this in such a short time, with a group of 60 busy college students, only a handful of whom are music majors? One student thinks he has the answer pinned down: “Because Skoog’s awesome.”

Professor Skoog, perhaps, has his own opinion: “What these students have discovered here,” he says, “is that nonmusic majors can also do something profoundly musical.”

But it would be unfair to say the Rhodes Singers’ success hasn’t been shaped by Professor Skoog’s special ethic:“I like to say singing in a choir is passion fueled by discipline. Now, discipline by itself is very important, but it’s also very dry. Passion by itself can also be very exciting, but if it lacks discipline, it doesn’t make for very good music. It’s both. It takes both.” But, he says, “One of the great things about being at Rhodes is that students already value that coming here. They already come ready to work pretty hard academically. And they bring that high level of intelligence and that high level of discipline to the musical experience. That’s why it’s so great here.”

In addition to passion and discipline, to these students Rhodes Singers is a kind of second fraternity or sorority, albeit one that gets to sing at cathedrals. Indeed, what is generally agreed upon is that one of the things that makes doing music at Rhodes so special is you get to do it with all of your friends. The students will tell you: More often than not, the people you sing with are the people you eat with, and get mad at for not doing the dishes.

“It really bridges the gap between all people. On your first day, there are people in choir whom you’ve never seen before, or maybe seen once in class. But this one thing is so big and so impactful that we all become friends,” says Elizabeth Moak ’11.

Harpists, left to right, Leerin Campbell, Mae Gillespie ’12, Suzanne East ’14, Kelly Dodson, Ye Zheng ’13 and Linlin Qiu ’13 perform at the Rhodes Chamber Music concert in April at Tuthill Performance Hall “I think we all love music and love the connection we have to each other and to the music. We get to come to rehearsal and perform wonderful, enjoyable music that builds community with us. And then, we get to give that gift to everyone else. It’s wonderful,” rejoins Bailey Romano ’12.

Tiffany France ’11 adds, “There’s something special about getting together with people with whom you don’t have a ton in common, but you come together and you make this beautiful sound together that you can’t make without one another, and it creates this wonderful relationship of trust.”

It also creates a kind of stress relief.

“On any day, things can go terribly wrong, but then you get to sing,” says Romano.

Another says, “For me, choir is a very needed release from all the other things Rhodes has that keeps us busy. I mean, it’s hard work, but somehow it’s not work.”

But Rhodes Singers is not only for the rarified ether of sonata sirens or precocious vocalists. Novices mingle with crooners of pedigree, in a community open to those who love to make joyful music. As Tiffany France says, “If you can sing, and love to sing, you can be in Rhodes Singers.” Joseph Hiller agrees: “Before Rhodes Singers, I only sang in the car. I had a few friends who said I was good enough to try out. I thought that sounded crazy, because I’m not professionally trained. But I auditioned and got in. (Auditions are for placement only.) The experienced members were amazing in helping me along. It was one of the most joyful communities I’ve been in at Rhodes.”

The members of the Rhodes College Orchestra would say they feel the same way, even if they wouldn’t sing it. In fact, in its three years headed by Dr. Joseph Montelione, the orchestra has leapfrogged from a threadbare 15 members to a rotund cadre of 45.

This statistic floored freshman cellist Stephen Leavelle upon coming to Rhodes. “For a college this size,” he says, “to have a student orchestra at all is, first of all, amazing. And for that same orchestra to have 40 plus members is, second of all, astonishing.”

Professor Montelione credits that success to the unique admittance tenet at Rhodes: “At lots of schools, if you’re not a music major, you can’t audition for the orchestra. But that’s what makes us different. If you’re a student at Rhodes, have a passion for and a commitment toward musical excellence, you’re in.”

It’s more than that democratic ethic that makes the orchestra work. Again, the typical orchestra student is not just some uncommitted ragamuffin.

“We all really want to be there,” posits percussionist Josh Fuchs ’11. “Believe me, at a school as rigorous as Rhodes, we really, really want to be there.”

Montelione agrees. In fact, the typical orchestra student is one who, like Josh Fuchs, will one day do great things outside of music, but in the interim cannot stand to give up the instrument he loves. As Montelione says, “The core value of the orchestra is, everybody’s there because they want to be there. Everyone’s there because they love music. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Biology major, English major or Physics major. When you walk into the rehearsal room, you’re a musician.”

Rutendo Tsoka ’12 and members of the Commercial Music Ensemble perform their spring concert in the Lair The passion’s grown. This year, the Rhodes College Orchestra traveled to Chicago for a whirlwind tour. The orchestra also performs two concerts a semester, the fan favorite of which is “Rhodes Night at the Movies,” a tribute to popular film scores. “It’s exciting,” says Montelione, “There’s this sense of pride and tradition of excellence in the orchestra now. We’re performing music from the standard orchestral repertoire in concerts on and off campus, incorporating more chamber music, and we no longer rely heavily on non-student musicians to assist in our concerts.”

How has the Rhodes College Orchestra not only grown in size, and excellence? One word, again: community. Josh Fuchs notes, “At a school this size, you already know all the people you play with. And there’s just something special about playing good music with people you know.” Professor Montelione also feels the difference: “You have to understand, when you perform as a musician in an orchestra, it’s not necessarily about being able to play the right notes and the right rhythms. It’s about one’s ability to communicate and connect with other people on a higher level. The bonding experiences that occur on campus and on our tours are evident in concert performances. If you’re able to connect on a human level, on a personal level, that just makes communicating on a musical level that much easier, that much more powerful.”

But what, you may ask, if a student is too busy for such activities? What if you’re not ready to get into the tidal swing of music? What if you want only to dip your toe in the eddy of rhythm, stay ankle deep in the whirlpool of musical expression? Thankfully at Rhodes, there is a full spectrum of opportunities available to all students. They can take private voice or instrumental lessons of their choice, taught by an aggregate of the best musicians in this musical city.

“It’s great,” says Daniel Gilham ’12, taker of private guitar lessons. “Rhodes brings the best musicians in the city to you, and all you have to do is walk to class on Thursday.”

Also, for the relaxed and talented, there are two a cappella groups on campus, the all-guys Woolsocks, and the all-girls Lipstick on Your Collar. For Matt Walker, the more laid-back tenets of Woolsocks were a perfect fit for his talent: “I wanted to sing, but couldn’t and didn’t want to join an official group. Strict outfits, man. Couldn’t handle it.”

For Matt, the 12-member, fourpart a cappella group was a happy contract between working hard and hanging out. “You get to push yourself musically, in a relaxed creative outlet. It’s also just a blast being able to sing a mixture of doowop and modern pop.”

For Carrie Lee, leader of Lipstick on Your Collar, the feeling is mutual. “We’re really just singing for fun. It’s entirely student run. We pick all our songs ourselves, and we arrange some of them ourselves. It’s for people who are passionate about music and having fun. We get to perform for the college, but the best thing about Lipstick is the good mood you’re in at the end of practice because you and everyone else have just spent an hour and a half enjoying yourself, singing songs you like.”

Whatever the endeavor, music is happening at Rhodes.

 

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