This morning I’d love to share two songs with you – “For the Beauty of the Earth” performed by a combined men’s chorus in Taiwan, and “Breathe in Hope” performed by Vox Grata women’s choir in Nashville.
I sang John Rutter’s “For the Beauty of the Earth” with my high school choir, and the melody still finds me from time to time. It gives me hope when such words and music find their way around the world and back to us.
Jeanette MacCallum, Director of Music Ministries at Second Presbyterian Church and conductor of Vox Grata, offers another piece of music for our moment in time. I asked her to send me a link to a performance by Vox Grata, and she was happy to…
“The piece is entitled “Breathe in Hope” by the young, female, American composer Dale Trumbore. The text of the piece was written by Maya Jackson and was originally posted on Maya’s Facebook page. Essentially, the text is a response to gun violence. It speaks of the speed with which we… “move on” after a violent and unjust death; how soon we forget and are absorbed by our own concerns and lives…”
(Led by Co-conductor Susan Kelly.)
I’m happy to chat with Jeanette at Bacon today…
Hi Jeanette! Thank you so much for being here to share your perspectives and some recommendations!
Before we talk about the weeks and months ahead for Vox Grata, I’d love to get to know you. And share some of your background with Bacon readers. (Thank you, Carla Lovell, for the kind introduction!)
I understand that you grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. What kind of a child were you? And – how would you describe your childhood?
Yes, my parents chose for us to reside in Princeton for its educational advantages and rich cultural climate. My father commuted to New York each day, traveling a full 3 hours round trip so that my brother and I might benefit from all that Princeton had to offer. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I realized what an enormous sacrifice that was! My mother did all the heavy lifting of parenting during my father’s long work weeks, taking my brother and I to our piano lessons and rehearsals, church activities, etc. As a family, we enjoyed outdoor activities on the weekends, especially canoeing, hiking, camping, and swimming. Some of my fondest memories are of family backpacking and camping trips to my father’s family home in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. By the time my brother Phil and I were in high school, our daily lives were dominated by our musical pursuits – practicing the piano, lessons and performances, and a great deal of choral singing. I am incredibly lucky that my parents made our musical educations such a priority!
Were you interested in music from a very early age?
My piano lessons began around age 6. I began singing in church choir as an elementary student. Later, I sang in my school choirs. That is where I really fell in love with choral singing. I was fortunate to sing in the world-renowned Princeton High School Choir, an ensemble which often collaborated with the choirs from Westminster Choir College (directly across the street!) and we toured all over the world. During my junior year of high school, our choir spent three weeks performing at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC. These experiences were formative for me, ultimately influencing my career choice as a choral director.
I believe you came to Nashville to go to Belmont, right? What was Belmont like at the time? How would you describe your college experience?
Yes, I arrived in Nashville in January 1982 to attend Belmont (it was called Belmont College at the time). After pursuing a piano performance degree at Eastman School of Music, I was ready to make a major change in my college education. Having focused so intensely on piano during high school and early college, I was kind of exhausted. I could not find the energy and motivation that such a degree program required. So I became an accounting major at Belmont! At the time, Belmont was described as a “suitcase college,” with many students commuting to campus. Even many of the dormitory students fled on the weekends, going home to their families. I remained in my quiet single room, studying and completing assignments. It certainly wasn’t a typical college experience, but it was just fine by me! After working as an accountant for a number of years, I went to graduate school (also at Belmont) to get my masters in church music. I found my way back to music after I realized I really wanted to direct choirs.
From 2002 to 2012, you served as Director of Choral Activities at St. Cecilia Academy here in Nashville. Your choirs and individual singers were extremely successful, and the group performed at Carnegie Hall and on tours in Italy and Canada. What do you remember most about those years? Wow I’m not sure that’s even a fair question. Here are a few others: what are you most proud of in your time there? What did you learn about yourself, and others?
Mostly I remember the girls. There were some extremely talented singers at St. Cecilia and they worked hard to achieve their potential. It was such a joy to witness their success. I learned that I most enjoyed teaching high school aged students. I learned that the students really wanted to work hard, to excel and to be held to the highest standards. More than anything, I wanted to instill in them a desire for lifelong singing.
Now you serve as Director of Music Ministries at Second Pres in Nashville and founder and director of Vox Grata. Please tell us about the origin of Vox Grata…
After I left my position at St. Cecilia Academy (SCA), I missed working with treble choirs. While at SCA, I had developed extensive knowledge of the repertoire composed for high voices and there were many compositions I yearned to study and conduct. The idea for Vox Grata grew out of that longing. I also believe that choirs provide singers the unique opportunity to express genuine gratitude through the music that they sing. I was fortunate to know many joyful women who, out of their own privilege, had a desire to sing for the benefit of others. This was the basis for the choir’s mission:
Vox Grata is comprised of joyful women who, out of gratitude for the fullness of their own lives, possess a desire to sing together for the benefit of others. We perform repertoire that expresses a uniquely feminine spirit, especially works that promote the best interests of women in society.
Vox Grata (“Grateful Voices”) performed its first concert in January 2013 with approximately 15 singers. We are now nearly 50 voices strong! One of my greatest joys is that a number of my former students (now working adults and mothers) have joined Vox Grata. Vox Grata is the only auditioned community women’s choir of its kind in the Nashville area and we’ve definitely profited from the population growth in Music City!
What has the last couple of months been like for you, at Second Pres and Vox Grata?
There has been no choral singing in my life since mid-March. Rehearsals, concerts and in-person Sunday services came to a grinding halt. I think one of the most difficult aspects of this time is the uncertainty that comes with it. We had no time to prepare for it and none of us really knows how long it will be before we can safely sing together again. At Second Presbyterian, we continue to strive to plan and deliver worship experiences via the internet. Though we have faced challenges, we’ve learned that this new form of creativity opens the door to experience the divine in refreshing ways. Though Vox Grata is not rehearsing, our board is flexing its muscles in looking ahead and planning some very exciting future initiatives. We have much to look forward to!
When will people be able to sing together again? (I know – no one knows. Best guess?)
This question really frightens me. I’m afraid that choirs will be very limited in size until we have a vaccine. Many choirs are comprised of individuals who are considered “vulnerable.” One of the things I love most about Vox Grata is that we have singers ranging in age from 18 to 75. The intergenerational connections that form are rare and meaningful. I don’t really want to think about any of these dear ones being excluded from singing with us, but this may happen for a while for their safety and well-being.
What is your state of mind?
The first few weeks in quarantine, I was reminded of the transition between the end of a school year and the beginning of summer. When I was teaching, I put in long hours right up until the last day of school. I always had some difficulty when summer began. It took time for me to even recall what I enjoyed doing outside of work. That is how I felt when choirs stopped gathering in March. But within a few weeks, I found myself enjoying the outstanding spring weather, gardening, cooking (A LOT of cooking!) and spending many hours with my two children, Christina and Jacob and my golden retriever, Sunny.
I think dogs have gained a lot from the pandemic! So many walks! I’ve been able to enjoy the time at home. I’m really most content nesting and being with my family. But through it all, I have found that it is important to grieve what we’ve lost. Not being able to make music is hard. Sometimes I listen to a choral recording and weep a little bit.
What is your greatest frustration right now?
The inability to make definite plans.
Your greatest joy?
My family has always been my greatest joy. Also, I love to spend as much time as possible in the woods.
Clothes shopping (which I miss)!
Angie’s Boom Chicka Pop Kettle Corn (I’m eating some now)!
What encourages you? What gives you hope?
I derive the most encouragement and hope from the choral pieces I’m singing or directing. Choirs are uniquely positioned to offer hope to participants and listeners through the texts that we sing. Nothing is more important to me than the text. I won’t program something unless the text speaks truth in an eloquent way. We live in such divided times. I miss being able to sing through the pain we experience in our world. When we sing about it, we not only get to say it out loud, but we offer ourselves and our audiences the opportunity to be healed and empowered.
What are your thoughts at dark moments?
I worry about our country. I worry about a resurgence of the virus. I fear that by reopening too soon, we’ll take two steps forward and ten steps backwards. I’m sickened by the violence and injustice we see every day. I wonder if we will ever be united as a nation. I sometimes feel that we will never see the day when everyone will join hands and form a diverse circle of love.
What are you reading, watching, and listening to?
I really never stop reading poetry. I recently finished reading “Educated” by Tara Westover. I’m re-reading Jodi Picoult’s “Small Great Things.” Aside from the news, I’m not really watching anything! Too busy packing (moving to a new house)! Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell.
What’s your advice for people trying to stay sane in the time of corona?
It has helped me to view this time as an opportunity instead of a hardship. I’m so fortunate to be able to experience more stillness during this time. By slowing down and detaching from the frenzy of daily living, I am reconsidering my priorities. That being said, I’m ever mindful that many people do not have that luxury. So many are suffering during this pandemic. It is my responsibility to be alert to the ways that I might help others and to remain grateful.
Thank you so much, Jeanette, for your gentle and powerful reminder.
* * *
Lyrics, “Breathe in Hope”:
What would we do if we didn’t have the privilege of being distracted?
I know life has to move on.
I know we must honor our personal lives.
I know we must not live in darkness.
I know we must celebrate the grace in our humanity.
To keep our lungs from collapsing.
We must breathe in hope.
And so have I. Taken in joy. And beauty.
And selfishness. And frivolity. And laughter.
We are wonderful. Humans. We find the light.
But I fear the moment passing.
Already distracted from the fire though the smoke is still filling our lungs.
This is going to sound wrong.
But I hope this pain lasts.
I hope that it holds.
I don’t want to heal
We have become experts at recovery.
I hope we become expert at Revolution.
* * *
I thought that song was beautiful until the last line.
I’d like to give the last word to the Fisk Jubilee Singers this morning…