October 4th, 2017
Alexander Lloyd Blake has plenty of jobs to keep himself busy.
Blake is the choir director for the LA County High School for the Arts, and principal assistant conductor of the National Children's Chorus’ Los Angeles ensemble. But that’s not all. “I'm an assistant conductor at First Congregational Church LA—that's a new one,” Blake recounts. “And I'm studying for my qualifying exams for my doctorate in choral conducting at USC.”
On top of this busy schedule, Blake founded a chorus, Tonality, about a year ago – which led him to come to the 2017 Chorus America Conference in Los Angeles as a first-time attendee. Blake spoke with president and CEO Catherine Dehoney about what he is learning and Tonality’s issue-oriented approach to programming in the latest conversation in our ‘Meet A Member’ series.
What are you learning in your DMA program that you think is particularly relevant for today’s conductors to think about?
ALB: A basic thing is how to work with different ensembles. I’m fortunate that there are many groups at USC that I am involved in, from teaching beginning conducting students to my time in chamber singers. Having experience working with different populations of singers and different levels of musicians is very beneficial—even more now as so many different positions are becoming available. It's essential to not be locked into one type of position.
How has your experience with Chorus America complemented your DMA program experience?
ALB: I don't think I attended a session at the Conference that was not extremely helpful. In my doctoral program, I didn't study how to start a non-profit; how to run a business, how to fundraise. I was learning the nuts and bolts for the first time when I attended these sessions. I'm just starting out, and my own chorus is only a year old. For me, Chorus America is so important.
What is Tonality’s mission?
ALB: Classical music and our art form can be more inclusive than it has been. When someone asked me why I would start a group, I thought about all the times I had been one of few musicians of color in a choral ensemble. And I thought, what would it be like if we had people of all different ethnic backgrounds come together to sing a message of peace and unity? We talked around a lot of words and Tonality seemed to be the one that immediately made sense.
The group is tackling some pretty controversial topics. How do decide which issues you will take on, and how to handle them?
ALB: Unfortunately there are a plethora of subjects to talk about in our country. So we are just trying to get a sense of what's happening and how people are feeling. This first year of programming was mainly done by me, along with some of the board members. We'll be coming up with more creative ways to ask the audience, as well as the singers, what topics are really touching them. Some of the issues that really touch me that we will cover deal with gun violence—including mass shootings, and incidents with police and people of color. And though our upcoming concert is about gun violence, it's also about peace, and actively finding it.
I feel like these issues that affect one group more than others are more strongly presented when we have a diverse array of people singing about them. For example, it's not police brutality as just an African American problem - it's our community problem that we need to come together to solve.
We all see the stories on the news and it seems like it happens to "those people over there." But when you hear a singer talk about someone in their family and then a song is accompanied with that story, I think it brings it closer to home and closer to our heart. If we can start to feel the emotions of the people around us, I think we will be a lot more active in trying to solve these issues together.
How do you work with partners surrounding the issues that you sing about?
ALB: It would seem a shame to me if people felt strongly after our concert but then didn't know of a way to help out. So we think it's important to have organizations at the concert that can speak to how people can get involved if they feel so moved. Our goal is to move people, and then give them practical ways to participate. Human Rights Campaign is running an anti-gun campaign right now, and they will be there to speak at that next concert.
What’s the biggest challenge facing your chorus right now?
ALB: We've been fortunate in a lot of ways, and in particular to get a lot of attention. But the trick is finding ways to turn that attention into money to support the organization. The biggest challenge is that a lot of us are very new at this, so we're trying to figure out the best fundraising opportunity. We're in our second year, so it's something that is going to be developing.
Tell us about one big success in your chorus that you’re really proud of.
ALB: Cyndi Lauper shared our arrangement of True Colors. I sent it to her Facebook page and just said I would love for her to hear it. Her people got back to us within an hour, and asked "Can we share this for you?" And that morning they shared it. It happened while I was teaching a class, and all of a sudden I got all these text messages. That was definitely a highlight.
What’s one exciting thing you have planned for the future?
ALB: For our holiday concert, we're having a program about refugees and immigration, looking at Jesus, Joseph, and Mary as refugees. We'll have homeless shelters there and we'll also try to do a drive, to allow our audience to be a part of the movement.
When you take off your choral hat, what else is an important part of your life?
ALB: I'm a big tennis fan, so I watch a lot of tennis and play with friends. Also, I have a lot of friends in LA that are pop singers or contemporary music artists. They have a lot of shows I'm able to attend. It's awesome to just sit back and enjoy watching friends do what they do really well.
Mike Rowan is communications manager at Chorus America.