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A Black Experience in Choral Music

Anisa Adkins

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Self Evaluation of my Project

At the beginning of the semester, I created a list of eight requirements that I wanted my project to adhere to. This is my reflection on those guidelines.

  1. This project will feature texts that were all written by Black authors. Each poem should depict a different time period and emotion within that time period.


  • I was able to achieve this goal for my Capstone even though it did not happen the way I originally thought it was. “how i got ovah” by Carolyn Rodgers was written in 1975 but addresses the issue of slavery. “The Distant Drum” by Calvin C. Hernton was written in 1976 but it still speaks to the issues that Blacks face even in 2015. I originally wanted each poem to be written in the time period that it depicted but it was hard to find poems, especially for slavery, that I felt would be lyrical enough to set to music Even though both poems would be considered modern, I believe that they had the emotions I wanted for each time period. Both poems were by Black authors which wound up being simple to do because I only looked for poems on websites and anthologies that only contained poems by Black authors.
  • Score 10/10


  1. There will be three pieces all of contrasting styles that help to portray the emotion of each poem.


  • Unfortunately due to time, I was unable to complete three songs but I did create two songs that I am proud of. “how i got ovah” was in a style more similar to jazz and more ‘stereotypical’ characteristics of a capella singing with a lot of syllables such as ‘dums’ and ‘dahs’. “The Distant Drum” was in more of a gospel style with a lot of repetition and a soloist that interacts with the choir. Both of the styles fit with the subject and emotions of the text historically even though I did not notice this until after the fact. Jazz and gospel are both styles of music that were developed by Blacks and can both find roots in spirituals which were originally sung during slavery. Using styles that have a history in Black culture helps make my project more cohesive because in continues my theme of Black history, culture and experiences.
  • Score: 9/10


  1. Each piece should have at least four vocal parts.


  • I was able to achieve this goal in my project. Each of my two songs has a soprano, alto, tenor, and bass part and there are some sections of music in “The Distant Drum” that have some splits. The soprano part in measures 5-10 is split because it creates an overtone-like ostinato over the melody which I thought sounded really cool. The splits also occur in measure 11 and 42 which were two sections where the text was very important and I wanted to emphasize the words. I increased the texture by increasing the amount of voices and putting all the voices and the bass in unison in the measure right before to make these sections stand out from other parts of the song. In the chorus of “how i got ovah”, the bass and soprano sing in octaves but this continues the gospel style which typically only has three parts in the choir.
  • Score: 10/10


  1. There should be at least one song with a single-line instrumental accompaniment part.


  • I was able to achieve this goal in my project. I originally wanted to use flute as the additional instrument but the songs I wound up creating needed other instruments. “The Distant Drum” got a double bass line which helps create the jazz like feel and a drives the pieces rhythmically. “how i got ovah” included piano, bass and drums. I originally did not want to include any piano parts because I did not feel confident in my ability to write a part but as I continued composing, I realized that I needed a piano in order to be able to write the voice parts the way I wanted them to be. The beginning of “how i got ovah” has the solo singing the melody and the voices singing long chords beneath it but the harmony felt stagnant without the piano. One of my dad’s friends played the piano part that was included in the final track. My dad wrote the bass and drum parts for me. Piano, bass and drums are three of the most common instruments in gospel music so their inclusion in “how i got ovah” helps make the style more recognizable.
  • Score: 10/10


  1. Each piece should follow the majority of the rules of music theory.


  • I was able to achieve this goal in my project. When I did my stakeholder interview at the beginning of the semester, I was told that since my pieces would be modern, it would be acceptable for me to break some of these rules as long as I broke them purposefully and not because I did not know. The rules of music theory help to ensure that the parts are sing-able and make sense musically so instead of focusing on what chords can go where, I focused on making the parts sing-able. I was constantly thinking about if the range was appropriate for each part and the tessituras fell in comfortable areas of the voice. I was also making sure that the parts could be sung with moderate ease and flowed from section to section. After I finished the song and we started recording, I sang some of the parts or had a friend sing them and we talked about what was awkward so I was able to go back into the score and fix these things. With these thoughts in mind, I know that I was able to follow the rules of voice leading and music theory.
  • Score 10/10


  1. Each song will be recorded live and edited to create individual tracks.


  • I was able to achieve the end goal of this specification but it did not happen the way I dictated that it would in this rubric. Instead of recording the songs live with multiple singers per part, I recorded in a studio. My dad’s friend owns a studio called Final Mixx so I got to record my songs there for free. I wound up only using a total of four singers, me, my sister and two friends from high school, one of which is also a vocal music education major. We each sang our parts and then they were mixed together. The instrumental parts were added after all the voice parts were completed. Some of which were played on instruments and others were played on the synthesizer. I’d also planned to edit the tracks using Audition but because I got them recorded professionally, I didn’t have to do any of the editing myself. This resulted in my songs being of a higher quality than they would have been if I had edited myself.
  • Score: 9/10


  1. Each song will have performance or program notes that can include but are not limited to the clarification of specific performance techniques, inform performers of the time period the poem describes, and additional information about the poem/poet.
  • I was able to achieve this in my project. I included the text for each of the poems, the background and inspiration for the project, acknowledgements and performance practice. I included the poems because I wanted performers to be able to see the text without having to piece it together in the music. Understanding the text can help guide performances because you make your own decisions about how you want to interpret the text in your performance. I also talked about this in the performance practice section. This section also included information about additional instruments, diction, style, and rhythm which help performers perform the pieces the way that I’ve imagined them. I included acknowledgements because the people that helped me create this project deserved to be given credit. I believe that the background for this project was important because it outlines some of the goals for the songs as a project and also gives performers a sense of what my thoughts were as I was composing. The reasons why I completed this project are also important because it is an opportunity to give people a small amount of information about the issues faces by the Black community.
  • Score: 10/10


  1. The sheet music and the program notes should be bound in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, neat and organized.
  • I was able to achieve this goal in my project. I didn’t want to name the actual collection of songs A Black Experience in Choral Music because I thought that the title was long and I thought it might turn some people away from the music so I came up with a title just for the songs: Pressing On. The title page includes the Pressing On title, my name (as the composer), the poet’s names (as lyricists) and the titles of the two songs included. After that, came the poems, acknowledgements, background information, and performance practice. This was laid out in two columns, a format that I have seen in other scores. I used a slightly larger font and chose a font other than Times New Roman but was still simple, clean and easy to read. Then I included the sheet music for each song after the initial information. I printed everything double sided so it functioned as a book and staples down the side with three staples. My roommates told me that the booklet looked very professional so I felt that I’d done a good job although I noticed a few typos as I reread the book after the fact. In the future, I would like to get it bound more professionally.
  • Score: 9/10

Total Score: 77/80

Recording Process

I did not get to record all of my music  with a small choir all at once the way I’d originally planned. Instead, I recorded in a studio with just a few singers. My dad has a friend from college who now operates a small studio called Final Mixx (http://www.finalmixxstudio.com) so I was able to record there for free. My sister, two friends from high school, one of which is a vocal music education major, and I recorded all the parts. Each of us took turns in the recording booth and then it was mixed together and edited. I wound up singing multiple parts as did a friend from high school but after it was all mixed together it was harder to tell.

The night before we went to the recording studio, we also spent about 5 hours learning pieces of “The Distant Drum” and we even recorded some of the parts for that son in my house. The next day, we spent about 12 hours in the studio getting the rest of the parts for “The Distant Drum” recorded as well as all the parts in “how i got ovah”. Some preliminary mixing of the voices also occurred during those 12 hours. Since I’d gone home to do the recording, I went back to school for Monday classes even though my songs were not completely done.

I wrote a bass part for “The Distant Drum” that still needed to be added and I decided that “how i got ovah” needed bass, drums, and piano which would would need to be added later. That Thursday, my dad went back to the recording studio and added the instrumental parts that I required and then sent the songs back to me. I would tell him what i wanted changes and he would change them for me and send it back. After about three tries, we’d gotten them to a point where I felt good about them.

In all, it took about 24 hours to complete the recording of the two songs I created and all the hard work paid off. Here are some pictures I took inside the recording studio.


Results of my Stakeholder Interview

Interviewee: Dr. Allan Laino, DMA in choral conducting who previously directed the University of Maryland Chorale and currently teaching Basic Conducting
What types of things do you look for when selecting music?
• Something appropriate for the ability level of the group that’s not too hard and not too easy
• Something he can believe in and can identify with
• Songs with some form of beauty
• Something that will motivate and urge choir to want to perform well
• Songs that are aware of traditions, a new arrangement of a song doesn’t have to be something we’ve never ever seen before
• Composer has a sense of direction and influence
• Good use of harmony
• Tends to stay away from songs with a lot of effects just for the sake of effects
Are there any notable pros and cons between a capella and accompanied music?
• One isn’t better than the other, just provide timbrel variety
• Don’t do an entire program of a capella
• Using additional instruments is good for timbre
• A capella allows for pure intervals and unique pedagogy, ear training
Would a visual component in a concert be distracting?
• Body motions wouldn’t be distracting as long as they are simple, deliberate and subtle
• Should have clear connections to the music
• Can be more difficult for choir because there are more people to coordinate
• Digital visuals
– Wouldn’t be distracting either
– Try to incorporate music and the presentation, don’t go back and forth between visual and music
– We are conditions to watch screens and comprehend sound
Have you ever written a song before and if so, what was your process?
• Recently wrote a pop song for voice and guitar
• Didn’t write anything down
• Sing something, record, playback, edit, repeat
• Probably good for me to write things down
Is it important for me to follow all the rules of music theory?
• No, especially not for a modern piece
• Be aware of the rules, break them knowingly
• Watch out for extreme highs and lows in parts
Do you think more diverse pieces of music draw a more diverse audience?
• Yes, and he’s seen it
• More cultural pieces equals more varied audience
• Specialized types of music draw out specific crowds of people
• Important to create diverse programs for concerts

My stakeholder interview with Allan didn’t change my project all that much. It really just reaffirmed what I planned to do and gave me some additional things to think about. I think that the most important information he gave me was about choosing music. If my songs are received well by people at this university, I’m thinking about trying to get them published and that means that they have to be marketable to choir directors. One of the things he said to keep in mind was the ranges of the parts. I know that this is important as a singer myself, but I kept his reminder in mind as I composed. It is easy to put the sopranos in the sky and the basses in the basement but both of these parts are fairly conservative in range. Neither goes to the extremes.

Another thing I was worried about was the voice leading and music theory rules. While doing music theory homework, it was easy to make writing errors that still sounded good. Allan assured me that it was alright if I broke the rules, especially since the piece was modern. I tried to make sure the parts were sing-able, which is on place where voice leading really comes into play, but I also wrote what I thought sounded good even if it broke some of these rules.

Project Rubric

These are the guidelines that I will use to assess my project after I have completed it.

1.      This project will feature texts that were all written by Black authors. Each poem should depict a different time period and emotion within that time period.

2.      There will be three pieces all of contrasting styles that help to portray the emotion of each poem.

3.      Each piece should have at least four vocal parts.

4.      There should be at least one song with a single-line instrumental accompaniment part.

5.      Each piece should follow the majority of the rules of music theory.

6.      Each song will be recorded live and edited to create individual tracks.

7.      Each song will have performance or program notes that can include but are not limited to the clarification of specific performance techniques, inform performers of the time period the poem describes, and additional information about the poem/poet.

8.      The sheet music and the program notes should be bound in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, neat and organized.


Final Proposal for A Black Experience in Choral Music


For my Capstone project, I will take three poems written by Blacks  that describe three different time periods and set (write music for) them for a four part choir. The time periods will include slavery, Civil Rights, and the present. I believe that the most authentic music about events and emotions that concern a particular race are best written by members of that race. The goals for this project are to create authentic music by and for Blacks, to expose other cultures to classical pieces written by Blacks and to add to a small amount of classical/modern choral pieces written by Blacks.


Music has always been an instrumental part of life all throughout history. Talking drums were used to communicate in various African countries, Gregorian chant in medieval church services, spirituals to carry messages during slavery, and also for pure entertainment. As a music education major, three of my required courses are about Music History which focuses on Western styles and theory. All of what we are leaning right now comes from Europe but will also include North America in later semesters. Taking this class has made me realize how underrepresented Blacks are in classical music, both as composers and performers. The last time I watched the University of Maryland Concert Choir sing, I counted about seven Blacks in a choir of almost 100.

For my Capstone, I have chosen three poems, all written by Blacks, and will set them for four part choir. While these would only be three pieces, my hope is to add to the limited collection of music written by Blacks in the classical and modern choral genres.

Project Description

For this project, I have selected three poems to set for a four part mixed choir. None of the songs will have piano accompaniment although I plan to include a flute part in at least one song and I want to include other single line instrumental parts in the other songs too. I chose the following poems to set:

“how i got ovah” by Carolyn Rodgers, 1975

“As I Grew Older” by Langston Hughes, 1926

“The Distant Drum” by Calvin  C. Hernton, 1976

While all of these poems would be considered modern because of when they were written, I believe each of them captures a specific moment in Black history that is worth noting.

Although it was published in 1975, “how i got ovah” reads as both a more literal telling of the journey of a slave to freedom as well as a figurative journey of a person struggling to make it. “As I Grew Older” is about a Black person living during segregation who once had dreams and aspirations as a child but has now realized that he cannot achieve them because of the color of his skin. At the end of the poem, he becomes determined to tear down barriers in order to achieve his goals. I believe that “The Distant Drum” relates to the issues facing the Black community today in light of the recent deaths due to police violence. It is a call for others to listen to as Blacks try to make their concerns known.

I will use Sibelius, which is a music composition software, to compose each piece and create a score. I want the songs to incorporate gospel and choral styles in a way that feels more genuine than other pieces. My songs will not be based off of spirituals because there are already plenty of great settings of these texts.

After the music is written, I will then find a group of musicians willing to rehearse and record the songs. If I cannot find enough musicians, I will record some of the upper parts myself on separate tracks and find one male to record both the tenor and bass parts on separate tracks and mix them together. In either case, I will edit the raw sound files using Adobe Audition to make them sound as though they were recorded in a large hall with great acoustics. This can also be used to remove background noise and make the tracks sound as professional as possible. If at all possible, I will record the pieces in Memorial Chapel, the Dekleboum Theater or room 2170 of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center or in University United Methodist Church because the acoustics in these locations are much better than those of a classroom or practice room. It would reduce the amount of editing because the sound would already be large and echoing, which is what I am looking for.


Significance and Distinction

Although the number of Blacks in the classical music world is growing, the amount of repertoire composed by Blacks is still rather small. There needs to be more music that represents us in this genre. Composers such as Moses Hogan and Stacey Gibbs have written magnificent arrangements of spirituals and these are very popular choices for many choirs, but there is more to Black culture besides spirituals and I want my project to look into some other aspects.  A description of escape that is not a spiritual, Segregation and the issues of today are topics I have chosen to explore instead of spirituals. There are also countless gospel style and African processional songs written by White people but they do not sound authentic at all. Because I am Black and will be writing about Black experiences, I think that my music will be more genuine.

This project serves as a culmination of my time in DCC because it explores the ways that technology can be used to make art and in turn, how that art can influence people. My class thought that DCC would be us learning how to use different programs and then doing projects with them. My Capstone will be similar to that because I plan to use Audition and Sibelius. This project also demonstrates how the creative process has changed with the use of technology. 25 years ago, I would not have had the technology to compose and edit my own composition on my own personal computer. I think it is important to remember those things as I complete this project.

Expertise and Skills  

For this project I will need to know how to use Sibelius, of which I already have a basic grasp. I may need to learn some more advanced functions but the basics will get me through the beginning stages. I will also need to know how to edit sound files and I learned to do that earlier this semester with Adobe Audition. The last major thing I’ll need to know is the music theory aspect. There are a lot of rules for writing music and I will need to follow a majority of them. I am currently in advanced theory but there is still a lot I don’t know so I may need to ask some of my music professors for help.

Approach (aka “methods”)

I will be using a hands-on approach in the arts to complete this project. I plan to use Sibelius to compose the pieces and Audition to edit after I record them. I will also need to use the skills I have learned in my Music Theory classes to create songs that make sense musically.

Work Plan and Timeline
End of February-Last week of March
·         Compose song 1
End of March- 2nd to last Week of April
·         Compose song 2
Rest of April
·         Compose song 3
·         Record and Edit songs

This project can really be aimed towards anyone who enjoys choral music although I am hoping that it will be especially interesting for Black singers and Black people who enjoy choral concerts. Most audience members who attend choral concerts are White so I also want this project to expose them to music, other than spirituals, written by Blacks.


This project will not require a budget since I already have Sibelius on my computer. The only thing that might require money would be to pay people to sing the songs so I can get a recording. Hopefully I will be able to find people who will just volunteer to do it.


I want to be a music teacher after I graduate and I think that this project will help me understand the process of composition so that if I have a student in the future who wants to compose, I can help them. If I feel extremely confident in the piece, I could send them to a publisher or ask a choir here at the University of Maryland or my high school choir director to perform them in a concert. I could create an entire collection of settings of Black poetry or I could take the pieces I will write during this project and adapt them for other types of choirs (i.e., women’s, men’s or three part SAB -soprano, alto, and baritone-). In the Creative Futures class I took last semester, we talked about how music technology has advanced the field and how the sounds of our everyday lives will change as time goes on. My future career is entirely based on sound so learning about how technology will affect sound is important to what I will do as a performer and as a teacher.


Significance of Project and Sources

I believe my project is significant because it will provide authentic Black music for performers and will encourage a more diverse audience.

The sources I plan to consult for this project are as follows:

Abrahams, Rodger D. “Questions of Competency and Performance in the Black Musical Diaspora: Toward a Stylistic Analysis of the Idea of a Black Atlantic.”  Black Music Research Journal 32.2: 83-93. JSTOR. Center for Black Music Research Columbia College Chicago and University of Illinois Press. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/blacmusiresej.32.2.0083>.

Chinn, Beverly Johnson. “Vocal Self-Identification, Singing Style, And Singing Range In Relationship To A Measure Of Cultural Mistrust In African-American Adolescent Females.” Journal of Research in Music Education 45.4 (1997): 636-49. Print.

Davis Gratto, Sharon. “Ethnic & Multicultural Perspectives: Multicultural Choral Music: Composers And Arrangers Share The Process.” The Choral Journal 49.12 (2005): 58-61. JSTOR. American Choral Directors Association. Web. 24 Nov. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/23560131>.

Evans McGinty, Doris. “Black Scholars on Black Music: The Past, the Present, and the Future.” Black Music Research Journal 13.1 (1993): 1-13. JSTOR. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.<http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/779403?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&search Text=black&searchText=music&searchUri=/action/doBasicSearch?Query=black+music &prq=%28blackmusic%29+AND+iid%3A%2810.2307%2Fi252051%29&>.

Floyd, Samuel A. The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the UnitedStates. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.

Herrema, Robert. “Choral Music By Black Composers.” The Choral Journal 10.4 (1970): 15-17. Print.

Maxile, Horace. “Signs, Symphonies, Signifyin(G): African-American Cultural Topics as Analytical Approach to the Music of Black Composers.” Black Music Research Journal28.1 (2008): 123-38. Print.

Morgan, Melissa. “I Can Tell the World:” Moses George Hogan: His Life, His Song.” The Choral Journal 46.5 (2005): 48-61. JSTOR. American Choral Directors Association. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.<http://www.jstor.org/stable/23556180?seq=6&Search=yes&searchText=hogan&search Text=moses&list=hide&searchUri=/action/doBasicResults?Query=moses+hogan&prq= black+students+in+music&wc=on&acc=on&fc=off&>.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1971. Print.

Thomas, Lorenzo, and Aldon Lynn Nielsen. Don’t Deny My Name: Words and Music and the Black Intellectual Tradition. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2008. Print.


I will also be attending a Black Theater Symposium on Feb. 21st so I hope to be able to add that conferance to this list, as well as some of the knowledge I will gain from my African American culture class that I am taking this semester.

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