I am delighted that you are interested in pursuing a Gospel Music Performance degree at Nyack College. Though we offer other music degrees, this major is unique to the gospel genre. Not to be confused with a general degree in gospel music, the focus of this degree is in the area of performance.
The background, the tradition, and the theory of Gospel music, of course, are important to performers, just as music theory and history are important to performers in all majors The academics, for those who take this degree, all are designed to help you be a well-informed and inspired performer.
Behind the thoughtful question about whether or not Gospel music can be taught at the university level may be an unspoken question about whether talent can be taught, or whether it is entirely a gift and a tradition that is absorbed. If you grow up, as I did, as the youngest child in a family of classical pianists, there is a strong probability that you will have some interest in music, and perhaps even develop an “ear” for it. You might develop a passion for music in general and classical music in particular. Combined with appropriate teaching and hours of practice each day, commitment could lead to a career–provided an intangible “gifting” is part of the equation. Similarly, there is a “bent” for Gospel music in many homes in which both the Gospel and music are respected and loved through exposure and study. Hours are spent listening to Gospel music, using it as a vehicle for worship, and sharpening understanding through oral tradition and composition. If the gifting is there, a community of support can do much to foster a career in Gospel music. If the gifting includes being able to sing or play “by ear,” that ability can be a vital part of music reading and learning at any level.
Nyack, New York City’s Touring Gospel Ensemble, “Purpose,” performing live at Essex Alliance Church, Essex Junction, Vermont.
Though the Gospel Performance major is new, I believe we at Nyack College have taught our undergraduates much about Gospel music already through the classes we have offered and the freedom we have given them as performers and teachers. I can truthfully say that we “teach from the inside out,” from what is known to that which is lesser known, and back again…that is to say, we do not teach students to repudiate their heritage, but to build upon it, in order to embrace it again with greater confidence and to understand the fact that “all things” are theirs. So, for example, our voice teachers do not “thin” the voice in order to make it sound “European,” but thankfully and carefully build upon the core of great singing that Gospel music has given to many of our students already. Our ensembles may or may not be completely dedicated to Gospel music, but they include it and it is well done. We learn from one another. We are a community, not an industry. Our college is there to foster growth and encourage the passion and discipline that it takes to have a life (and career) of music.
Nyack College is a richly supportive community and the students who are currently enjoying careers in Gospel music and ministry can answer the question, “Can Gospel music be taught?” better than I can do. I can perhaps offer some philosophy behind the question, as I consider why some of these students have come to us.
1.) Frequently, they have come in order to expand their musical understanding and have a more comprehensive music career through the exploration of other forms of music. Our desire is to have students deepen their overall understanding of music and go toward the career that is their calling. We believe that Gospel music performance is a calling that may be greatly enriched by the heightened ability to read music, to delve into the Scriptures, and to expand their appreciation of many forms of music through both academic knowledge and experience. We believe that a student may approach all music majors with gratitude for what they already have and excitement about what will be added to their knowledge.
2.) As a Freshman Music Seminar professor, I ask students why they are coming to Nyack in general and the School of Music in particular. The overwhelming response is that they want to deepen their ability to share their faith by becoming better musicians and servants of God. At Nyack, we not only value the aesthetics of Gospel music, but the rich Judeo-Christian tradition from which it sprang. We are not “selling” entertainment, although Gospel music is increasingly popular and certainly is “entertaining.” We are acting from the belief that music is spiritually convincing and nourishing to the performer and to the listener as it expresses truth, personal conviction. We strive to find truth in less obvious musical forms, but we certainly want to be true, as faculty and students of a Christian community, to the spiritual teaching that originates in the Bible. If Gospel music is thought of as mere entertainment, the reason may lie with the performer, the listener, or both. Though the “profession” and “industry” of Gospel music, under certain conditions, may be lucrative, it is the sincere aim of Nyack College to prepare students for a generous, purposeful life.
3.) Students come to us because they believe that their gifts will be preserved through the right teaching of the mechanics of singing and playing. Wise beyond their years, our students desire to follow the time-honored understanding of how to preserve their physical gifts. All of us in the music industry must face up to the fact that our muscles and overall fitness place limitations upon the endurance we possess. The general public does not always understand the hazards of performance, the limitations of the small muscles that form the larynx, the hazards of non-stop travel and the pressure placed upon performers to be “sensational.” We at Nyack College already have among our student’s young professionals and semi-professionals. We are a nurturing community. For example, if a student has overused their vocal instrument, that student must understand the consequences. They must also understand their responsibility to preserve and treasure that which they have been given. Besides teaching our Gospel instrumentalists to perform safely, we assist young singers to use their instruments for as long as possible, and certainly without pain and strain. Over the years, our vocal instructors have assisted injured vocal students to repair their voices. Students who have become performing artists frequently attribute their longevity in the Gospel field to the time at Nyack College . We insist that singing sensibly does not mean that the singer has to give up their style and sing only as Europeans. We marvel at the students God has brought to our School of Music. We believe that God has done this for our mutual edification, as we believe that all good things can and should be shared. We learn from one another. We have a good representation, on our campus, of students and faculty of African American heritage who can embrace several styles of singing and do so convincingly and well. By sharing music, we share love and respect. And I believe we cause others to look upon the great Gospel tradition with respect as we do.
4.) Students come to Nyack College because of the experienced faculty and because of the artistic community whose attention Nyack College has been blessed to receive. Perhaps you’ve noticed that I keep referring to the Lord. That is because our desire as a community is to humbly commit our efforts to Him and to His glory. Many are the leading artists in our country who want to share in this work, whether as faculty members or visiting artists. Dr. Damien Sneed is a wonderful example of one who has generously given of his gifts to foster the talents and abilities of our students. “I will come to Nyack College if I may take lessons from Damien Sneed,” said a friend who is a successful pianist and recording artist recently. The example and teaching of our diverse and experienced faculty is marvelous to me. Equally astonishing is the success of our younger faculty who have come from our student population and done great things worldwide.
Yes, I believe that we CAN teach Gospel music to those who want to work to the glory of God and to the edification of humankind, as J.S. Bach says. Yes, I believe in the artistic dignity of this genre and what it can do to turn hearts to their true home. Gospel music requires passion, giftedness, and skill. As such, it has a place of honor in higher education and deserves to be shared, preserved, and taught at the university level.
Dr. Sue Lane Talley
Dean, School of Music
Nyack College, New York City
2 Washington St., NY, NY 10004