From Michigan to Ireland … the Long Island connection

No, that’s not the path my plane is flying on Sunday. At least I don’t think so. The first leg goes from Detroit to Reykjavik and lasts about 6 hours. Then it lays over in Iceland for 2 hours, and finally arrives in Dublin Monday morning around 9:30 AM, their time.

LightThis is the story of the piece I’m going to Ireland to hear, I Will Be the Light. It’s an original work (words as well as music) and I initially composed it for the Choral Union at Wayne State University in Detroit, where I have taught for the past 12 years. Choral Union is the non-auditioned choral ensemble in Wayne State’s Music Department. It’s open to anyone who enjoys singing, music majors and non-majors alike, and I had the honor to conduct them for a semester. I loved being their conductor as much as any engagement I’ve ever had.

The words to the piece are as simple as they can be, at the start: “I will be a light in the darkness. I will be a star in the sky. I will be a voice in the silence. I will be a cry.”

A bit later, “I will be the light” becomes “We will be the light,” and finally changes to “We will be your light.” It’s a simple bit of craft, but from the very first time we sang it, the promises these statements brought out of us — a commitment to be a voice for the voiceless, to stand in solidarity with the lonely and the forgotten in our midst — touched all of us with great power and force.

To sing this piece was life-changing for us. It wasn’t any longer just entertainment, it wasn’t another collection of pretty sounds, but a honest, heart-felt pledge to be one small part of changing the world around us for the better. This original version was written for piano and choir, and it sounded like this.

As I do with much of the music I write, I shared this piece with Louise Daly O’Hanlon, who has developed and leads one of the finest high school choral programs I know, at Herricks High School in New Hyde Park, on New York’s Long Island.

There are two things you need to know about Louise. She is Irish. And she is fearless. We first met at a summer conducting workshop at my undergraduate school, Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. I was part of the summer faculty, and Louise had just agreed to move from her area of specialization — elementary music with a very Kodaly background — into the maelstrom of high school choral music.

Show Choir-04 018That’s why she was in Princeton, to touch up the conducting she’d learned in Ireland. As we got to know each other, I offered to write a piece for her new choir, thinking she’d have to think about what she wanted. Not Louise. She reached into her purse, pulled out a text, and said, “Set this.” So I did. It turned out to be the first in a number of works of mine that have become standard repertoire with Louise’s choirs over the last decade.

Louise works hard to get her students to relate their music-making to the bigger world. So when they first heard I Will Be the Light, it quickly became the capstone for what has become an annual Concert for Peace, drawing people from all the ethnic groups that live within the school district’s area. It’s an informal affair that proves the truth of the late Robert Shaw’s adage: There is no community without communion.

Next time: From Long Island to Ireland