An Interview with Dr. Andrea Ramsey

Dr. Andrea Ramsey enjoys an international presence as a composer, conductor, scholar and music educator. She is the headline clinician for the 2018 Washington ACDA Summer Institute.

Kela Wanyama (KW): Please give a brief preview of the sessions you’ll be leading during Summer Institute. What kinds of topics will be discussed, and what types of repertoire will be covered?

Dr. Andrea Ramsey (AR): One session will be focused on embracing the non-auditioned junior high/middle school choir and practical thoughts for teachers who work with this situation.  While geared more toward the middle school narrative, it will have many applicable ideas for teachers of high school students as well.

The second session “Imagination, Play, and Metaphor: the Conductor’s Crash Course” will explore the use of these devices to enhance our rehearsals, increase our singers’ engagement, and inform more contextually integrated performances.

And the final session “Choir, Community, and Connection” is the one I still have to craft!  I hope to spend some time looking at community-building and connection-making both within and without our rehearsal walls.

Repertoire is about as varied as I could make it!  I tried to include some favorites, some of my own works, some newer works that have sparked my interest and to ensure we had a good representation of music of composers from diverse backgrounds and experiences.

KW: You are an awesome composer, educator, and conductor. Your career is varied and amazing. What are your current areas of focus and/or research? What questions are you occupied with currently?

AR: First, thank you for the kind words. I’m fortunate to be doing what I love and this first full year of full time work as a composer and guest conductor outside the academy has brought with it a creative upwelling that I didn’t anticipate, but have completely relished. While I have been focusing more on composing and conducting this year than research, I’m still mulling future ideas and projects for down the road.  My brother also happens to be a professor (his field of study is communication) so we’ve discussed some joint projects looking through his lens of communication at the relationship between conductors and choirs. I also love exploring the community-building and meaning-making components of the choral experience and I want to continue to explore these ideas.

KW: Tell us a bit about your background. Were there specific musical experiences  or teachers you had that inspired you?

AR: I have the oddest background to be in this field, but I’m grateful– as I know it shaped me in creative and unusual ways.  I grew up in rural Arkansas on a gravel road, far from our smaller town where I attended a county school. When I wanted to quit the basketball team, my mother insisted I needed an activity of some sort to replace basketball. So I overheard a girl on our hour-long school bus ride talking about a singer in their choir who could sing lower than all the other girls. My little 8th grade competitive spirit welled up and I thought “I can probably sing lower than that girl.” and I went home and told my mother I wanted to join choir. Neither of my parents were college educated (my father was a railroader and my mother stayed home with us) but they both wanted more for my brother and me. They sacrificed so much so that I could have voice lessons and occasionally piano lessons as well (though those proved less fruitful! 🙂 My voice teachers Dr. M. Ellis Julien (high school) and Holly Ruth Gale (college) were truly tremendous teachers, and I think how lucky I was in the tiny state of Arkansas to land with such solid pedagogues.  They both impacted me greatly. Holly Ruth saw my composition talent early and proclaimed that I would compose my English set for my senior voice recital. I did and it was a beautiful learning experience—one I’m not sure would have happened elsewhere. My high school choral director is the reason I’m doing what I do today. Gary Morris introduced me to the artistry of choral singing and I’m forever grateful to him. Many experiences stay in my mind as pivotal: hearing various choirs and conductors, specific premieres of my tunes that proved to be turning points in my career, the invaluable lessons I learned in teaching junior high chorus for eight years, growing even more through university teaching, and the opportunities to study at the graduate level, and eventually instruct graduate students of my own (although it is such a two-way street at that level and I learned so much from them as well!) I will forever be indebted to Drs. David Rayl, Jonathan Reed, and Sandra Snow, all of whom were my instructors at Michigan State University.  Especially Dr. Snow, who was my dissertation chair, and who pushed me out of my comfort zone daily (always with a smile) and taught my overly cautious self so much about the importance of taking risks. She showed me by her example that the best growth and the most rewarding experiences are often on the other side of attempting new things that push us into discomfort. We learn the most by doing the things that scare us.

KW: You are constantly on the move as a guest conductor and clinician, yet you also have a catalogue of compositions and publications. How do you balance it all? When do you find time to write and compose?

AR: If I’m being entirely honest, the decision to leave the academy and my tenure-track position at the University of Colorado in Boulder was partly rooted in a dire need for better balance my life. My load at the university was steadily increasing, as was the outside demand for guest work and commissioned choral work and I knew I needed to find a sustainable way forward. Jake Runestad played a big part in my decision and I’ll always be grateful to him for a conversation we had while overlapping on a gig in Iowa. It was a turning point in convincing me to think outside the prescribed track I was on. I absolutely adored my students in Boulder and I still carry guilt about leaving them—especially that wonderful pool of graduate students, but ultimately I knew I needed more space for actual life and my current hamster wheel scenario was not allowing it, nor were there signs anything would change unless I made that change. I wasn’t burned out, but I could see it on the horizon and I didn’t want to go there.  

This year, even with a pretty wild travel schedule, the balance has been so wonderful.  I can go out for a weekend gig and return to my home Sunday night knowing I’ll have a leisurely breakfast on Monday, get up and be able to compose in my pajamas if I want. It’s been tremendously freeing and I know I’m stupidly lucky to have this life.  Having said all that, I’m striving for even more balance next year, trying to limit myself to only two gigs per month, and working to have a more routine composing schedule. My preferred time to write is in the morning to midday or early afternoon. Sometime between 12 and 2:30 it just becomes counterproductive to keep writing—at least for me!  Usually, I can return to the work in the evening and edit or flesh out accompaniments or tweak vocal lines, but my best creative work happens in the morning.

KW: What upcoming performances, travel plans, presentations, or publications do you have that you’d like to share?

AR:  I’m answering your questions from Lafayette, Louisiana where I’ll be in residency for the next three days with singers at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and Lafayette High School.  After our concert here, I’ll go on to Washington, D.C. where I’ll have a free day in the city before beginning rehearsals with an intergenerational treble chorus for a concert in the National Cathedral for Manhattan Concert Productions. I’ll have almost three weeks off after this and plan to enjoy springtime in Kansas City with some full mornings composing.  May brings a couple of opportunities with a festival choir in Louisiana and a boychoir festival in Maryland. June brings the Wyoming Children’s Honor Choir and the Crescent City Choral Festival in New Orleans. And July will be spent with the wonderful people in Washington but also performing at Texas TCDA with the women of mirabai, a new professional level choir conducted by Dr. Sandra Snow. It is the biggest treat to sing again—especially with that group. Our debut album (Ecstatic Songs) was just released. Check it out! 🙂

Publication-wise, I have so many new works I’m excited about.  I finished an O Magnum Mysterium that I believe (hope?) I included in our packet for Washington and also a new work without a text, utilizing only syllables and body percussion called Stomp on the Fire. This was a commission, but designed with challenging myself in mind because I’m typically so motivated by text.  What would happen if I stripped all the words away? It was scary, but I’m proud of the outcome. These are just two of about twelve new works I’ve finished since leaving the university. I’m most excited about a project I’m working on currently to set some words from my mother’s journals in two movements. The adolescent to womanhood movement (yet to be titled) will be premiered at the National ACDA conference in Kansas City in 2019.  It has been the greatest gift to revisit and sift through my mother’s words. She passed away three and a half years ago, and I still miss her so much.

KW:  Do you travel to WA or the Pacific Northwest frequently? What most interests you about this workshop or region?

AR:  I’ve only been to Seattle in Washington.  I was presenting for NWACDA several years ago, but my comprehensive exams were the week afterward at Michigan State so I recall most of my time was unfortunately spent in the hotel studying! ha.  I have spent a bit more time in Oregon, being involved with the Picfest Young Women’s Choral Festival in Eugene, and then of course visiting Portland this year to work with the NWACDA tenor-bass honor choir.  I loved all the people from Washington I met while in Portland and I’m looking forward to being in the beautiful scenery your state has to offer with all these wonderful people—especially in the more relaxed atmosphere that summer events tend to bring!

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