The renowned St. Olaf Choir in Minnesota had to be creative when it was looking for ways to mark its conductor’s 30th year of service this spring. Anton Armstrong is special to the choir’s members – not only for his role as only the fourth director in the choir’s 108-year history, but also for his ability to inspire the thousands of singers of all ages who have crossed his path. Members of the 2019–20 choir decided that a special virtual performance would help them share their deep appreciation for his dedication.
They sang André Thomas’ arrangement of the famed gospel anthem If I Can Help Somebody, written by Alma Bazel Androzzo. The piece held special significance to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who quoted the lyrics in one of his most famous sermons. A recording of that sermon was played at his funeral following his assassination only two months later.
During Armstrong’s interview with J.W. Pepper, it became evident why this piece, commissioned for the occasion, would have such relevance to Armstrong. Among other reasons, the focus of the piece is on the impact we have on others, and Armstrong has been friends with Thomas for more than 40 years. It serves as a good reminder of how much the choral world can make us feel at home – even amid times of division.
Armstrong recalls a time shortly after King’s assassination when he encountered segregation while on tour with the American Boychoir School. When Armstrong got off the tour bus in a Southern state, he was directed to walk a block and half to a segregated bathroom.
“I still remember that, but what I also remembered is that was never the condition of the Boychoir,” Armstrong said. “Once you got inside the school doors, you were judged on who you were as a person and what your skill level and what your talent was… so to really live in an environment where someone does judge you on your mind and the content of your heart was a powerful thing.”
That way in which choirs can connect people of different backgrounds stays with him today. Aside from his position at St. Olaf College, Armstrong also serves as the editor of a multicultural choral series for Earthsongs, which allows him to bring music of the world to new audiences.
“The music we make can give hope. It can break down the barriers of division. Because when you sing music of another culture and you pay homage in the best way to that music – then all of sudden it’s not them and us – it’s we,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong’s interest in music began at a young age in New York. He jokes that he was the “true love child” in his family since his brothers are 10 and 14 years older than him. His family attended the Lutheran Church of the Epiphany in Hempstead, Long Island, where his musical roots were nurtured.
At the church, he was inspired by young graduates of Westminster Choir College to join the children’s choir, where he sang his first solo at six years old. The technique and self-discipline that he learned set the stage for his participation in the Columbus Boychoir, which later became the American Boychoir.
While he was a member, the choir sang with some of the great orchestras in the United States and Canada, and they sang at the White House. In high school, Armstrong got an unexpected glimpse of his future: the assistant pastor at his church offered tickets to attend a concert at the Lincoln Center given by the St. Olaf Choir.
He almost didn’t go – he’d already bought tickets for a Moody Blues concert the same night. He didn’t want to go to the choir event, but his mother insisted. Eventually, Armstrong studied at St. Olaf College and later earned advanced degrees from the University of Illinois and Michigan State University.
He began his career at Calvin College (now Calvin University) in Michigan where he taught and conducted music for ten years. When he moved to St. Olaf’s, he shepherded their tradition of creating a classic choral sound, but he has also taken the choir in new directions – opening the door to global music. Armstrong says he works hard to ensure whatever the choir would do for a Johann Sebastian Bach motet, for example, it would also do for an African American spiritual or a Latin American folk song.
“You must do the same. You must have respect for whatever tradition,” Armstrong said.
He’s also been able to bring lessons to his college choir that he’s learned from his work with youth choral groups. Armstrong has conducted numerous young choirs, including the 1997 ACDA National Children’s Honor Choir, and he’s been on the panel for the the 8th Bali International Choral Festival in 2019. His international experience has allowed him to learn more about music from around the globe, making him realize one can’t always judge choirs from other countries and other cultures the same way you would one from the United States.
“Their choral tone may not be this sort of bel canto style, but the rhythmic energy of the pieces, their vitality and their ability to communicate – it’s just incredible,” Armstrong said. “You get a new appreciation and you broaden your horizon for what is beautiful.”
Connecting with Students and an Audience
One of the most important pieces of advice Armstrong said he ever received, he originally dismissed. At a workshop in 1978, Westminster Choir College professor Helen Kemp shared her mantra: “Body, mind, spirit, voice – it takes the whole person to sing and rejoice.”
“I thought that was the stupidest, cheesiest thing I had ever heard in my life, and yet most likely it is the most seminal bit of information that has stayed in my brain and has made me change the way I work,” Armstrong said.
It has led him to focus less on technical aspects like blend and more on the larger impact of music. He wants students to ask: What is this piece of music saying to me, and what do I want to say to someone else? He says this can be challenging because he thinks students are smarter today, but also more emotionally fragile.
“You have to let the walls down, and a lot of times the walls are there to protect us,” Armstrong said.
The combination of tonal beauty and a powerful connection to the music was on full display when the choir of 75 mixed voices completed a tour in January and February 2020. It marked the 100th anniversary of the choir’s first tour of the East Coast, which included a stop in Carnegie Hall. Armstrong said that during that first tour in 1920, the audiences changed as the choir moved from the Midwest to the East and then back again:
“The story is told that the halls and churches were half empty, but the word got out by telegraph, and when they came back to those places, it was packed,” Armstrong said.
When Memory Fades
One of the songs the choir has shared at each performance on the 2020 tour is one that Armstrong has a particularly strong connection to. The piece When Memory Fades, written by Jayne Southwick Cool and arranged by Eric Nelson, deals with the subject of memory loss.
Since Armstrong’s mother suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s, it is a piece that can bring him to tears. He shared a story about his experience during one visit with her. He said a veil was lifted when his mother was exposed to familiar music and began to sing.
“I had been there over 70 minutes, and she said, ‘Baby, when did you get here?’’’ Armstrong said. “When medical science can’t bring my mother back to me, those hymns as she shared them with me – those songs brought my mother back to me.”
Armstrong says the founder of Westminster Choir College talked about how music is so powerful because it impacts people from the crib to the grave. In each concert, Armstrong tries to create moments – similar to the impact of When Memory Fades – for emotional connection. He compares concert planning to organizing a smorgasbord. He allows audience members to enjoy a variety of music while also hoping to give them something new.
In the end, Armstrong’s greatest dedication is to his students. On a daily basis, year after year, he has worked to share lessons with his students that he hopes they will carry with them. As Armstrong says, “You plant something in a young person’s mind and heart, and it stays there for a lifetime.”
Watch the St. Olaf performance of If I Can Help Somebody here.