Community made the St. Olaf Chapel Choir a unique ensemble in an overly competitive music program. Students without a desire for a restrictive music-making environment have flocked to Chapel Choir in recent years, particularly due to the leadership of our beloved Tesfa Wondemagegnehu.
The announcement of Tesfa’s leave of absence in Feb. 2023 creates a gaping wound in Chapel Choir. His absence as one of the most visible and open Black faculty leaves many students who benefited from his presence upset. It came as a shock to many, with little confirmation on what the future will bring. How do we begin to move forward, to continue when the future is uncertain?
There’s no clear direction forward. However, the lack of a correct path lends itself to opportunity for inappropriate handlings of a sensitive situation. Music organizations have exacerbated the existing hurt and frustration within Chapel Choir by trying to force productivity out of the choir.
Rather than giving a space for us to reflect, we went right back to rehearsing Mozart. Opening the floor for questions in front of multiple music organization professionals and the guest conductor after a major shift in the ensemble’s dynamics led to significant barriers in the choir’s ability to heal suddenly. Having a space outside of rehearsal or allowing for the ensemble to separately discuss the situation would have made for an easier transition. Canceling two rehearsals then jumping back in prevents dialogue about how students feel and to voice their concerns. With community being a driving force in Chapel Choir, having no say in how we move forward during this time takes away one of the key components of the ensemble.
Threats of losing ensemble membership for not attending during this transition only heighten the tension between hurt members and the ensemble as an organization. Yes, it’s important to attend rehearsals to make sure that we can make music together and perform. However, the way to increase attendance isn’t reminding members during a stressful time that their attendance can get them kicked out of the space, potentially resulting in losing scholarships.
Chapel Choir has touted itself as a safe space for students. For many, the email read as a scare tactic that brought them further rather than closer to the group. Students have dropped in response to this, but not everyone has the option. Music scholarships allow many to afford their education here at St. Olaf. How do those students navigate being in an ensemble they might not feel comfortable in anymore?
Chapel Choir is a safe space for students to enjoy and produce music as a community, with the main goal of the group being to have fun. This clearly conflicts with Music Organizations and those involved with sending the email’s vision of the choir as a space to produce performances, no matter the cost.
We must consider how these two visions oppose each other and find a solution that shifts the dynamic to make sure that Chapel Choir continues to keep its position as a place for students to make music collaboratively.
The authors of this piece, who are student members of the Chapel Choir, have requested to remain anonymous.