The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

Unveiling what was once normalized

Bethel Choir director Merrin Guice Gill seeks to dismantle the misconception that black musicians in 19th-century Chicago played only blues and jazz, restoring their roots in classical music.

In a third-grade classroom at a school in inner-city Milwaukee, Merrin Guice Gill taught students the seven continents using melodies and lyrics she came up with herself. She then taught them how to read music. Then the sounds of music from all around the world. The principal heard about this and called Gill to his office, asking why she was teaching elementary school kids about music so intensively. 

“That isn’t culturally relevant to them. You should teach them R. Kelly,” he said.

Gill sang Mozart, Bach, Brahms and more in her high school choir. Other choirs sang gospel hymns, never daring to sing classical songs.  

For Gill, singing classical songs in her Detroit STEM high school was the norm. Her choir director, Nina Scott, taught the choir a range of diverse music from all over the world, not “pigeon-holing” the choir into one genre, something Gill said allowed her choir to become “very successful.” At 16, Gill went to a National Association for Negro Musicians conference with Scott and the choir. 

At the time, she didn’t care about the NANM event or that the people there were some of the most famous black musicians from all over the country. Scott, who served as Education Chair for NANM, introduced her students to the legacy of NANM, unknowingly influencing Gill, who would return to a NANM convention on her own years later.  

What began as a research project into Betty Jackson King — a black composer from Chicago — and other female composers turned into a months-long personal research project about the NANM and how the culture of black classical musicians has slowly been fading since the 1970s. 

The narrative of black musicians in America has been largely generalized to encompass blues and jazz music, then hip-hop and rap, seeming to gloss over their roots in classical music. Gill is hoping to convey the history that black musicians were composing and playing classical music before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 — before any blues or jazz. 

“My main goal is to eliminate misconceptions about African Americans doing classical music in the United States and also to educate people on the [NANM] organization … and its extremely long history of supporting black, classical musicians,” Gill said.  

When Gill went to Spelman College in Atlanta, her primary conducting professor was the president of NAMN, keeping her connected with what she believed to be the widely-known origins of classical music for black musicians. She soon realized that most of today’s students, specifically black students, actually have no idea about this history. 

“I knew I was taught classical music and it was common sense … at some point we started teaching people that this was not something that you should bring to the average African American student,” Gill said. 

Since then, the knowledge has sat in the back of her mind, eventually growing into the conviction that she should learn more about the history of black classical musicians not only to better herself as a teacher and director but also to educate other teachers and students in the field. Gill’s passion for music is seen both in her classroom as she’s teaching new songs to choir students and in her home, where her daughter and choir student Sydney Mitchell sees that passion even more. 

Mitchell remembers her mother testing her on music for fun when she was younger, learning musical concepts and practices in what she described as an informal setting. While Mitchell is in choir at Bethel, she doesn’t consider herself “a music person” yet can subconsciously tell when someone’s voice is straining, whether they are in tune or not and whether they are singing with support. Things like finding the tone, technique and rhythm have been Mitchell’s norm growing up,  both an “incredible blessing and curse.” 

Growing up, I would often be woken up by her singing loudly around the house, or come upstairs to see her practicing conducting pieces, scribbling in scores, grading papers or working with vocal students. I’m not sure if passion is even the right way to describe how music works in her life. I would argue that music is just part of her,” Mitchell said. “She sings to my siblings before they go to bed at night, sings in the car, prioritized my exposure to music, taught me about complex musical concepts and embraced my personal musical journey. Watching her perform, write books, recruit, teach and also be an administrative powerhouse is one of the most inspiring things I could have ever seen.”  

While Gill does not formally bring her research project into the classroom, the passion for teaching others the music is something she tries to convey — primarily, Gill is trying to teach students that classical music is and should be the norm. Gill has interacted with African American students who believe they should not be allowed to sing classical music, because it was not from their culture. To that, Gill says, “Oh, but it is.”

Her research formally began this summer by doing interviews with two of the five still-living former NANM presidents and her high school director, Scott. She simply asked about the history. She then started looking at the now out-of-print newspaper, the Chicago Defender, and its coverage of classical music since the early 1900s — not blues or jazz, which would have been expected at that time. A white binder holds several printouts and copies of newspaper clippings dating all the way back to 1909, reporting things like “Mrs. Emma Mays is having a party at her house, featuring Bach cantatas” or “A Pleasant Sunday Afternoon and Christmas Musical,” along with more headlines Gill found. 

“It reads like something from England, not at all like something people would assume,” Gill said. “This was just normal, they weren’t forcing anything or trying to be like anybody. This is just who they were.” 

The prevalence of black classical music of that time has since been seemingly erased from today’s education and understanding of the history black musicians in America — exactly the narrative Gill is trying to change. 

“The reality is that [classical music] is the music of African Americans,” Gill said. “The history and origins of classical music — some is European, but there have been black classical composers in this country since before the Revolutionary War. So how are you saying it’s not our music? It is.”

Gill’s goal is to finish her research in the next couple of weeks. The roughly six-page research paper will be ready to submit to the Choral Journal of the American Choral Directors Association, but with her school schedule, she has to fit any remaining work into every bit of free time she has. If her research gets published in the Journal, she hopes that educators and black students all across the country come to learn about a long history of black classical music in Chicago and beyond. She wants her research to help black musicians realize that classical music is as much a part of their history and story as anyone else’s.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Clarion Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *