So last summer, something profound, monumental and frankly amazing happened. The choir from Oakwood University in Huntsville Alabama came to the United Kingdom, competed in the choir of the world competition and were crowned 'Choir of the world' while their Director Jason Max Ferdinand walked away with the 'Conductor of the world' prize. They competed in many categories - Folk (they came 3rd for some reason), Mixed voice choirs (they came second) and Youth (they won this category) which enabled them go to the final and further raise the extremely high standard of excellence they had already set.
It is a remarkable feat in so many ways, not least because Oakwood University is a HBCU (Historically Black College or University). HBCUs generally do not have the same resources as other mainstream universities so for one of these to produce a choir competing at the elite stage is a testament to a remarkable hard work ethic and a spirit of excellence.
Navigating the changes
Anyone who knows me well knows that my musical journey started with me being part of a youth choir in my home church in Croydon. I've experienced first hand (as a member and as a choir director) the difficulty of leading a youth choir. The biggest difficulty (in my mind) is dealing with the transient nature of that phase of life. My youth choir was ranging from around 13-27 when I was in it and that is a time of a lot of change. Aside from the changes from junior to senior secondary school, to college/6th form and university, to work, there's also the fact that your body and mind is constantly changing and developing during those years. It is a highly transitionary time and as such it is difficult to find and maintain a commitment and excellence throughout those changes.
The Oakwood University Aeolians have found a way to maintain a consistent baseline standard of excellence which is something that gets built on every year. This is why this school and choir has produced amazing singers and musicians such as Take 6, Mervyn Warren, John Stoddart, Shelea Frazier, Amber Bullock, Committed to name a few. This is why they were amazing when I heard them live in 2013 - when they came to the UK en route to the world choir games (where they won gold in a few categories) - and they have improved exponentially despite numerous personnel changes in those 5 years. I would love to get a chance one day to sit down and really unpack what the secret of the Oakwood Aeolian formula is but from what I've gathered, they have a system in place which they inculcate in each incoming group and that sets the baseline for excellence. I recently listened to a podcast with the immensely talented Dr Jason Max Ferdinand where he lays out some of his philosophies. You can check it out here: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-embolden-podcast/id1303937432?mt=2&i=1000401479411
2017 UK mini-tour
Prior to the showdown in Wales, the choir completed a mini-tour where they performed in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Cardiff. I heard the Aeolians perform at St Pancras church in London on 1st of July 2017 and they were breathtakingly good. I think anyone who was there knows can attest to their brilliance. The power, clarity, versatility, tone and skill of the choir is something to behold. They have the unique ability to be at ease in pretty much any genre they choose, and not just be at ease, they can thrive in any of them.
They would have been worthy winners for any of the categories in which they competed - whether Youth, Mixed Voices or Folk (Steve Murphy's arrangement of 'I want Jesus to walk with me' still gives me goosebumps and you can watch it here). However My theory is that they needed groups for each category to represent in the final, so I understand why they didn't win every category.
It was a special moment for me on 8th of July 2017 at a hotel in Cardiff watching the Aeolians perform first in the final and blowing the minds of the judges and the competition. My wife and I watched their set and their rendition of ‘Entreat me not to leave thee’ was pretty special on the TV. I can only imagine what it felt like in the room. However gauging from the reactions of the 2 guys behind Dr Jason Max Ferdinand you could tell that people were moved and that performance convinced us that they would win. We captured the moment of truth when they won and you can find that on Facebook. More importantly, you can check out their winning performances here:
The Aeolians are unlike any other choir I’ve heard. Here is one of my favourite videos of the Aeolians on youtube where they sing together with my favourite acapella group ‘Take 6’ here:
We are privileged that a couple of UK artists who have featured on our channel are part of this illustrious choir. They are Naomi Parchment (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNyCEehYPdM) and Jeharna South (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pF6AIkYTU9Q&lc=z223u5vgks22wthpl04t1aokg0vs5e3z434wrrxffguerk0h00410) and they are doing big things! They both played an integral role in the success of the choir as did all their peers.
To the Aeolians of Oakwood University, Choir of the World 2017, we at One Sound Music salute you! Thank you for constantly raising the standard!
What’s your favourite song by the Aeolians? Let us know in the comments below 👇🏾