I’ve been captivated by the music of Andrea Ramsey for some time.  I find the texts she chooses to be particularly compelling, and the music she writes is beautiful and complex while accessible for young singers. I have attended sessions she gave at national ACDA conferences and I’ve always been impressed.

I decided to reach out to her by email and ask her some questions about her process and her work as both a conductor and a composer. To my delight, she promptly indulged my request. I am struck by how genuine and sincere her responses are.

You can learn more about Andrea Ramsey and find her catalog of works at her website: Andrea Ramsey

How do you choose poetry for your compositions?

Since almost everything I’m writing is commissioned right now, I’m working with those commissioners to learn what they hope to gain from the commissioning experience, any style or mood preferences they have, and details about the choir for which I’m writing.  Once I know those things, I usually have a better framework for what kind of poems might work.  And then I go digging.  I have several books of poetry, a file of “texts I’d like to set” and I often visit used book stores, and receive daily poetry emails to help with the never-ending hunt.  For me, the poem needs to be lyrical in quality or at least adept for being sung.  Not every poem is.  Some poems are stunning, but just don’t cry out to be sung.  Usually the commissioner and I will send one another ideas until we find something that resonates with both of us.  I am very clear at the outset to commissioners that I have to connect with the text.  That’s the one thing for which I’m a true stickler.

I heard a rumor that you have “poetry Tuesdays” with your choir. What is this? What is the effect it has had on your singers?

 This is an idea I stole  from Dr. David Brunner. I can’t take credit. I’m not sure that his day was Tuesday, but when I was at the University of Colorado Boulder, Tuesday seemed to work best as my pianist had to arrive a bit late on Tuesdays due to another class commitment.  I loved the idea of it, and personally, for me, it was born of a post-election desire to inject more beauty into the world.  Initially I think the students were surprised that I was reading the a poem once a week as part of our warm up, but I soon began to see them look forward to it.  Sometimes the students would close their eyes and just absorb it and smile or breathe.  It was a great time.  Now that I’m composing and guest conducting full time, I’ve tried periodically to keep poetry Tuesday alive on my Facebook composer page.

You’ve written some outstanding pieces for girls and women around the theme of women’s empowerment. I’m thinking specifically of “Letter from a Girl to the World,” “Truth”, and “Lineage”. What draws you to this theme, and why do you think this is important for our singers?

Each of these compositions were born a bit differently from one another.  “Letter” was written out of necessity.  I could not find a text for a very special group of students I was teaching, back in my junior high days when I wanted to write a tune for them to perform at our state conference.  At the same time I was textless, our school was doing a push for writing across the curriculum, so after getting help from my English teacher friends, we designed some prompts for them and I carved the text out of their written responses. The empowerment piece was a natural upwelling as a result of their honesty.  Over and over, I saw the same approval themes resurface “Am I good enough? Am I attractive enough? Am I worthy of someone’s love?”
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With Lineage, I just fell in love with Margaret Walker’s words and loved how the imagery conjured memories for me of my own grandmothers, one of whom only achieved an 8th grade education because she had to quit school to pick cotton because her family had become so poor, and the other who raised my dad beautifully as a single mother while also returning to college in the summers to become a teacher. I loved this idea of their strength and mine— knowing I’m standing on their shoulders and benefiting from the strength they have shown.  And then, isn’t it something to just marvel about the beauty of a strong woman, and the different forms those strengths can take!?  We see it in motherhood, in the board room, on the podium, in female leaders in world governments bridging gaps and finding new ways to work with others—everywhere.
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Truth was quite a painful write, just two months after my mother had passed.  I confused a deadline and ended up only having four days to write that piece, so the whole time I was working, I was crying and frustrated because I felt too close to it and knew I didn’t have ample time to let the ideas and the work “settle.”  I returned to themes I knew would resonate with women, and themes that for me personally were near to my relationship with my mother— who always told me I was beautiful and that she loved me.  It was cathartic but I also didn’t look at that work for probably 6-8 months after finishing it because I felt so insecure about what I’d created in that limited time.
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I do believe strongly in empowering young women to believe in themselves and get outside their comfort zones where the growth is.  A huge impact on my way of thinking with regard to this came in my time at Michigan State and my studies with Dr. Sandra Snow. I owe her a great deal for showing me how to take risks and teaching me I was capable of so much more than I believed.

You’ve had great success directing men’s choruses and have written some outstanding pieces for men. What might women conductors need to consider or adjust when working with men’s choruses?

When I was invited to do my first multi-day high school all-state event, it was the Louisiana All-State Men’s Chorus.  I was so nervous. I had no models to look to for that kind of event.  I’d never seen a woman conduct a men’s chorus at that level.  Every model I could draw from was a male conductor whipping a large male chorus into some sort of fraternal frenzy, and I knew I didn’t have that skills set.  One of my male colleagues who was kind enough to listen to me while I was venting my fears simply said to me, “Andrea, just do the music.”  In that moment, I realized I was guilty of projecting some sort of gendered expectation onto that male chorus.  The truth is, whether male or female, we all just want to do the music well, learn some things, and have a positive experience.  I went to Louisiana and did the music.  And this spring when I go to Northwest ACDA to conduct their high school TB honor chorus, I will do the same.  There can be differing energies or paces depending on the group, but in the end, we all honestly just want to do the music.

About the Author:

Sara Cowan is a choral director at Omaha Central High School, where she directs three curricular choirs, teaches AP music theory, and serves as Performing Arts Department Head. Previously, Sara taught at Laura Jeffrey Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota and directed the forty-member Twin Cities Jewish Chorale. She holds a B.A. in Music from Grinnell College and a M.M. in Choral Conducting from the University of Minnesota. In addition to her work at Central, Sara volunteers with Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility, where she leads a choir of inmates (men ages 16-21 who have been tried as adults). She also directs a children's choir at her synagogue, Temple Israel. Sara was named the 2016 Outstanding Young Choral Director by the Nebraska Choral Directors’ Association, and she currently serves as the NCDA’s Repertoire & Resources Chair for Women’s Choruses. She directed the 2017 OPS Middle School All-City Chorus and has written curriculum and led professional development workshops for OPS. Sara and her husband, Brian, are proud parents of two year-old Miriam.

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