By Heather J. Buchanan, professor of music and director of choral activities, John J. Cali School of Music, and conductor, Montclair State University Singers
When the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown forced us into virtual instruction, like so many choirs around the world, my students and I found creative ways to stay connected to each other and our art. Their original suggestion of a virtual choir project for a piece that was new in our repertoire, the Bahamian spiritual All My Trials, was made by one of our freshmen whose family had been affected by COVID illness. After discussion, my students believed that the message of the spiritual would be a comfort to other people in the community. So we proceeded to learn how to navigate this process.
I want to thank all the participating members of the Montclair State University Singers, who volunteered to sing in this virtual choir performance, and, in particular, I want to recognize two students who assisted tremendously with the technical work: Q Furnald for the audio editing and Colin Keyes for the video compilation. And as always, I want to thank our accompanist Steven W. Ryan who provided valuable support in the development of our virtual rehearsal and performance processes.
Since the end of the academic year, and while we’ve been wrestling with the post production challenges of this project, we have seen the world rocked again. The outrage over the murder of George Floyd has sparked fury at the systemic racism that has oppressed Black people in the United States for 400 years.
It has also inspired a worldwide response in support of the desperate need for the dismantling of traditional systems and toxic beliefs for the sake of Black lives everywhere.
In the research I did for All My Trials, I learned to my great surprise that during the 1960s, it was one of the standards of the popular folk song movement, and, more importantly, it earned the status of a civil rights movement anthem.
As a white Australian who has lived in the United States for nearly 24 years, I am currently on a very steep learning curve. In recording this introduction, I have an opportunity to acknowledge my white privilege and my ignorance of the complexities of the systemic racism here in the United States.
Most importantly, I have the opportunity to reaffirm my commitment to my students, my colleagues, my friends, and the wider community in which I live and serve – to listen, to learn and to grow in the pursuit of effective social justice reform.
It is imperative that we lay the foundation for a future free from discrimination now.
As a musician and an educator, I also believe there is valuable work that we can do by leveraging our art as a means of contributing positively to the difficult conversations about the complex and important issues.
Our need for compassion, unity and strength has never been greater.
The lyrics of All My Trials, the “Bahamian Lullaby,” tell the story of a mother on her deathbed comforting her children, but, as with all spirituals, there is a deeper message – in this case, that no matter how bleak the situation seems, the struggle will soon be over. Perhaps this expression of hope is why All My Trials has found resonance with so many people.
So as we seek to find healing in a world racked with pain and turmoil, the Montclair State University Singers offer our performance of All My Trials as a genuine gesture of goodwill on two fronts.
First, in keeping with our original intention that our collective struggle in the pandemic will soon be over, and we will emerge from the COVID lockdown resolved to be kinder and stronger.
But secondly, and most importantly, through the voice of a musical genre that is recognized as one of the most distinctive and rich musical contributions of the United States, we humbly promise to the Black members of our human family, that we will listen, we will learn, and we will grow in the pursuit of effective social justice reform so we can build a future free from discrimination for the sake of all humanity.
It is our privilege as musicians to build community through music and the human connections that music-making so highly values.
We sincerely hope you will accept our performance of All My Trials in the compassionate and loving spirit with which it is offered.
The performance of All My Trials begins at 5:35 in the video, after Heather J. Buchanan’s address.