2018-02-01 / Up Close

Raising Voices

Anthony Leach and his Essence of Joy singers build a community through music
Robyn Passante | Photos by Matt Fern

“We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us” is one of Essence of Joy choir director and founder Anthony Leach’s oft-used phrases. He may be referring to choir members from previous years whose dedication and talent have created and sustained the group’s reputation for excellence. He may be referring to the composers and first singers of the African and African-American spirituals and songs the choir performs, those whose calls to community, faith and hope are kept afloat by today’s chorus of student voices.

What he probably isn’t referring to but can be inferred nonetheless is that for the past 27 years, Leach himself has served as just such a guiding force and pillar of strength for hundreds of students who have stood on risers before him, honing their singing abilities while finding their voices.

“Music is the vehicle that attracts us, but we’re dealing with people,” says Leach, who came to Penn State in 1991 to pursue a doctoral degree and never left. “And in this instance we’re dealing with people that are still trying to cross the t’s and dot the i’s and get things together so they can move forward, get their degrees and make some money. But I am about building great citizens, from the inside out.”

Leach does that in myriad ways. First, he gives them something to aspire to and be proud of, as a part in Essence of Joy takes an audition and at least a yearlong commitment to three rehearsals per week and a fairly rigorous performance schedule. It is a group that has traveled the world, and is led by a man who has been invited to be guest conductor for festivals and workshops all over the globe.

“When you start as a student, I think he can feel very intimidating, because his reputation for excellence precedes him,” says Christie McKinney, a member of Essence of Joy from 2004 to 2007 and a current member — and board president — of Essence of Joy Alumni Singers, founded in 2005.

“And then you relax a little bit once you kind of see the vibe of the organization.”

That vibe includes a healthy mix of professionalism and personality. Leach expects his students to be focused and present, to give him their all. And one need only attend an Essence of Joy concert to recognize that they do.

But it is most certainly a mutual agreement.

“This is a safe place,” he says of his choir. “They have been in my bank account; they remain in my bank account. I have paid tuition. I have paid rent. I’ve gone to get people out of jail. It’s a relationship.”

Leach’s legacy with Essence of Joy began in January 1992, when he was asked to pull together a choir to perform for the annual MLK Banquet on campus. So he chose a handful of compositions and invited anyone from several of the university’s choirs to participate. There were no auditions, and no expectation that the assembled 23 volunteer singers would share the stage beyond that one performance.

But another invitation to perform followed in February, and another in March, and before Leach knew it, he realized he had created something unique in the sharing of African and African-American music that the community obviously needed.

“On one level, it’s a call to remembrance. On another level, it is commentary on historical events, on current events. On another level, the wide variety of styles and idioms we address enables us to sing choral music at the highest artistic standards that we are able to attain. And then there’s what I call ‘Sunday morning music,’ from the congregational experience in a black church. We go from that to concert settings to spirituals, to things that are highly choreographed, hip-hop and whatever else. Poetry,” he says. “And any given concert includes all of those elements.”

McKinney says the opportunity to learn and share such music as part of Essence of Joy has profoundly enriched her life.

“I think there’s an aspect of a really compelling story in African-American music, and it’s generated from a place of real heart and soul, in a way that European background music is a different type of heart and soul. That came from a place of much more control in terms of what notes you can use and where you can perform this music,” she says. “But African-American music came from a place of building community, and people sang before they wrote things down. So there’s a lot more emotion infused from the very beginning of the work. It feels more joyful.”

Photo by Gene Miller.Photo by Gene Miller.

That joy is expressed in the name itself, borrowed from a small choral ensemble Leach once saw in Harrisburg. “I was totally impressed with their a cappella singing and thought to myself, ‘If I ever organize another choir, this is the name I will use,’ because it encompasses an aesthetic and emotional balance that is wrapped up in the sound and expression of the singers.”

It is a joy so apparent to those who hear the choir that in 1999 Leach grew tired of community members asking if they could join the group, so he started Essence 2.

“It has always been community-based, y’all come, middle school to the grave, literally. No auditions,” he says of Essence 2, which performs throughout each fall in concerts he directs. “They are an absolutely phenomenal group of people not only from State College but all surrounding communities.”

Then in 2005, he sent out an invitation for Penn State alumni who had been in Essence of Joy to return for a special Homecoming concert. Seventy people showed up, and Essence of Joy Alumni Singers was born.

McKinney, a State College native who now lives in Washington, D.C., says being in the Essence of Joy Alumni Singers has fostered incredible friendships and given her an outlet to participate in community building and education at a time when both are particularly critical.

“I think the political climate and the racial tension in the country has forced us to sharpen our focus and be more clear about what we value. So our board has been doing that work for the past year,” she says. “I think we all feel that it’s more important than ever to do the work we do.”

Luckily for singers in all three groups as well as anyone who has seen them perform over the past nearly three decades, Leach has been the leader whose shoulders are as strong as his heart is open.

“This is a labor of love for him. This takes a lot of his time and energy and dedication,” says McKinney of Leach, who will be retiring from the university in June but continuing his work with Essence 2 and the Alumni Singers. “He’s really passionate about the work we’re doing, and he really cares about doing it well.”

“He calls his singers ‘the best people this side of heaven,’” McKinney says, and it’s obvious the feeling is mutual. •SCM

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