"It's Gonna be Okay:" A Conversation with Walt Cunningham of Dartmouth's Gospel Choir

By Jenique RIchards '22, Hop Fellow in Events Management

A Gospel Choir member talks with the director about what's special about this group and its music, especially its upcoming October 26 concert.

Step into Faulkner Recital Hall around 8:30 pm on a Monday night and what you'll see (and hear) may surprise you. A group of people, both students and adults, standing, swaying, and clapping on 2 and 4, each vocal part singing a different variation of "He has done marvelous things, praise the Lord." A man is sitting at a piano playing and ad-libbing as the choir sings. They get to the end of the phrase and then modulate up a half-step. They do this again and again and again until it seems everyone has gotten to the top of their register. When it seems they can't go any higher, they finish the final phrase, holding out the last "Lord" before collapsing into their seats. And that's just the vocal warmup. 

This is how nearly every Gospel Choir rehearsal begins and that is exactly what I saw when I stepped into Faulkner that first week of the fall of 2018 as an excited first-year entranced by the Choir's incredible performance in the A Capella Showcase just a few days prior. It was that vocal warmup, along with the charismatic man playing the piano (our director, Walt Cunningham), that convinced me to stay - to this day. 

Entering into my second year of being in the Gospel choir, I began to reflect on how much my participation in the group meant to me and how much it has helped me through my college experience. I thought about how amazing our concerts were and how much fun it is being in the group. I began to wonder, just how does this all come together to be what it is? 

With the  date of the Fall Concert (October 26) approaching, I sat down with Walt to discuss the Gospel Choir and just what exactly goes into planning such an event. (This interview has been edited for clarity.)

As the director, how do you view Gospel Choir as a Hop Ensemble and in relation to the College? 

By the Gospel Choir having the distinction of being a Hop Ensemble, we have a uniqueness in comparison to the other ensembles for a few reasons. First, I have a dual relationship with different entities within the College, including Tucker [Center for Spiritual and Ethical Life]. Being a group that sings music of love, faith and inspiration, the word "faith" puts me in a religious connotation. So, I think that I have to approach this not solely as an ensemble that produces artistic work, which obviously I look to do, but I have to approach it in the context of being a religious support structure for its membership. While I really take the artistic offering of what we do seriously, I try to balance that with the religious value we bring not just to students but to the College in general. Also, the College has an emphasis and a continuance towards diversity. The Gospel Choir has continued to be, and I will submit to you, will be one of the best vehicles on this campus for diversity. We've got different nationalities, different ethnicities, different ages, different faith streams - I mean, it's that group that can enhance Dartmouth in its global goals to enhance diverse experiences for its students. So, I think that the Gospel Choir as a Hop Ensemble has to balance these aspects as well as execute its mission. 

What do you feel are the benefits and challenges (if any) of having such a diverse group? 

The benefits by far outweigh the challenges. One of the benefits is that when you have people who come in with different experiences, you have different vantage points. A tapestry is rich when you have many different threads going through. That's when you see the beauty of it. Not to say that there's not a beauty to seeing a homogenous offering. But we get different perspectives and I think that allows us to put out a different product. But also, I think that when we create art, we have the people that are involved, the artist themselves. But we can't do it totally unaware of our consumer. By having the diversity present in the choir, the consumer gets that different experience. When you're in the audience, it's one thing if I were to have this group of twenty-five 18-22-year-old students of color. I'm not saying it wouldn't be powerful or good, but it's different. It allows me to put out a product that's varied. Now, like anything else, when you have a lot of different ingredients involved, how does each ingredient get its role? If you're making a gumbo (and I love gumbo), it has a lot of stuff in it. How do you make it to where it has the right balance? You know, forgive me, the gumbo analogy was not the best analogy since I don't cook gumbo, but I know some of the ingredients in it. What makes gumbo feel good is that you have the different ingredients. You taste it, you go mmm, there's the seafood element, there's the spices, there's the rice, there's the chicken, and so on. But the reality is, you have to work at it to make sure that is it has a balance to it. Part of the challenge of the Gospel Choir is that there's the student component and remembering this is called Dartmouth College Gospel Choir, not Dartmouth community, not Upper Valley community, not Chicago, not Walt Cunningham group, but the Dartmouth College Gospel Choir. So, how do we make sure that the student presence is alive, well and healthy? Yet, how do we take those other elements (alumni, community, professional ringers, faculty/staff) to where they're involved in it? That's a challenge but I also think it's the very strength of the group. 

How do you balance the diversity of the group without losing the "gospel" sound? 

So, interestingly enough, you know, you've been a part of it. I'll sit there and I'll tell folks, okay you all, let me tell you certain things that we got to have you do. Part of it is staying true to the aspects and characteristics that make Gospel what it is. But also, it's doing it in a manner that make people safe. There is a certain characteristic of Gospel music and I may have people come in and they never had that. So how can I make the environment feel safe? How can I make it feel fun? But, how can I make it to where it stays true to form? I balance that and that's part of the great thing of having a group that's larger. If you've come into Gospel Choir and you've never sung gospel before, it's a little bit more comfortable if you have four or five people around you singing and you're doing it together. So, first of all, I hate to say it, but misery loves company, or company loves misery. I don't want to use that cause that's not true. But the point is, you're going through that together. So, I think having the group application is very key. 

You have been the director of the choir for going on 17 years. In your time as director, in what ways has the group evolved? How did it develop into what it is today? 

So, clearly it has grown in numbers. It's grown in capability. When I came, there was an artistic director who would come from Boston, J.C. White. He had been directing the choir for some length of time, you know 18 or 20 years maybe. He came from Boston, and he would come up twice a term, but it was predominantly student-run. I like to think that when I got here, I tried to infuse a higher, for lack of a better word, a higher caliber of instruction and a little bit more instrumentation. I knew that while [sparse instrumentation] is fine for some gospel music, I knew that the total genre is really vast. I knew that we had to embrace a larger instrumentation. So, I introduced more instruments like horns, strings, synthesizers, organ, pianos, all that. But also, I like to think that I approached it in this way of, "Walt, I know that you worked with Gospel choirs over the years and it was typically black Christian people," and realized that I had to change that paradigm and say I might be open for whatever membership comes. What happens if the young Jewish lady comes and says, "You know, Walt, I wanna sing. I'm of Jewish faith"? Come! What about the person who says, "I'm Muslim"? Come! What about the person who says, "You know, Walt, I don't really have a—." Come! I try to have less of an emphasis on Judeo-Christian messaging, but more so on general messaging that probably crosses over religious boundaries, crosses over to even if you don't have a religious background. I think we all can agree that we should try to help one another by being there for each other, being supportive, being that kind of thing. So, I try to find those messages that are general. 

Switching gears to the fall concert, is there a theme for the concert and if there is, where did it come from? 

Yes, there is a theme. I think everyone knows that we're living in times where you watch the TV and it's just negativity and news that happens with shootings and fires and the government and all this division, and it's easy to get caught up. I just wanted to go ahead and say, "You know something, don't believe the hype. Yes, we see what you're bombarded with, but guess what, you need to know that it's gonna to be okay." And, quite frankly, I heard that song over the summer, OK by Kirk Franklin, and I said, "Wow, yeah!" It helped me. So, I heard that and thought, this is my theme. So, all the songs, for the most part, are songs that basically say, don't ascribe to this negative thought you're having, like with the song You Say. It says, "Don't ascribe to the mentality of thinking you're not enough, you are okay. You are enough." Don't ascribe to the mentality of, "Do the righteous prosper?" And the thing is, yeah, I've never seen the righteous forsaken. You know, "Hey y'all do you have it; do you have it like you know you should? Do you talk about your brother or do you pray for him?" Do you seek to rise him up? That's what drove my theme. I just want to let folks know it'll be okay and together we can persevere. 

You've mentioned that you chose songs surrounding the theme, could you go more specifically into how you chose the songs for the set list for the concert? 

I tried to make sure it is diverse. No one wants to go to a concert and hear all ballads. Do we have high-energy numbers? Do we have numbers that make people want to stand up and clap? Do I have those songs where people go, "Oh my God, that was so emotionally-charged?" Do I have songs that have other influences? For example, with Todos Juntos, I wanted to do something Latin-inspired. I always try to see if I can do what I call a cross-pollination of other genres. Sometimes it may be something that may be inspired by R&B, or something else. I try to make sure as I pick the songs that, musically speaking, it has a varied presentation. Then, like I said in gospel, there's contemporary gospel, traditional gospel, anthems, spirituals, and a capella. So, I try to look at a concert and say, am I covering, maybe not the whole vastness of gospel, but am I covering enough of it. For example, Soul Anthem (It is Well) is my hymn, combined with a capella. When I do, Glory, Glory Hallelujah, that's the old-school, but then if I do Righteous Forsaken or I'm Gonna Wave my Hands, that's contemporary. That's what I try to do. 

How do each of the "five pillars" (students, faculty/staff, community, alumni, ringers) factor into the concert? 

I never know what I'm going to need from each pillar. You know why? The student is the most important; it's Dartmouth College. The first thing I do is I look and see who's here. 

The D-plan, the D-plan, the D-plan. This year, my junior class is virtually not on campus.  So, the first thing that I try to do is see who's here and who's coming. Do I have a lot of sopranos, a lot of altos, do I not have tenors, etc? I do a needs assessment. Based on that, I look at the community, who is the glue of the choir. Then, of course I look at the faculty and staff; I consider them a part of the whole community. You know, this summer, when everybody was frolicking, I was planning my program. I was doing the arrangements, the recordings, everything. I do that not knowing what I'm going to encounter in the fall. I don't know who's going to be there. So, then I sit there and say, "Okay, what do I need to do to augment them?" That's when the alumni and the professional ringers come into play. I use them to fill the ranks, based on where the opportunities and voids are. 

Many people who have gone to a Gospel Choir before know there is a live band playing behind the choir. How do you bring the band together and what is its preparation process? 

There are actually three components of the live band. The first component are the people that I have known for 25 to 30 years; they know my dates of my performances for the whole next year and they put them in their books, so they know I'm going to use them. The second component is the Upper Valley and the Dartmouth community. My whole strings and horns sections basically are that. Professors, staff people and community members play. I have a point of contact, Michael Zsoldos, who has been my arranger for the last 14 to 15 years. He's from Woodstock and he teaches on campus. He knows the players and he and I will sit down and analyze the music. He'll say, "Hey Walt, we need a six-piece horn section, a strings section," and he'll hire them. The final piece is students. In the horn section, I typically always have students. I have students who play in the Coast Jazz Orchestra in the horns section and some in the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra who play in the string section. And, it varies by term. One term, I may have a vast majority of professionals and other terms I may have students comprise a third of the band. 

Do you have separate rehearsals, practices? 

Yes, we do. Plus, I send learning aids so they can prepare, just like in the choir. They can't just come and learn the piece the day of or the day before the concert, no. Wouldn't be pretty. 

Many do not know about the involvement of Bryan Robinson '16 in the management of the choir. Could you shed some light on his role in DCGC? 

Bryan is the Producing Associate of the Choir. If you look at all I do, which includes Gospel Choir, Dartmouth Idol and the pop group, there's an administrative aspect, which is tremendous here. It's working with your students, making sure rehearsal times are out, making sure the theater's available, logistics regarding travel and everything. Then, there's the artistic piece, which is where somebody helps me with the material selection, material creation, making sure the learning aids are created, making sure of the execution of rehearsal. In the past, that's been two positions. But, Bryan the last couple of years, has navigated both of them and has been tremendously, at times overwhelmingly, challenged because sometimes, it's enough work for three people. So, Bryan is helping me do this. In addition, there's the technological aspect. Bryan, being incredibly tech-savvy, helps me make sure that we navigate stuff like putting the learning aids on the website to a level of success. 

He's great. 

Yeah, he is. 

Recently, students have begun to be able to receive credit for their participation in any Hop Ensemble (including Gospel Choir) through the Music 59 course. Does this play a role in preparation or during the concert? 

It sure does. It's been a year since this started. It's one of the best things. Why? Many of you are going to go through this, even you, in the fact that you're writing this article. Do you know that part of the execution of a group like this is worthy of academic recognition? Not just from the aspect of learning the material, but administratively, academically and promotionally. I am grateful that the school now recognizes those select students who dig a little deeper, that this is a worthy way to dig deeper, and the value in varied experience that participants can have. So, I think Music 59 is a way to officially recognize it and give credit. 

What is something about the Gospel Choir that you wish the general public or Dartmouth community knew? 

Well, it's easy to come to the concert, look up on the stage and say, "Oh my God, they're so happy, look at this, there having so much fun!" I want folks to know that if you peel this layer back, it's so much more than you think it is. It is multi-faceted. Do you guys have a good time singing gospel? Absolutely. But I'm also concerned with your professional development, your personal development, and your behavioral development. And I just use gospel music as a vehicle to go to students like yourself and say, what can I do to enrich their experience? Not just singing, but what can I do so that they're growing from this. Number 2, it's more work than people think. People will come in and I always ask, "Do you have a pen and paper?" They'll answer, "No, I'm just coming in to have a good time." And I want you have a good time, but there are processes and procedures; there are best practices that I want folks to understand. 

The folder… 

The folder, you know, yeah, and so that's the big thing I want folks to understand. There's more to this. Then, the final thing is, there's a tendency for people to go, "Oh, Gospel? I'm not religious, that's not for me." They'll automatically think this isn't something that they can do and I'll tell folks, not denying that there are certain gospel groups you hear and you can tell that it's very much about the Church, the Christian experience, and inviting people to discipleship with Jesus Christ for them. Absolutely. I want folks to know that with this application particularly, I try to make sure that it is a little more broad-appealing and not focused on the myopic religious thing. I try to make the experience be one that everyone can get something out of so that you can walk out and say, "I enjoyed it." 

How could the average audience member benefit from going to see the concert? What could they take away from it? 

First of all, they're going to leave feeling better. I have no doubt about this. I feel that for this concert, probably, more than the vast majority of the concerts in the past. I felt so led to give folks a message of inspiration this term. Don't get caught up in the hype of what you see when you watch the news. I want folks to know that when they come to this, they're going to leave feeling better, if not through the message, then in just looking up at the sheer joy in the group itself. I hope that you'll leave and you'll feel that joy, you feel that power and that love. 

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So, come join us. This will be something for everyone, all ages and all backgrounds.

Meet Jenique and the other Hop Fellows for 2019-20!