Introducing Gospel Choir Guest Director: Knoelle Higginson

Maeve Fairbanks

Teaching artist and performer Knoelle Higginson took over as guest director of the Dartmouth College Gospel Choir this fall with over 17 years of experience teaching choirs and a lifetime of experience in the performing arts. She hopes to help the tradition of the Gospel Choir thrive in the Upper Valley, is excited about the overwhelming talent of her students, and grateful to have been so warmly welcomed into the Dartmouth community—a community which has held significance to her since she was young.

"My uncle is a graduate of Dartmouth," Knoelle said. "It was an incredible coincidence [to be asked to work at Dartmouth] because it was such a big part of his life. When I was growing up, it was like, this is what your uncle did, this is what we look up to. He's an African American male and he graduated from Dartmouth at a time when there were very few. It's a lot to live up to, but having this connection ties things together, it comes full circle. Blessings from the universe. I feel proud."

Knoelle lives in Harlem where she runs a cultural arts institution—Mama Foundation for the Arts—which her family founded in 1999 after they arrived home from touring the world with their musical, Mama I Want To Sing! Hop Executive Producer Joshua Price Kol found Knoelle there; he traveled from Dartmouth to New York City to see Knoelle direct and sing with her choir—a choir which was recently featured on NBC's America's Got Talent—at a restaurant called Red Rooster in Harlem. Kol had been searching for a director for the Gospel Choir, and Knoelle was a great fit.

"We called it a 'bump'—we bumped into something great," Knoelle said. "When I got to tell my uncle he was like, What? How did this all happen? My father is ecstatic, he was always trying to figure out a way for me to attend an Ivy League and do arts at the same time. He's off his rocker right now."

Knoelle still works full time at her school in Harlem, but every Thursday, she makes the five hour drive from New York City to Hanover, runs her rehearsal, and then makes the five hour drive home, and is back teaching at her school on Friday. 
"I was like, lets see if we can pull this off," Knoelle said. "I think [Dartmouth] is someplace I want to stay. I see the choir coming up out of the valley of Covid and into the light, I see off-campus performances, and I definitely want to continue to be here. It feels very easy, like home. [My students] come up to me after every class and they say, thank you. Thank you is the biggest thing you can say to anyone, it says so much in so little. It really feels like community to me."

Knoelle said when she first arrived at Dartmouth, her students were "hungry" to sing. Usually when she works with a new group, she has techniques she uses to help draw students out, she explained. At Dartmouth, there was no need. She was able to start her group out at a high level of difficulty right away. 

"The first rehearsal was insane from top to bottom," Knoelle said. "They were singing their faces off, there was not one crack, they were ready. I kept them singing in rounds [for] the entire rehearsal and we all left floating. There was a lot of love and joy. The people felt confident, a conjunctive feeling was relief because they didn't want this choir to stop, we want to keep this going, it's an incredible tradition."

Knoelle is passionate about offering African American music studies at schools. She says if African American Studies programs are lacking in school systems, music is lacking even more. With a passion for building a narrative for Black musical traditions, Knoelle's parents founded the Mama Foundation for the Arts, and Knoelle continues their legacy. 
"I think it's valuable work," Knoelle said. "I'm an only child, and their body of work is so tremendous that I need to pay it forward. It's way too valuable for it to die off. You never know who you're going to be, but I ended up doing what they were doing. [Performing arts] has been in my life from day one. I was born into an incredible situation full of love and entertainment."