It’s not every day that students at EMU get to share the stage with one of the biggest names in gospel music.
So, when members of the EMU Chamber Singers and orchestra strings got the chance to perform with noted artist Hezekiah Walker on Sunday, the experience is one they will likely never forget.
The Grammy Award-winning singer, whose Hezekiah Walker Center for Gospel Music at Virginia Union University in Richmond hosted the event, led both EMU and VUU choirs as vocalist for the song “I Need You to Survive.”
Walker said on Thursday he was still fielding phone calls from people who were disappointed to miss the show.
“It was a major success,” he said. “People are still talking about it.”
For Jacob Nissley, a Chamber Singers tenor studying music education, watching Walker sing brought back memories. He was reminded of his time in Canton, Ohio, singing gospel hymns at the Baptist church down the street from his home church.
“That guy can sing,” Nissley said about Walker. “He can belt out all the notes.”
Soprano Reah Clymer, of Collinsville, Mississippi, also remarked on the experience.
“He was incredible,” she said. “It was great to work with him.”
Their song together served as the finale for a concert lasting more than three hours that featured prominent gospel artists Crystal Aikin, Jermaine Dolly and Group Fire. A live recording of the show will be submitted for consideration in the Grammy Awards’ special event category.
Not only was this the first time VUU has recorded a live performance, but also the first time Walker has performed with the choir for its homecoming gospel concert. He said he intends to shine a light on the two talented choirs.
“I felt like the world needs to hear what comes out of Virginia,” he said.
Walker added that as he watched the Chamber Singers during the concert, it was clear that they were well-prepared.
“I was amazed by the looks on their faces,” he said. “They knew the words, they knew the lyrics.”
Using music to connect
As a student majoring in music and peacebuilding, Clymer said she’s learned to use music as a form of connection across differences and cultures.
While EMU and VUU are both faith-based liberal arts institutions with strong music programs, the two schools have contrasting racial demographics and musical heritages.
EMU has a mostly white student body and VUU is a historically Black university. Traditionally, Mennonites sing in four-part harmony and don’t dance or move around as much when they perform, Clymer said.
But, as the choirs sang “I Need You to Survive,” rows of them linked arms and swayed back and forth.
“It was a cool breaking of that barrier to wrap our arms around each other and move a bit during that song,” Clymer said. “It’s a song about coming together, so it was a good tangible manifestation of that.”
That scene also left a powerful impression on Nissley.
“It was just a really good experience on stage, just being able to look at each other and sing the words to each other,” he said.
Walker said the EMU singers and musicians were invited to build unity. He emphasized the importance of collaboration across different cultures and races.
“There are groups that are fighting, there are backgrounds that are fighting, but then there’s another group of people,” he said. “We come from different backgrounds but we’re not fighting, we’re loving on each other.”
Clymer said one of her favorite memories from the trip was seeing Chamber Singers Director Benjamin Bergey and VUU Gospel Choir Director Joel Lester hug at the end of their performance together.
“Just to see them embracing each other like brothers, that image is imprinted in my mind,” she said. “That was a really sweet moment.”
A partnership in peace
Plans for the event came together last year when a board member of VUU and the Commonwealth Alliance of Rural Colleges — of which EMU is a member — approached the EMU and VUU presidents and proposed the idea of a joint music concert.
Bergey said the 18-student choir received its invitation about a month prior and worked quickly to prepare for the show. He wrote the orchestra part for their nine strings musicians. And the EMU and VUU ensembles rehearsed their song together just before the start of the concert on Sunday.
Those in attendance included President Susan Schultz Huxman; Executive Advisor Amy Springer Hartsell; Dan Ott, dean of the School of Theology, Humanities and Performing Arts; Shannon Dycus, vice president of student affairs and dean of students; Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed; and Music Program Director David Berry.
Huxman has said details are being worked out for EMU to host the VUU Gospel Choir in Harrisonburg next year for a concert.
Clymer welcomed the continued partnership between the schools.
“It would be really cool to see some of the same people again and to bring something like that to Harrisonburg,” she said. “It would be a real gift to the community here.”