“Music is calling us to be our best selves. We’ve got to be as musicians in the 21st century…; we can’t just rest on the way things have been—we’ve got to continue to perpetuate new music lovers and continue to tell stories…” —Adrian Dunn, Director of Choral Programs
After a two-year hiatus, choral music returns to Colburn, now under the leadership of conductor, composer, and singer, Adrian Dunn. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Adrian joins us in Los Angeles by way of the Midwest, where he began his musical education like so many: in church.
Growing up in a little congregation his family still attends in East Cleveland—Starlight Baptist Church—Adrian says he was singing as young as five or six. Starting so early not only taught him how to sing, he says, but also how to perform in front of people.
That valuable foundation would carry Adrian through high school all-state choirs and summers at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. He would go on to be an undergraduate at the Music Conservatory at Roosevelt University in Chicago, with additional studies in opera at the Sibelius Academy of Music in Helsinki, Finland, before returning to Roosevelt for a master’s degree in voice and opera.
This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.
Who are your musical influences?
Wow—influences. I just did an album about my influences, so this is an interesting! I would say Moses Hogan, Roland Carter, Nathan Carter. I am a Beethoven fan. Prince. Oh, Whitney Houston! You know, I’m influenced by all kinds of music: on the jazz side, definitely, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Jasmine Horn, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, love Gregory Porter. On the hip-hop side, Kanye and Common—I’m a millennial, so I grew up where that was popular music. And so, your Boyz 2 Men’s, your Drew Hill’s, and all of those are how I learned to harmonize in high school, kind of simultaneously with my more formal training, which, for me, included Haydn’s Paukenmesse, Poulenc’s Gloria, the Beethoven Choral Fantasy in the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus—so I was in the midst of so much music. And that was helpful to me as an adult going into opera. My favorite opera composer is Verdi, love Richard Strauss; those are some of my favorites on the other side.
Who are your favorite vocalists?
Whitney Houston, for sure. Pavarotti. I like Jonas Kaufman, Placido Domingo, Larry Brownlee, Russell Thomas, Simon Estes, Kiri Te Kanawa, Leontyne Price, Renee Fleming… a friend of mine, J’Nai Bridges—I love her voice. There are just so many singers that I’m kind of in love with, but those are a few off the top.
Do you think there’s any throughline that draws you to the artists you mentioned?
They all possess a level of virtuosity in their singing that is truly special. I believe that everyone can learn to sing—clearly, I’m a voice teacher—I think everyone can learn to sing and can be a better singer. And at the same time, I think that there are also people who were just put on the earth to sing.
How did you get into choral education?
In my senior year of high school, I had the ability to do an independent study for my senior project, so I was the choir director for the women’s training choir in my high school. My choir director gave me a lot of space and latitude in regards to picking my own music, and I had to conduct a class. He was always there of course, but he was very hands-off, and that really allowed me to use that time as a laboratory for learning. That project set me up in a lot of ways. During my summers at Interlochen, I started a choir to explore the music of Black composers. As an adult singing with various groups, I learned more about the professional level.
Regarding the senior project, were there parameters or was it self-directed?
I feel like there might have been; it’s been so long, but what I do remember is my teacher. He and I were very close, and he was a real mentor to me. He wanted to show me the ropes beyond just those projects. He was a person I saw every day, and he gave me an idea of what a working musician really does outside of that highest professional level: what it’s like to go in a classroom. That teaching part is what he helped me understand, and I was able to develop a real pedagogy and philosophy on choral music.
Segueing off of pedagogy, would you speak about your plans for the Community School Choral Program that you are building?
I’m hoping that through the next few years we’re able to grow, to raise the level of what it is that we do—that every genre of music we perform, we do excellently. I also feel like keeping the focus on the music and singing, especially together, are the things we need in order to help students have the confidence, the self-image, and the important life skills that are so valuable to becoming a citizen in our society. I think being able to share with younger people is so critical but particularly in this day and age where students can feel alone or isolated or like they don’t have support. Music quite literally saved my life, so to be able to bring all of these experiences that we just talked about, to share this love of music with young people in the community… I think that’s the whole point.
Would you speak more about the differences between the three choir ensembles?
The children’s choir is for our youngest children to get their feet wet and explore the basics of choral singing: what is it to be in a group; etiquette, posture, technique; and how to practice. Youth Chorus is an intermediate group, a preparation for the concert choir. And then the more advanced group is the Concert Choir. They will do four-part arrangements and explore a larger breadth of work, both in terms of genre and level of difficulty.
What do you want your students to learn, to achieve?
I want them to achieve musical independence—musical thought that is their own—to be able to walk away feeling empowered, like they’ve learned something. I hope that students are able to come away feeling like they’ve truly had a life experience, something that has changed them for the better.
Would you speak more about this idea of musical independence?
It’s autonomous thought of being able to say, I think this because of this, you know? I think through music, you get to learn so much—I mean, there are so many composers in the world, and very often we’re only familiar with maybe 10 names. So for me, it’s important to cultivate the kind of learning where students are able to say, ‘I know that this is valuable for me.’ I’ve talked about music in my own life, and how these choirs are about more than just learning pieces and coming to rehearsal. They’re more about lifelong music-making: How are you going to make music for the rest of your life? And how can music serve you in your life?
Learn about the Community School Choral Program
Interested in joining one of the choirs? Sign up to audition here.
For more information about the choirs or the Community School’s other offerings, submit an inquiry here.
Support our Choral Ensembles
With Adrian’s exciting new appointment, we are calling out to our community to help us start the School’s first ever collection of choral music. Our choral students need scores for rehearsals and performances this year, and we need you! Any gift, big or small, can get us closer to our goal of $3,000, so please make a gift today.
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