From the Director's Desk

May 20, 2021

by Martin Jean

Every year has its contrasts and confluences, but I’ve been more aware of them than ever this year. These late April days are an example: In the Christian West, some think of this fourth week of Easter as following “Good Shepherd” Sunday, but in the Christian East, Orthodox have only now begun Holy Week leading to Easter on May 2. At the same time, our Muslim siblings celebrate the Holy Month of Ramadan, while in close proximity, we remembered Yom Hashoah on April 8 and Mahavir Jayanti, one of the chief Jain festivals, on April 25. Our globe is crisscrossed with an intricate web of disparate timelines.

The pandemic brings a contrast of a more brutal kind: While many Americans might feel privileged (as I do) to have been fully vaccinated, others are hesitant to accept the vaccine. Further, while the abundance of these drugs in the United States is impressive, there are many places in the world without access because of unequal distribution of resources. Finally, while some sectors of the world are re-opening, countries like India and states like my home of Michigan are suffering at catastrophic levels previously unseen.

We are a planet of contrasts, disparity, and difference, and yet we all share the same good earth. The inequities of access and resources have been here for so very long, they are invisible to many of us; some among us have just now awakened to them because of the peculiar combination of isolation and electronic access into which this pandemic has forced us.

The students, faculty, and staff of the Institute have spent a good deal of time this year studying, talking, and reflecting on the many differences and commonalities within our community and in the world. We have a lot more work to do; in fact, it is work that never ends. We had a deeply enriching Colloquium series this year around the theme of Art, Faith, and Racial Justice, featuring some of this country’s most prominent artists. We began a series called Race, Power, and the Production of Musical Canons in which we engaged with scholars such as Guy Ramsey, Braxton Shelley, and Loren Kajikawa. And we’ve had a task force of members of Institute and Divinity School communities speaking to leaders in our fields, and hearing from alums about our work. Just this week, our faculty adopted some of their recommendations.

Our top priority is the recruitment of a scholar of Black church music to lead a significant initiative in the field. There are few models in the academy for this, so we will need to engage prayerfully the wisdom from churches on what is needed today, but we are determined that a robust partnership with Yale Divinity School and its program in Black Church Studies will yield rich fruit for generations to come. In addition to rigorous training in the history and theory of Black church musical practices, Divinity students and others will have access to private lessons in instruments and voice to help them grow in confidence and skill to serve as leaders in their communities.

Along the same lines, we will discern ways to serve communities of Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian/Asian-American Christians as well. There is a growing pool of scholars in these fields who could lead similarly rich initiatives, expanding musical analysis beyond formalism to engage anthropological and theological methodologies to understand music as a social practice embedded in communities.

Even while looking outward into new horizons, we have also begun to re-examine our internal academic practices. One of the original purposes central to the ISM was to make a space for clergy and musicians to study together. Not surprisingly, this happens most frequently in courses that are team taught across musical and theological disciplines. In this year of accentuated contrasts and crosscurrents, we recommit ourselves to this practice, and all the faculty have agreed to strengthen their efforts in this regard. Similarly, our entry level courses deserve close scrutiny to ensure that cross-cultural competencies are being fostered, and a broad review of our curriculum will continue into next year and beyond.

Our organ program, traditionally the chief producer of church musicians in the ISM, also benefits from this outward engagement and inward reflection. The need for us to develop a multiplicity of skills in our organists has never been greater. They need to be outstanding instrumentalists in their own right, since this is the degree they will earn from the School of Music. On top of that, they must also have strong competencies in choral music and conducting, be skilled in the leadership of multiple kinds of congregational song, and fluent in theology and liturgy. At the very least, this will require we recruit a new organ professor, who, like our beloved Prof. Murray, is a church leader at heart, a superb, multi-faceted liturgical musician with strong skills in front of a choir—and a consummate organist. Among other things, we will be forming a small training choir (the ISM Vespers Choir) the organists can work with to help develop these important musical and interpersonal skills. We must also engage more deeply with leaders in parishes to develop a wider network of learning for our students.

Currently, there are reading committees and discussion groups considering the future of other open faculty positions in choral conducting, religion and literature, liturgical studies, and medieval musicology, and I hope to have updates on these in the fall.

On a personal level, I admit the work seems daunting! I have so much to learn from those who are not currently represented in the ISM. As graduates and friends of our program, I ask for your prayers and counsel both to keep us on the path and to keep us accountable. Clearly, there has never been a year where the need has been greater to ensure ISM is a place where all are welcome and can flourish. I am grateful to you for your ongoing support and encouragement.