Lee’s vocal programs build a legacy of musical excellence.
After a tremendous performance by the Lee University Festival Choir at the 57th U.S. Presidential Inauguration in January, Lee University gained widespread recognition for its superior vocal programs. But this isn’t the first time one of the college’s ensembles has met with major success. Lee’s legacy of hard work, commitment and talent in vocal music has been many years in the making,
By Maria Oldham
Lee’s eight ensembles — including Choral Union, Campus Choir, Chorale, Evangelistic Singers, Festival Choir, Ladies of Lee, Lee Singers and Voices of Lee—have performed both nationally and internationally, and done countless professional recordings and performances over the years with gospel artists such as Natalie Grant, Alvin Slaughter, The Crabb Family, Ron Kenoly, Geron Davis and Kindred Souls. In total, Lee’s ensembles have released over 75 full-length recordings including vinyl LPs, cassettes, CDs, and DVDs.
Within Lee’s music program, there are five undergraduate degrees and four graduate degrees. In all, the university has around 340 music majors in a school with 48 degree options and just under 5,000 students. The growing music program draws talented students from around the world. Currently, countries represented among the vocal ensembles include China, the Philippines, Germany, Russia, Haiti, and many more.
The staff, which consists of 26 full-time employees and 30 part-time employees, accounts for a large part of the school’s success in vocal music. “The quality of the student has grown,” says William Green, Dean of the School of Music and director of Festival Choir and Chorale, “but what makes Lee great is the faculty. We have built a dedicated faculty made up of high achievers. The students get the benefit.”
Lee’s reputation as a “vocalist mecca,” says Campus Choir director Jimmy Phillips, can be attributed to a rich collection of gifted voice teachers and the wide range of vocal styles taught at Lee, including gospel, classical, contemporary worship, and a cappella music. Green explains that with support from their administration, the program has evolved musically with the culture. “Classics are always a part of life, but the world of music is much broader than that now.We give students the skills to be musically productive in modern culture,” Green says.
Across the Country & Around the World
For William Green, the performance at the Presidential Inauguration this year was a “marker experience” for the Festival Choir. Made up of 350 members selected from Lee’s seven vocal groups, the ensemble performed a half-hour of music—eight musical pieces—at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. As the country watched, the students maintained a professional attitude that left their director saying he “wouldn’t change a thing about their performance.”
Many of Lee’s ensembles keep up a regular touring schedule. Lee’s Evangelistic Singers, an auditioned 50-member ensemble known for its performances of spirituals and gospel music, regularly performs across the Southeast as well as in Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the Virgin Islands.
The Campus Choir, although it began as a non-touring choral ensemble 50 years ago, shifted into an auditioned touring choir with an emphasis on worship under the direction of Dr. David Horton (Lee music professor from 1969 to 2006). Today, the ensemble has traveled to every state in the U.S., singing at leading churches such as Times Square Church and Christ Church in Nashville, Tenn., and Carpenter’s Home Church in Lakeland, FL.
The Campus Choir has also traveled a great deal abroad, conducting a tour of Israel in the summer of 1999, and a tour of England, Ireland and Wales in 2002. It has also performed with Phil Driscoll in Sophia, Bulgaria, and with Alvin Slaughter in Kingston, Jamaica. Last summer, under the direction of Jim Phillips, the group traveled to Ecuador where members sang in local churches, cathedrals, malls, schools and outdoor spaces.
A Growing Talent Pool
For Lee’s size, it also has a disproportionate amount of graduates and/or former students who have become extremely successful professional singers and musicians. One of these is Kelsey Frost, a 2012 graduate of Lee’s Opera Theatre program who made her European debut this February with the Hildesheim Opera House in Hildesheim, Germany.
In the realm of contemporary music, Lee has produced Phil Stacey, a contemporary Christian recording artist and an “American Idol” season 6 finalist, Mark Harris, a contemporary Christian music artist with 26 #1 radio hits and nine Dove Awards, and country music artist Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts. Lee was also once home to Little Big Town’s Jimi Westbrook; Avalon’s Jeremi Richardson, Melissa Green, and Janna Potter; and Four Voices’ Chad Guyton, Brandon Guyton, Lestor Recter, and Dr. Jayson VanHook.
Nathan Chapman, producer of Taylor Swift’s “Fearless” CD (over 10 million copies sold worldwide), is also a Lee University alum, and just this year, Lee graduate Micah Massey, along with Israel Houghton, tied with Jonas Myrin and Matt Redman for best contemporary Christian music song at the 55th annual Grammy Awards.