EWU choir sings to inspire, inform


Erin Rebar

The Vocal Jazz Choir gathers around the piano in the choir room to practice their parts

By Karlee Van De Venter, Reporter

When EWU announced that spring quarter would be fully online, many departments were left questioning how they could make their student learning objectives work. The choir program was one of these departments, and professor Kristina Ploeger-Hekmatpanah had only two weeks to design an all-new approach to her curriculum. 

“I thought ‘Well, we can’t do anything that actually addresses our normal student learning objectives,’” Ploeger-Hekmatpanah said. “‘So what can we do that will either be useful later, or maybe we couldn’t do in our normal circumstances?’”

This led her to create a plan for the quarter that consisted of two parts. The first part, three weeks long, would be video compilations of songs the university can use. The second part would be researching and learning about singing in the African-American tradition. 

Ploeger-Ketmatpanah wanted her classes to be useful to the university. Usually, eight choir students will sing “EWU Alma Mater” and “Star-Spangled Banner” at commencement, as well as join the brass quartet to perform “Go Eagle Go.” With no in-person commencement, that opportunity is lost. 

To make up for that loss, Ploeger-Ketmatpanah had one week dedicated to each of those three songs. Students would record themselves singing, and then Ploeger-Ketmatpanah would edit all the recordings together. 

“What can we do that will either be useful later, or maybe we couldn’t do in our normal circumstances?’” -Professor Kristina Ploeger-Hekmatpanah, Choir Program

“Then we can still be helpful for commencement,” Ploeger-Ketmatpanah said. “And then if athletics doesn’t come back with audiences, they could use those for their games.”

She realized the “Star-Spangled Banner” video would also be a great way to virtually celebrate Memorial Day. The video was posted on multiple EWU platforms in honor of those who protect and serve. 

The choir program also released a video performing “EWU Alma Mater” and “Go Eagle Go,” available here

The second part of the quarter focused on singing the African-American tradition, inspired by a workshop by Ysaÿe Barnwell, former member of Sweet Honey in the Rock and an accomplished scholar. 

“We usually do a couple spirituals a year,” Ploeger-Ketmatpanah said. “But in terms of singing in the African-American tradition, that’s not part of a regular choral program on a regular basis.” 

She explained this is because a tradition is aural, and there’s a lot of pressure to stay in the academic realm during curriculum, so aurally-transferred cultures often don’t get taught. She saw this abnormal quarter as a chance to study what isn’t normally brought up. 

Students practice their parts (Erin Rebar)

Ysaÿe Barnwell has several books and CDs about singing in the African-American culture. The  CD’s will feature Barnwell singing each part as you would learn them in a church that uses gospel music. Ploeger-Ketmatpanah used these resources to put together her curriculum. 

The units went over spiritual songs, gospel music, civil rights singing, South African freedom songs, performance practice for choral spirituals and how to perform these songs respectfully while capturing the culture. 

These units ended up being extremely fitting for events in the United States over the past few weeks regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. After the events that occurred over the week of May 24, Ploeger-Ketmatpanah plans to hold a discussion with her students about what they’ve learned and their feelings on the matter. 

“I love working with musicians. People that grow up making music with other people have to be sensitive to those other people,” Ploeger-Ketmatpanah said. “They’re usually really deep [thinkers] when it comes to these kinds of conversations.”

“I love working with musicians.” –Professor Kristina Ploeger-Hekmatpanah, Choir Program

On March 10, the choir had a performance about the ratification of the 19th Amendment and how women’s issues from that time are still relevant today. Ploeger-Ketmatpanah recalls having really passionate conversations within classes at the time, and she predicts it will be the same now. 

“I can imagine that they’re going to have a really well-thought out and respectful conversation about the learning that they’ve done so far and how does that apply to the last week,” Ploeger-Ketmatpanah said. 

She is very proud of what her students have accomplished so far this quarter and how much they’ve learned. She’s hoping to have the “Go Eagle Go” video up soon, as it has a lighter and more fun tone than the previous two, which the students showcased. Being able to celebrate Memorial Day with a video and have conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement aren’t normally part of Ploeger-Ketmatpanah’s curriculum, but the outcome is more than she could’ve wanted.