Eric Whitacre: Advocate for Music Education as the Major Key to Building Community

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Do you remember the first time you played an instrument? Perhaps you recall the off-key screeches from blowing into the recorder in elementary school. Or maybe you down at the piano with your parents to learn “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” And it’s even possible you chose to join middle school choir so you could sing your heart out to your Broadway favorites.

No matter your what your first music-making experience entailed, it likely involved sharing a moment with other humans over this phenomenon.

Eric Whitacre, the accomplished composer and conductor, believes music education is essential for young people. “Nothing builds empathy, compassion and community like making music together. Nothing. It should be required at every grade level,” said Whitacre. Because of his commitment to music education advocacy, Whitacre will be presented with the SupportMusic Champion award and will be performing at The Grand Rally for Music Education at The NAMM Show 2019 on January 24-27.

When Whitacre refers to building community, he doesn’t limit that to sharing a physical space. In fact, in his Virtual Choir, the singers never actually gather in a single room to perform together. In fact, the first Virtual Choir was composed of 185 singers from 12 different countries, all joining in from their computers. Their voices blend together to sing “Lux Aurumque,” one of Whitacre’s compositions. The inspiration that ignited Virtual Choir even stemmed from community—Whitacre’s own fan base in fact.

Connecting Voices from Around the World: The Virtual Choir

In 2009, Britlin Lee, a 17-year-old singer, posted a video to YouTube singing the Soprano part of Whitacre’s song “Sleep.” “It’s so pure, the way she sings, her face and her intention. There’s nothing there but goodness,” Whitacre said. And Lee’s voice sparked an idea for Whitacre to edit together videos of individual singers performing different parts of his compositions. “If they all had the same purity of intention, somehow this thing is going to work.”

Those innately good intentions came through. When Whitacre first heard the final product of Virtual Choir 1, he was moved to tears. The video received more than one million views in its first week on YouTube. “At the time, [that] was a stratospheric number of views. It was like, Oh my God it went viral,” Whitacre said. Since then, Whitacre’s released six more renditions of The Virtual Choir.

The most recent, Virtual Choir 5: Deep Field, blends more than 8,000 voices from 120 countries—yes, you read that correctly, 8,000! And the community Whitacre has created is one of the most inclusive imaginable. “We had all kinds of disabled people joining us, like autistic singers and even hearing-impaired singers. There were deaf singers; there’s even a few of them signing instead of singing,” Whitacre said. “I find the whole thing beautiful.”

If you compose it, they will perform

Eric Whitacre may have composed and conducted “Deep Field,” but his major key to success (pun intended) sounds like a line straight out of Field of Dreams. In the classic baseball film, the voice says, “If you build it, he will come.”

Similarly, Whitacre believes that if you do good work, success will follow. “There’s this quote [I really like] by Paul Newman. He says, ‘I’ve been very, very lucky, but I found the harder I work, the luckier I get,’” Whitacre said. “I got super lucky. I continue to get super lucky, that’s a big part of it. In all kinds of different ways, [I] happen to be in the right place at the right time.”

The vision for The Virtual Choir was to connect people globally. But it also happened to bring Whitacre the recognition that aspiring musicians dream about. Since Virtual Choir 1 launched, Chris Anderson invited him to give a TED Talk. “Hans [Zimmer] reached out to me because of the Virtual Choir,” Whitacre said. “He saw the first one and he loved it, wrote to me and said, ‘Do you want to come and work on Pirates of the Caribbean 4?’ I was like ‘Okay, yes.’” And in 2012, he won a Grammy in Choral Performance for his album Light & Dark.

All of his accomplishments, though, haven’t jaded Whitacre by any means. He loves music because it brings people together on the most basic level of humanity. Whitacre said, “It [enchants] me, the idea that you could put notes down on a page and make this thing happen around you.”

And he sets an example for others by following his own advice. “Being kind to people, all people. That alone makes for a successful life,” advised Whitacre.

To think that this iconic composer and conductor started his music career as a college student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is pretty astounding. And he arrived on campus without already knowing how to read music. Whitacre said, “I joined the choir on a fluke and the first piece we sang was this piece by Mozart, his ‘Requiem.’ It absolutely changed my life.” This inspiration became the catalyst for his learning curve into the world of music and led him to earn a master's degree in composition at The Juilliard School.

Music is an integral part of our communities, and how we connect when language can’t express what we truly feel. One choir class sparked Whitacre’s passion for music, changing his life forever. Whitacre’s love for music then poured into The Virtual Choir, connecting thousands of singers worldwide and changing music composition forever.