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G. Phillip Shoultz III of VocalEssence: ‘Stopping has never been an option for me’

Shoultz leads the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers (32 professional singers), the VocalEssence Chorus (115-120 volunteer singers) and the youth choir VocalEssence Singers of This Age, aka VESOTA.

G. Phillip Shoultz III
G. Phillip Shoultz III at the start of the pandemic: "So the first step was triage. Let’s keep hearing each other’s voices. Let’s keep singing."
Photo by Kyndell Harkness

Before COVID-19, G. Phillip Shoultz III would get up at 5:15 or 5:30 in the morning, go to the gym and do some boxing or cycling. He never drinks coffee.

When COVID closed the gym, Shoultz changed his routine. He worked out at home and started a daily “Take 5 with GPS” livestream on Facebook and YouTube: about 5 minutes (truthfully, closer to 10) of breathing, poetry, song, voice exercises, gratitude and inspiration. He built a following – a community.

Seven months later, Shoultz is back at the gym and getting up even earlier. Today (Friday, Oct. 16) marks his 201st “Take 5.” He plans to continue at least through the election.

“We need all the positivity we can get,” he said by phone on Wednesday. “Anytime I think ‘OK, maybe we can cut back the frequency,’ someone writes me an email to sa,y ‘I’m so glad you’re still doing this!’ ”

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It’s just one of the 10,000 things he does in his busy life as a man of music, a husband and father of two children ages 6 and 2.

Shoultz moved to the Twin Cities from Columbus, Georgia, in 2013 to work on his DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) degree with Kathy Saltzman Romey, artistic director of the Minnesota Chorale, and Matthey Mehaffey, music director of the Oratorio Society of Minnesota. Since 2015, he has been associate conductor of VocalEssence, one of the world’s great choral music organizations, founded in 1969 by Philip Brunelle, who drinks a lot of coffee. Shoultz is also director of learning and engagement.

G. Phillip Shoultz III
Photo by Laura Alpizar
G. Phillip Shoultz III
He leads the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers (32 professional singers), the VocalEssence Chorus (115-120 volunteer singers) and the VocalEssence Singers of This Age, aka VESOTA, a deliberately diverse group of 35-50 students from Twin Cities high schools. He serves as artistic leader for the organization’s annual WITNESS and ¡Cantaré! programs and the Lullaby Project for teen moms. He’s cantor for worship, music and the arts at his church, Westwood Lutheran. He’s adjunct faculty in the graduate music education program at the University of St. Thomas and a nationally sought-after guest conductor, clinician and adjudicator. And he’s working on several video series in addition to “Take 5.”

He’s also working on being a Black man in Minnesota, former home of Jamar Clark, Philando Castile and George Floyd. While driving home to St. Louis Park from the Edina Red Cow a while back, Shoultz was pulled over by police. He never got a clear reason why.

As always, this conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: How are you?

G. Phillip Shoultz III: You know, I’m doing well. When [COVID] started, it seemed like a little bit of a break. You could almost escape the fact that there was a world pandemic because we were at home and there wasn’t a lot going on. So I was here with the family, helping my son with school, going on bike rides and logging in to a meeting here or there. But it was really sleepy.

At some point, something clicked. I don’t know if it was George Floyd or a little bit before that. It’s been very intense in all different ways since then. The health stuff, the racial injustice and the fight for rights. Also, as choral and singing artists, our own fight to reclaim how we can sing together. All of these elements have become a large part of the work that I’ve been doing for the last five or six months.

And then being a Black man. In these times, people really want to hear how you feel about what’s going on and how you see the world. I appreciate that everyone wants to listen and learn. I’m doing the same thing, being still fairly new to the Twin Cities. I still am learning a lot of the dynamics of the Twin Cities community, especially as relates to race.

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MP: What did your 2020 look like before COVID?

GPS: Some of the big things on my calendar happened just before we were shut down. We came through our WITNESS program [in February]. The very next week, I went back home to Georgia to conduct the All-State Choir, 200 kids in a room together, singing together. This was the end of February.

The very next week, I took VESOTA to Milwaukee. We were invited to headline and open our regional American Choral Directors Association Conference, a large conference. This was the first week of March.

The very next weekend, my family and I went to Myrtle Beach, where I was leading a festival of 400 high school young people from different churches across the Southeast.

Looking back, we obviously didn’t know what COVID was. I consider it very fortunate that no one took ill. Because those were all mountaintop experiences that have gotten me through this time.

MP: What about the rest of the year?

GPS: I was supposed to go to Yale and have my first conducting experience there. I remember that phone call: “Maybe we’ll just delay it a couple of weeks.” We were all so naïve.

Another big thing I missed out on was every three years, I have the privilege of singing with a chamber choir in England as part of the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute. We go to Oxford for a week and Cambridge for a week. That was canceled completely.

And then this fall there were two or three other engagements that are not happening or have turned into just conversations. I was supposed to lead a couple of large high school festivals in Minnesota that had to be reorganized. I’ve been hosting the Young People’s Concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra. Just as they asked me to do that kind of as a permanent thing, they had to cancel shows.

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I’m sure there is more that I’m forgetting. But that gives you an idea. It’s huge.

MP: In spring, the news broke that group singing can spread the coronavirus. How did you respond?

GPS: Kathy Romey and I were both in that webinar [on May 5] about the hazards of singing. I remember being so frustrated and angry at the way it was presented that we were superspreaders, without any regard to thinking “Well, how do we adapt now?”

From that day forward, when most people were lamenting – and social media blew up in the choral world, everyone was crying and moaning – I’m like, “No, we are going to keep singing together, friends. We just have to adapt and realize it’s going to be different.”

The daily “Take 5 with GPS” livestream on Facebook and YouTube features about 5 minutes of breathing, poetry, song, voice exercises, gratitude and inspiration.
Screen shot
The daily “Take 5 with GPS” livestream on Facebook and YouTube features about 5 minutes of breathing, poetry, song, voice exercises, gratitude and inspiration.
The first thing I did was read every article and learn everything I could to see how much impact singing has. I advocated for getting a study commissioned so we could evaluate what singing actually does. At the same time, I was determined we were going to keep meeting. I was like, “Zoom’s free right now. I’ll do a Zoom meeting, and I’ll gather the choir.”

I started playing around with different ways to see how we could sing. Some things would work and some things wouldn’t work. But I noticed that my young singers and my church choir singers were showing up every week, and a solid crew from the chorus.

We decided to carry the youth choir, VESOTA, forward, because they were experiencing so much isolation not being in school and they needed something consistent in their lives. We kept our Monday time and used it to check in with each other and do creative things like scavenger hunts. We sang a little bit, too. We would play games where one person would sing the first phrase and the next person would sing the next phrase.

So the first step was triage. Let’s keep hearing each other’s voices. Let’s keep singing.

Information started coming out that we could gather outside. We kept our masks on and sang outside. At that point, we were keeping about 15 to 20 feet apart. We wanted to be really cautious.

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We sang choral pieces, but we weren’t going for that refined balance of chords or the elegant vowels. Again, it was triage. We just wanted to sing together and hear each other’s voices. We used to say we wanted to hear each other’s breath and feel each other’s breath, but we don’t want that anymore!

In July, we got the results of the aerosolization study I had been waiting for. Once I saw what the science told us, I immediately married that with the work I’d been doing looking at COVID and some of the health and safety protocols.

I volunteered to take the lead on writing protocols for VocalEssence. Doing the deep dive of what does it take? What kind of systems do we need to put in place to know that when we gather together, we have enough layers of protection to keep people relatively safe? Knowing that we can never eliminate all the risk, but we can mitigate enough risks to feel like it’s worthwhile doing it.

And that’s where we are now. We are in week six of in-person rehearsing with the Ensemble Singers, week three with the Chorus, and week three of VESOTA.

MP: And VocalEssence is about to launch its first-ever on-demand streaming season.

GPS: We can’t sing in front of a live audience. It’s just not worth taking that risk. We’re grateful that we can sing together and make music at a high level. So we decided early on we were going to walk away from in-person performances. We would invest the money and the resources in creating content that would really read on the screen.

This is one of the things I appreciate about working with Philip Brunelle. There’s no reason for a man who started this organization 52 years ago to not just say, “This is what we’re going to do, and it’s going to be like this.” He’s earned that right. But he shares with me the process of creating the artistic program for the year. We do that together. So we kind of rethought it together.

G. Phillip Shoultz III
Photo by Laura Alpizar
G. Phillip Shoultz III: "We decided to carry the youth choir, VESOTA, forward, because they were experiencing so much isolation not being in school and they needed something consistent in their lives."
I hope when I am in my 70s, if we encounter something that causes me to rethink and shift every fiber of what I believe is important, and my associate conductor comes to me and says, “Here’s what we need to do. If we don’t do this, we’re not going to be able to do anything, and we’re not going to be relevant,” that I have the wisdom to listen, and to learn and grow into the uncomfortable. Philip has been a model leader in that sense. We all know that he’s not comfortable with this. But as he said, “The alternative is not to have a season.”

MP: You mentioned George Floyd earlier. There have been many deaths, but this one seems different.

GPS: I think the pandemic definitely played a part in the intensity of it. All eyes were on that video that happened to be shot by a minor. Having the resiliency to film that so the whole world would see it!

I think the pandemic is why the sense of outrage exploded. We were all watching. There was no basketball distraction, no baseball, no football. Politics was happening, but at that point in time, it wasn’t as hot and heavy as it is now.

People were getting weary of the restrictions and wanting to go back to normal. And then this hit, and we realized, especially Black people and brown people, that normal wasn’t so great, in the sense that now we have to go back to realizing people see us differently and treat us differently based on the way we look.

People were ready to come out and rally behind a cause, especially because things were not resolved in the first couple of nights. People were already anxious and on edge. We have experienced trauma since March. Our bodies have been tired and worn out of their regular routines throughout COVID. I think all of that came together. After a couple of nights of no action, people were like, “Enough is enough.”

MP: Changes are happening in the arts.

GPS: It erupted an awakening in the choral arts that we’ve been dancing around for a while. People are really digging into the fact that our whole art form is based on this subjective structure that one form of music-making is superior to all others. Consequently, certain people get left out of the process of making music. So we’ve been having conversations around increasing representation.

The racial tension of injustice we were seeing in society very quickly translated into the work that we’re doing and the conversations we’re having as arts organizations. Are we really reflecting and engaging with our community in a way that everyone feels that this is for them, that this is something they can be part of? That’s why you saw all of the robust and eloquent statements coming out from arts organizations all around the Twin Cities and beyond, standing in solidarity.

What I’m weary of is people making a statement and that’s where the work stops. That’s where the work begins. I said to our team, “If we put out a statement, which we need to do, we need to be prepared to stand behind it. And then we need to be prepared to put action steps in place to talk about what we’ve been doing, where it’s fallen short and where it’s been successful. We need to take steps to move toward being an anti-racist choral organization.”

We’ve been doing these programs with different cultures for so long. We have honestly and earnestly celebrated culture and amplified voices of color. But we have fallen short in making a difference where difference is needed to change what the audience really looks like, to change what the performers really look like, because we’ve been operating from a system that excludes. So now we’re saying, “We’re going to investigate how we change the system.” And I’m proud of the organization for saying “Yes, let’s go there. And let’s be uncomfortable.”

MP: What keeps you going?

GPS: I don’t know what else to do. Stopping has never been an option for me. I’m not gonna lie. There are days when I say to my wife, “I just want a day off.” It never seems to be the right time to do that.

Right now, in this pandemic, I think what keeps me going is threefold. First, what I’ve appreciated most about this time is being able to do so much work from home, and to see my kids on a daily basis. Because I’m so busy now. But I am here, even if I’m doing something else. Just a few minutes ago, my son was literally climbing on my shoulder while I was talking.

Second, the singers I get to make music with become an extension of family. With all of the singers I work with, both churches I’ve served here in the Twin Cities, the VocalEssence singers, the pros, the volunteers, and especially the VESOTA singers, there is this familial feel. We know each other’s joys and struggles. We talk openly about them in rehearsals, or people reach out to connect offline. When you have that many people in your corner, there’s also a sense of gratitude that says, “Let me do everything I can to make sure our experiences together are transformative and meaningful.”

G. Phillip Shoultz III with VocalEssence performing a Welcome Christmas concert in 2019.
Photo by Bruce Silcox
G. Phillip Shoultz III with VocalEssence performing a Welcome Christmas concert in 2019.
The third thing comes from the sense of duty and obligation that was instilled in me early on. To whom much is given, much is required. I don’t think it’s a tooting your own horn thing to say that while by no means am I the smartest person in the world, I know that I’ve been gifted with skills and abilities that position me well to make a difference. So I think it is my responsibility to make sure I leverage those skills and abilities as much as I can, during the time that I’m physically and mentally able to do it.

We always knew that tomorrow isn’t promised, but more so now than ever before. If I’m going to be tired now, I guess I’ll rest in eternal glory. [Laughs] Why rest now and have to work hard later on the other side?

MP: What keeps you up at night?

GPS: Lately, a real personal thing. It’s the fact that I don’t know the next time I’m going to see my parents [in Georgia]. And that’s hard. I talk to them every single day. We usually go there for two weeks in the summer, so I haven’t seen them since last Christmas.

As a Black man, I wrestle with the fact that the life expectancy isn’t always as long. I want to make sure we get that time together and my kids get to see them. When am I going to hug my mom again? That’s the thing that keeps me up.

MP: What’s the first thing you’ll do when you can do whatever you want?

GPS: A couple of things. Get on a plane going somewhere and be without a mask. I’m gearing up for a couple of years of mask wearing, and I’m OK with that. But to be able to just go somewhere, like jump in a pool, without a mask … Another thing is going back to a restaurant. I know we can now, I just don’t feel comfortable eating inside. It’ll be great just to go sit somewhere and eat a steak and have a glass of wine.

I won’t lie. I’ve enjoyed wearing shorts every day for the last six months. I love the whole wear something nice up top and wear your shorts on the bottom. Oh, that’s cool.

***

The VocalEssence On Demand 2020-2021 season – eight new performances from October to June – starts Sunday (Oct. 18) at 4 p.m. with the premiere of “Rightfully Hers.” With the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers, narrated by Sally Wingert, it honors the passing of the 19th Amendment in 100 years of music by women composers. Season subscription $49, single stream $15. FMI.