Arkansas has a 2021 Grammy winner on its hands. The University of Arkansas’s Jeffrey Murdock, assistant director of choral activities and assistant professor of music, won the accolade given to recognize, in the Recording Academy’s words, “educators who have made a significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education and who demonstrate a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education in the schools.” We caught up with Murdock to learn more about his trajectory as a teacher, the importance of representation and what he’s blasting on his car stereo right now.
Congratulations on the Grammy win. What has that felt like?
It’s a little bit surreal. I know that I’m doing work that so many other music educators are doing every single day. It seems odd that I was the one who was singled out. … It’s surreal. But it’s overwhelming and humbling as well.
Tell me a little bit about your history as a music educator.
I was raised in Biloxi, Mississippi. As a kid, I would beat on the tables and chairs and pots and pans and buckets and anything that I could find. My family thought that there was some musical talent there. A friend of my family took me to my first piano lesson and paid for it. And that lesson went very well. And the rest, as they say, is history. I stayed in piano for many years. I participated in the middle school band and middle school choir. I went on to participate in choir and band in high school. In my junior year I heard a choir perform Moses Hawkins. At that point I realized I wanted to be a music educator to be able to give people the same kind of opportunities that I had when I was coming up.
I had my first Black teacher when I was in middle school. Her name was Felicia Cooper. She was my middle school choir director. I realize now, that in those early moments, that representation really mattered for me. It was Ms. Cooper who allowed me to see that there was a place for Black folks in music. So she kind of lit the fire.
Tell us a little about your role at the University of Arkansas.
One of the things I love about the University of Arkansas is that it allows me to do many of the things that I do well. I’ve always been passionate about gospel music. I’ve done that since I was a child. I sang in church and played in churches. When I taught high school in Memphis, I became keenly aware of the ways in which music looks different in different parts of town, the disparities that existed for poor students versus richer students. When I got my PhD in music education, I became a fierce advocate for leveling the field of music education, such that every child, every day has access to high quality music education and experiences. At the University of Arkansas, I conduct gospel music with the Inspirational Chorale, but I also teach all things related to choral music education, so I get to shape the teachers of tomorrow. … The University of Arkansas provided an opportunity for me to be all of my musical selves, and to be able to do that in meaningful ways.
Describe a meaningful teaching experience.
I’ll give you two. One of them was when I was teaching in Memphis, Tennessee. I had a bass walk into the room. Well, he didn’t know he was a bass at the time because he wasn’t interested in being in choir. He’d been dumped there because he needed a fine arts credit. He didn’t want anything to do with me or with music. I was able to reach that student on a personal level, and connect with them on a musical level and help them find their voice. In finding their voice, that student became one of the best high school students that I ever taught.
The other milestone was actually just about a year ago today, when the Inspirational Chorale performed at the Southwestern American Choral Directors Association conference. We put together a program that was very edgy and pushed the envelope a bit. We discussed topics like war, the war on drugs, Black Lives Matter and babies in cages, as well as about finding one’s voice and being a voice for those whose voices have been stifled. There are things that we can talk about in music and that we can sing about that go better on a concert stage. And through dramatizations of those visceral moments that occur when having a musical experience that doesn’t go as well when you’re having an argument on Facebook or having a back and forth at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Because these issues that we were talking about, and the way that we presented them was not conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican. It was just about being a good human. … I was really impressed with the way in which my non-students-of-color stepped up to the plate and led the charge on campus. Also significant about that was we performed that concert at Little Rock’s Central High School where the Little Rock Nine incident occurred. That event was the very last time that the Inspirational Chorale sang before everything shut down for pandemic. It was a really powerful and moving experience for us.
It’s been a challenging year for teaching and especially for leading choirs. What’s that been like for you?
One of the things that I have relished is this opportunity that the pandemic has provided for us to put new tools in the toolbox, to grow our creativity and expand our capacity for education. A lot of teachers were saying: “The pandemic is stopping us from doing this.” But one of my students challenged me in a conference and asked, “What can we do?” And I think I’ve embraced that mantra. What has the pandemic allowed us to unlock in terms of creativity? I’ve enjoyed learning new things about myself and learning new skills — like how to make a virtual choir — that I would have never thought about doing. And I think it’s probably even pushed us closer to the future, because probably 20 or 30 years from now, choral music will look a lot different, and maybe a lot more like what it looks right now.
What are you listening to right now?
This probably sounds weird, but anytime music is playing my brain is working. I’m always analyzing and thinking about how things can be done differently, how things can be changed. I’m currently obsessed with Renaissance choral music. I’m learning more about it, how it works, various composers, the performance practice of it and how voices are manipulated to recreate that sound in performance practice. So if I’m blaring music in my car right now, I’m blaring some Renaissance composers. Or maybe Cardi B.