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Gospel Band ‘forms a family’ for music students

Assistant+professor+of+instruction+in+the+Music+Department+Cassandra+ONeal+leads+the+gospel+choir%2C+composed+of+several+vocalists%2C+during+their+midterm+performance+on+Wednesday%2C+March+13%2C+2024.+The+students+chose+most+of+the+music+and+shared+the+time+with+the+Hip+Hop+ensemble+in+the+Concert+Hall+of+1014+S.+Michigan+Ave.
Assistant professor of instruction in the Music Department Cassandra O’Neal leads the gospel choir, composed of several vocalists, during their midterm performance on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. The students chose most of the music and shared the time with the Hip Hop ensemble in the Concert Hall of 1014 S. Michigan Ave.

Genae Williams grew up singing in church. The senior music major, who is a member of the college’s Gospel Band, said this is “like another home” for her. 

She joined the Gospel Band as a sophomore and initially sang with the group without receiving credit for taking the class associated with it. 

“I feel like Gospel Band forms a family. I feel like every year it just grows and it’s a lot better,” Williams said. Williams said that she would recommend the Gospel band to anyone and even people who did not grow up in a Christian church can enjoy it.

Gospel Band is one of the genre-based ensembles within the Music Department. Other ensembles include Groove Band, Jazz/Pop Choir and the Hip Hop and R&B ensembles.

The Music Department held a midterm concert for the Hip Hop Ensemble and Gospel Band on Wednesday, March 13 in the Concert Hall of 1014 S. Michigan Ave.

The two ensembles are part of classes taught by Cassandra O’Neal, an assistant professor of instruction in the Music Department. Both groups consist of several vocalists and accompanying instrumentalists.

“Columbia caters to the artist, caters to the creative, and while the traditional ways of teaching theory, which mainly derive from classical, which is how I learned, it’s a new day. A C chord is a C chord in any genre,” O’Neal said.

O’Neal said that she enjoys teaching students and learning where their individual talents lie.

“Not only am I teaching, but I’m learning because every group of students is different from last semester. So you may have a student that doesn’t really think that they can sing by ear, but they’ve been singing by ear all along. A lot of it is about discovery.”

O’Neal has taught at Columbia for six years. In her career, she has worked with well-known artists such as Mary J. Blige, LeAnn Rimes, Macy Gray and Prince.

“Music is fun. That’s why I’ve been doing it for so long. And I’ve been fortunate to have a long career from playing to teaching, and still playing because I like to have fun. I like to help people feel good with positive vibes of music,” she said.

On Feb. 28 President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim delivered his draft advisory report, which outlined his recommendations to address the college’s $38 million deficit. 

Kim singled out three music degrees within the department as “programs of concern,” targeting them for program complexity, enrollment, retention and graduation rates. 

Under the proposed restructuring, which is now before the Faculty Senate for feedback, Music would be combined with the Audio, Arts and Acoustics Department to create a new School of Music. 

Members of the hip-hop ensemble take a bow after their performance for their midterm showcase. The showcase involved the hip-hop ensemble and gospel choir on Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in the Concert Hall of 1014 S. Michigan Ave. Abra Richardson

O’Neal said that some restructuring could be productive for the Music Department.

Last semester was a hit for all of us,” she said, referring to the part-time faculty strike. “But things happen for a reason. And what we want to do is learn from it so we don’t have to return back there again. And if we do, we’ll do it differently.”

Senior music major and member of Hip Hop ensemble Meagan St. Aubain said that the students get a lot of say in the styles of hip-hop they perform.

“I think we get to experience a different kind of circuit within the genre because not everything is just straight hip-hop,” St. Aubain said. “It can be hip-hop with gospel influences, hip-hop with Caribbean influences, Latin influences. It’s really a collaborative kind of thing because everybody has their own input on all the songs. We all pick different songs and we all get to embrace our own take on that.”

Last year was the 50th anniversary year of the creation of hip-hop.

“I’m 51, so I’ve been able to grow up with hip-hop. Hip-hop has been pretty much the storybook of my musical life. And while the new stuff is great, new always comes from old,” O’Neal said.

According to O’Neal, the students picked all of the songs for their midterm performance except for their finale, “Love’s Train” by Con Funk Shun, which was released in 1982 and covered by Silk Sonic in 2022.

“The songs that they picked is the new stuff. And that inspires me to pick something old because nine times out of 10, the new stuff is sampling old stuff. So I like to give them the source and be like, okay, yeah, so-and-so did this song, but this is where it came from,” O’Neal said.

O’Neal said that she first got involved in music through gospel and uses skills from her church choir experience to teach students.

“My father was a preacher, my mother was the musician, my whole family, we all sang, we were all the choir, and so you know gospel music has definitely taken a turn and has matured and it’s so many things now,” O’Neal said, “I specify in choir music mainly because the choir is kind of becoming obsolete in the church right now. We’re kind of going away from the choir music for whatever reason, so I like to keep that alive. It teaches harmony, it teaches blending and using a part of your voice that you probably wouldn’t use singing any other genre.”

Senior musical theater major Josh Barnett, who also grew up singing gospel music in church, said that being a part of the Gospel Band has helped him grow as a singer.

“I definitely became more versatile in what I sing. I’m so used to just singing musical theater songs and stuff like that, but this has definitely changed my perspective,” Barnett said. Performing with the gospel band makes him excited for “bringing people closer to God, letting people hear our heart.”

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About the Contributors
Sydney Richardson
Sydney Richardson, Reporter
srichardson@columbiachronicle.com   Sydney Richardson is a sophomore journalism major, concentrating in broadcasting for radio. She is minoring in voiceover. Richardson has reported on campus and metro events, as well as changes to Columbia's Student Life and Residence Life departments of the college. She joined the Chronicle in August 2023.   Hometown: Woodridge, Illinois
Abra Richardson
Abra Richardson, Former Senior Photojournalist
arichardson@columbiachronicle.com   Abra Richardson is a senior photojournalism major and has covered Chicago music festivals, fashion and metro protests. She joined the Chronicle in August 2021.   Hometown: Palatine, Illinois