The polyphonous Baruch Whitehead
By Gary E. Frank
It is a few days before Christmas, and inside the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca Baruch Whitehead is generating his special kind of light.
Resplendent in white tie and black tails, he opens his arms, and within moments the sound of several voices united fills the church sanctuary. The occasion is a tribute to Ithaca resident Dorothy Cotton, a legend of the civil rights movement. Under Whitehead’s direction, the multi-ethnic Voices chorus, and then later, the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers (an ensemble Whitehead formed in honor of Cotton, a personal heroine), put on performances that brought the standing-room-only house to its feet. Through it all, every singer is smiling as they sway from side to side in rhythm.
“It’s a tremendous release to sing,” says Marilyn Tebor Shaw, a member of both ensembles and a friend of Whitehead’s. “Making music is an amazing experience, a bonding experience, an emotional experience. And with Baruch, it’s also a lot of fun.”
An associate professor of music education at Ithaca College since 2002, Whitehead has steadily built a worldwide reputation as an energetic and innovative music educator and peace activist. From Syracuse to Helsinki to Utica to Accra, Ghana, and a host of other locales, he has directed choirs and marching bands, taught seminars on the music of the civil rights movement and elementary music education, advocated for the preservation of gospel music, and brought West African music and culture to schoolchildren in central New York. He is the founder and former director of Unshackled, a gospel choir in Syracuse, and has lent his talents not only to Voices and the Jubilee Singers, but the Ithaca Gay Men’s Chorus as well.
Shaw first met Whitehead when she joined Voices about five years ago. As impressed as she was by his musical talents, Shaw was even more impressed after she became a member of the Voices board of directors.
“He’s an amazingly creative person, but to me his greatest strength is his ability to create a sense of community,” says Shaw. “He’s able to bring people together in a way that makes them feel comfortable instantly.”
Music is the catalyst Whitehead uses to bring people together.
“I view myself as a citizen of the world and try to affirm and respect all cultures,” he says. “If we could sing each other’s songs, then maybe we could start talking together,” he adds, attributing the thought to African American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson.
The third of nine children in a working-class family from Shreveport, Louisiana, Whitehead can’t remember a time when he didn’t imagine a life dedicated to music. Although no one else in the Whitehead household became a musician, the home was always filled with music, especially gospel music.
The moment that die was cast for good came when Whitehead was in the fifth grade and attended his first football game.
“I fell in love with the marching band,” he recalls. “The music really got me going.”
The first instrument he learned to play was the saxophone, first with a tenor sax and then switching to baritone, which was almost as big as he was in seventh grade.
“One day,” Whitehead recalls, “the band director pulled out this little instrument called the oboe and asked if anyone wanted to play it. I thought, ‘Oh, this is my chance to get rid of the saxophone.’”
Whitehead became so accomplished on the oboe he was named to Louisiana’s all-state high school band (one of his band mates was the jazz and classical trumpet player Wynton Marsalis). He went on to study oboe at the University of Cincinnati, where he earned separate bachelor’s degrees in music and music education. After earning his doctorate from Cappella University, Whitehead joined the faculty at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, where he directed the woodwind chamber ensemble and played oboe in the Huntington Symphony Orchestra and the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra.
Throughout his career in classical music and as a band director, Whitehead always had an interest in African music, particularly its polyrhythms. In 2002, he decided to travel to Ghana, a former British colony that was the first sub-Saharan nation to gain its independence. He soon learned that Bernard Woma, a Ghanaian who is an adjunct professor at SUNY Fredonia, had started the Dagara Music and Arts Center, a school of traditional African music and culture located outside of Accra, the country’s capital.
“My first trip there was very surreal,” recalls Whitehead. “As I walked around, I saw the faces of my grandparents, my mother and my father, my entire family.”
Whitehead also came to realize that there were emotional shackles he had been carrying since childhood.
“Because so much of Africa is troubled as a result of unstable governments, famine, and poverty, people buy into the idea that nothing good can come out of there,” he says. “For years, because I play the oboe, and even in my high school band, I was the only black face in a group of 30-odd people. I had a white teacher tell me things like, ‘Egypt isn’t part of Africa,’ and I just accepted it because he, a teacher, said it. Then I looked at a map, and it was right there. This same teacher had said that black people had an extra bone in their feet that allowed them to run faster. I think he was trying to say what was in his heart, which was that nothing sophisticated could come out of Africa.”
In Ghana, Whitehead says he found a culture where the children often speak three languages and the elderly are held in high esteem, even in the face of poverty few Americans can imagine. He realized he had to “cast off” the negative perceptions he had about Africa.
“There’s no doubt about it,” says Whitehead. “That trip changed my world perspective.”
In Ghana, Whitehead was drawn to how music and dance is interwoven with every-day life. It is a means for communal celebration and fellowship and telling stories, as well as an escape from the incredible poverty.
With Ithaca College seeking to expand opportunities for international study, Whitehead drafted a proposal for funding a shortterm study abroad program for students at the Dagara Center. The funding was approved, and since 2004 he has taken small groups of students to Ghana each summer for two to three weeks.
“We must understand and appreciate music from all over the world and not place one culture above another,” says Whitehead. “Whenever I take students to Ghana, they realize the global connection we share with the world. They see how people with so little live and survive, and they never view the world in the same way again.”
Scott Gentile ’11, a piano performance major, made the trip last summer.
“Professor Whitehead said it would be an experience where we would see things we don’t normally see as well as a lot of things that are very difficult to see,” says Gentile. “The way he talked about it, I wanted to go right away.”
Being a pianist can be isolating at times, says Gentile, who took Whitehead’s African drumming and dancing class before traveling to Ghana. “I definitely wasn’t the best drummer or dancer in the class, but it was great to be part of an ensemble after working solo for so many hours a day,” he says. “I realized I wanted an experience with music that could show me other things, and through the trip to Ghana I was able to do that.”
Soo Yeon Kim ’11, a vocal performance major, has been Whitehead’s student assistant for nearly four years.
“He creates a learning environment where everyone is comfortable making mistakes and learning to laugh at them,” says Kim. “He motivates you to learn.”
Whitehead says his teaching style is less lecture and more trying to get students involved. “I want to pull students out of their comfort zone,” he says, “actually get them to do the music as opposed to just talking about it.”
Kim believes Whitehead’s compassion for his students sets him apart. During one semester she was carrying a very heavy course load and began to feel overwhelmed. She was ready to quit her job as his assistant and at one point even fainted from exhaustion in a class taught by another teacher.
“I think he actually cared for my health more than I did,” she says about Whitehead. “He told me everything would be okay and redistributed some of my work to another student. That’s what he really is best at; he genuinely cares for his students.”
But for Whitehead, the primary goal is to create the conditions through which all students can succeed.
“It’s beholden to us, the academic com munity, to make sure everyone can be successful here,” he says. “The top-tier students are going to make it, whatever happens. But there are B+, B, and C+ students who, with a little bit of encouragement, can make a big difference in our community.
“I’m optimistic about the future because as long as we’re breathing, there’s hope,” he adds. “People just need to be guided in the right direction.”