In November 2019, when Ash Walker applied to become the music director of Pacific Edge Voices, he was full of ideas for taking the acclaimed Berkeley choral group—originally called Pacific Mozart Ensemble—beyond its 40th anniversary and into an exciting and creative future. By the time his appointment was officially announced, in August 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had upended his—and the world’s—plans. Ash has risen to the unprecedented challenge in this new job and in his other roles: as professor of voice at Las Positas Community College in Livermore and as cantor and choir director at St. Mary’s Cathedral of the Assumption in San Francisco. As he told us in a phone interview, “The pandemic has pushed me to be more than I thought possible as a musician and choral director.”
What’s your musical background? How did you first become involved with choral music?
I grew up in Philadelphia in a family of nine children, and I’m the only one who participates in music. The strange thing is, I was born deaf—I had a severe case of otitis media, with 80 percent hearing loss in both ears. It took three surgeries, with tubes implanted in my ears, to restore my hearing. I was about 5 then, and I stuttered and required speech therapy. But I didn’t stutter when I sang at church and in my school choir.
Eventually I joined the Philadelphia Boys Choir and Chorale and had the opportunity to tour with them. We went to Switzerland and France when I was 10, and later to South Africa and to Australia, where we sang in the Sydney Opera House. On my last tour with them, in 1999, we went to Cuba. We were the first American choir to perform in Cuba since the 1950s.
Who have been your musical influences?
The first one was my third-grade teacher at John Story Jenks School in Philadelphia, Shirley Lewine. She noticed that I could sing and had a musical ear, and she recommended me for the Philadelphia Boys Choir.
My second important mentor was Dr. Buddy James, the director of choirs at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, which I attended after high school. He’s the greatest teacher I’ve ever worked with. In fact, he’s the reason I’m in California. He moved here to teach at Cal State East Bay, in Hayward, and I eventually followed him here to earn my master’s degree in music pedagogy.
What makes Dr. James a great teacher?
The first is repertoire. Knowing what people like to sing and what people like to hear. Knowing that music has to engage and connect with audiences.
The second is honesty about expectations. His expectations for us were high, and we had to at least attempt to reach them. He wasn’t an easy teacher, but his approach made me a more dedicated and focused musician.
And the third is his ability to connect specifically with people of color. He’s a white man, and here I was, a young Black man from Philadelphia, coming to Lancaster, Pennsylvania—the heart of Amish country—and wondering who I’d connect with. I was nervous, but Dr. James made it a point to reach out to me and other students of color. Cal State East Bay, where he teaches now, has the highest rate of diversity and inclusion of any college in the United States.
Because of the pandemic, choirs are not singing together in person. How are you adapting?
Before the pandemic I think singers took singing for granted. Now people are recognizing not just the power of choral music but also the necessity of community singing. For a choir to sound not just good but great you have to like and trust your fellow singers. That’s my challenge: to motivate my singers to like and respect one another. Sometimes that means our rehearsals—on Zoom now—are devoted to talking about issues other than music. For example, at one recent meeting we talked about the insurrection in the Capitol, in Washington.
How can music help build community?
In 2010, when I was living in Lancaster, I started a choir called Music for Everyone Community Chorus. It was for all voices, with no auditions. How do you get a choir like that to sound good? Well, I taught by rote—no sheet music. Everyone had to listen to me and then sing from memory. We sang music from different countries—Russia, Spain, Asian countries—in multiple parts and harmonies. That choir became one of the biggest accomplishments of my career. In 2013, our album Renovatio won a Grammy nomination. And the chorus is still going strong even though I’m no longer directing it.
Pacific Edge Voices is also an amateur group, but at a higher level. I’m employing some of the same techniques with them that I used in Lancaster. I’ve done some rote teaching—of African songs, for example—and for singers who are used to reading sheet music that can be hard. It kind of flips the script.
How is Pacific Edge Voices continuing to sing together during this time of social distancing?
We’ve been using JackTrip Virtual Studio technology, which allows us to rehearse and perform in real time, via Zoom, with zero latency. It’s also helped us improve our listening and balancing skills from the comfort and safety of our homes. It’s a significant adaptation—one that not many groups are using yet. We’re pretty excited about it!
Everyone who attends our January 18 open rehearsal will be able to see how the technology works. It’s Martin Luther King Day, so we’ll sing some spirituals and talk about what’s happening in our world.
I want the choir’s repertoire to always connect with what’s happening in the world around us. Our March program will include only music by women and people of color. It’s inspired by Leonard Cohen’s 1997 song “The Great Event”: “The world will be restored to justice very soon.”
Top photo: A Pacific Edge Voices rehearsal.
On Monday, January 18, at 7:30 p.m. PST, Pacific Edge Voices will hold an open rehearsal via Zoom. Everyone is invited to watch, listen, and participate from home. Read more and sign up to attend.