Welcoming Our New Director of Choral Activities, Director Maggie Burk
As Carthage College begins its 2022-2023 school year, you are sure to find many new faces, both students and faculty alike! One of these people you are sure to meet is Professor Maggie Burk, our new Director of Choral Activities! Professor Burk is a choral conductor and performer and will be overseeing the growth of our choral productions and undergraduate music courses here at Carthage College. After recently completing her DMA at the University of Michigan, Professor Burk is excited to connect with her new students and become a part of the Carthage family. I spoke with her about her experience with choral music, upcoming events at Carthage, and her expectations for this school year.
What inspires you to conduct, compose, and perform?
It all comes down to people and what music can do, how it can heal and transform. When a group of people come together to sing, we must be both completely aware of ourselves and what we bring to the ensemble and also deeply aware of the other people and voices in the room, how our voices weave together. This paradox has inspired so much passion and curiosity in my life. When you really commit to living at the junction of that paradox, you find not only empathy and compassion for others, but a deep grounding in your own sense of self. The respect that you must have for composers, for traditions, for cultures both familiar and new, prompts investigation, research, and vulnerability; along with the journey of the rehearsal and performance process, it can open you to the kind of beauty that I believe can make the world a kinder, stronger, more understanding place.
In terms of being a composer, I love writing music that is for a specific audience or event. All of my published pieces were dedicated to or sung for someone or performed for specific occasions. I appreciate knowing that I have met a need!
As you worked towards achieving your music degrees, why did you choose to delve into choral music?
I am from a family of musicians. My father (now retired) was the organist and director of choirs at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in Topeka, Kansas, so I grew up singing in a variety of school and church choirs. Through my schooling sequence, I was brought up by particularly strong choral directors—most of whom were women—who were incredible role models and mentors. They helped me take my burgeoning passion for choral music and channel that passion into a true vocation.
You studied under two-time Emmy award winner and 2015 GRAMMY award nominee conductor Eugene Rogers. How was this experience?
When I first met Euguene, it was at my audition for the doctoral program at the University of Michigan. I knew immediately that he was the kind of person that could help foster my growth. He is a talented musician, a force of nature, and a man of deep conviction, true to his students and the musical profession as a whole. In terms of our mentor/student relationship, he has always been there for me, always challenging me to work harder, reach higher, dream bigger. He himself is an exceptional conductor and rehearser; in addition to his work as Director of Choirs at Michigan, he is the conductor of the GRAMMY-winning Washington Chorus and the founding director of Exigence, a professional chorus made up entirely of Black and Latinx singers. He regularly commissions new works, including the EMMY award winning piece, The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed by Joel Thompson. In this work, Thompson speaks to the plight of Black Americans suffering at the hands of police, setting the dying words of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and others to music. Dr. Rogers and the Michigan Men’s Glee Club premiered the work, sparking incredible new conversations about the role of choral music in social justice movements. With his passion and vision, I knew he was a teacher I needed to learn from.
What parts of your past experiences do you hope to bring to Carthage?
The most important thing that I can bring to Carthage College’s choral department is a passion for empathy and understanding that come when choral music is performed with integrity. I have been very blessed to perform with incredible choral groups in my life. Throughout my many experiences, the connections with the people are what truly stuck with me. Obviously I am a fan of the nitty gritty building blocks of choral music—the joy of the rehearsal and performance process—but we must remember who we are, to whom we are singing, and why. I want to bring this energy, sense of purpose, and opportunity for students to perform in choral performances that they may not have before. For instance, I taught a music class in a prison when I was at Michigan to twenty incarcerated men. Some of these guys were incredibly talented singers, guitarists, you name it; some had no idea how to match pitch. But they all came with open hearts, ready to share their experiences and songs. They weren’t allowed to sing, even hum, except when they came to class—and wow, did I learn a lot from them. When I had this experience, I realized just how transformative a song can be for those who need it. At Carthage, I hope to establish those kinds of relationships and more. I want our music to truly change lives.
As a choral soprano and conductor, what is your most memorable performance?
As a singer, I’ve been incredibly blessed to sing in various places around the world. My most memorable singing performance involved a piece called Path of Miracles by British composer Joby Talbot with the Yale Schola Cantorum. It’s a piece about the Camino de Santiago in Spain, which is a medieval pilgrimage route still walked by thousands of people every year. We sang at cathedrals all along the Camino, taking in the centuries of music, mystery, and grace so many pilgrims find along the journey. Walking into these 1000-year-old buildings with their massive stone arches and stained glass windows—constructed with hand tools!—is an overwhelming experience that I will never forget.
As a conductor, it’s a different idea. The memorable performances, for me, represent the apex of the rehearsal process. Whether I’m working with seasoned professionals or middle schoolers, it’s all about the journey for me: the epiphanies in daily practice, the inside jokes, the hard work every day. There are too many to count!
As you begin your time with us at Carthage, what are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to learning about the heritage, traditions, and the people of Carthage! The Carthage Choir is one of the oldest collegiate choirs in the country, and I can’t wait to be a part of the culture, to experience the community, and to see the nation and the world with the amazing musicians! In general, I’m looking forward to getting to know the Kenosha community and learning how the Carthage Choir can become more connected to its audiences even more so than it already is. I’m also excited for this year’s upcoming Christmas Festival. Our theme this year is “Share the Wonder,” and I am so excited to work with Professor Matthew Hougland to bring this festival to life.
Do you have any expectations for Carthage and your soon-to-be choir students?
The biggest expectation I have is regarding the personal responsibility to the ensemble. One of the glorious things about choirs is that the leader of the group makes no sound! Each and every note comes from the students of the choir. I think when they take ownership of their role in the ensemble, everything else will fall into place.
Do you have any advice for upcoming fine arts students, especially those who want to use their degree for conducting choir performances?
The single best piece of advice I can give is to learn to embrace a growth mindset. Many people enter the fine arts field and don’t truly realize just how often they will face criticism. And criticism isn’t always a negative thing, but everyone will always have an opinion about your art. If your self-worth is tied only to your performance, then you find yourself constantly fighting an uphill battle — there will always be someone supposedly “better” at their craft than you, but there is only one YOU, and your voice is so important! Cultivating your own sense of self, personality, identity, and vocation will ground you, no matter what the world throws your way.