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Now On The Syllabus: Keeping The Faith And Holding A Tune

Professor Willana Mack conducts Nyack College's touring gospel ensemble, seen here. Starting in fall 2016, students at Nyack will have the option to major in gospel music performance.
Professor Willana Mack conducts Nyack College's touring gospel ensemble, seen here. Starting in fall 2016, students at Nyack will have the option to major in gospel music performance.

If you'd like to major in jazz — or classical music, or voice performance — you have plenty of options. Music programs at schools from the Berklee College of Music in Boston to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, to the Julliard School in New York, all offer bachelor's degrees in these styles.

But if you want a degree in gospel music, well, your choices have been far more limited. You could study gospel music history, or you could get a classical voice performance degree — but nothing quite like what you'd be looking for.

Until now. Nyack College, a small liberal arts school in Manhattan, is aiming to combat that lack with a brand-new bachelor's degree program in gospel music performance. The goal is to elevate the level of gospel music scholarship.

In an interview with NPR's Michel Martin, professor Willana Mack, who created the degree's curriculum, explains the inspiration behind the program — and why others have been reluctant to start one like it.

Interview Highlights

On why it's taken so long to create a degree in gospel performance

I think that when people think of gospel music, they think of it as something that's natural, that you don't necessarily have to study and also that you can't really learn. And so it's fighting a culture where they think that the study of music should be devoted more to classical or jazz — things that are a little more traditional.

So, to try to bring something that's a little bit different, I think it's met with opposition before people start to look at it as actually a reputable genre that's just as valid as any other genre of music right now. ...

It's funny ... for some reason, academia accepted jazz as a form of music you could study easier than gospel. Not immediately, but eventually, when they started looking at just jazz theory and how everything about it was very different from what people were currently studying. For some reason, it just was taking gospel music a little bit longer to get that same type of respect.

On the influences of gospel singer Richard Smallwood

There's one song in particular that Richard Smallwood does, and it's called "Bless The Lord." He puts into this song a fugue — a classical fugue. And it comes out of nowhere. He studied classical music, so he knows how to insert these classical touches here and there that people don't expect, that don't even notice what's happening.

On what defines gospel music

There are so many different types of gospel music. ... I think what makes it gospel is the overall message. So the message of the gospel is — what? It's the good news. So if we start there, with what makes it the gospel, it's the message. And beyond the message, then it's: How do you deliver that message? And that just comes down to different styles and tastes.

On the sense of a calling that inspires gospel music

It's a discipline that has to start with the calling. And I don't recommend for people to study gospel music if they don't feel that God is leading them to study that. Because it does have to start with God calling you to do this. And so there are things in gospel music that when you study, you start to understand the musical side of it, in addition to the spiritual side.

On why someone should study gospel music in school

I will say that when you go to school, you always run the risk of — OK, what do I do when I graduate? If I go to school and I study medicine, if I don't go out and do a residency and look for jobs, I am not going to work. But there is work in the gospel music world. You could now be a music director who not only has the talent but now can read music and can show people on paper — "Well, now I also know how to read music."

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