Ash Walker is a 2009 graduate of Millersville University and a musician. He was also recently appointed as the music director of the Grammy-nominated choir, Pacific Edge Voices.
The choir, which was founded in 1980 and is located in the San Francisco Bay Area, is made up of non-professional singers. Over the years the choir has collaborated with big name artists like indie-leaning musician Sufjan Stevens and many well-respected musicians like John Adams, Dave Brubeck, David Lang, Bobby McFerrin and more. But Walker’s journey to get there started first in his childhood, and later, a quiet college town you may have heard of in Millersville, Pennsylvania.
Walker says he first became interested in music as a child, thanks to early exposure to performance. “I was blessed to sing with the Philadelphia Boys Choir and Chorale for many years as a child,” he says. “I traveled [with the choir] to many different countries and sang in some of the finest performance venues on the planet. I knew during that experience that music was something I wanted to remain focused in.” Millersville University helped him to “reassure that focus,” he says.
“As a music major, I was able to experience a wealth of opportunities at MU, including founding and directing the men’s choir and serving as the drum major for the marching band for two years,” explains Walker. He credits Millersville University with preparing him for his career. “The education I received at MU was incredibly organized and inspiring,” he says. “[While] Dr. Houlahan’s Solfege theory class still gives me nightmares, I [still] find myself applying the strategies and elements he taught us in my own teaching. He really made me a more focused and professional musician.”
Speaking of professors, Walkers notes that his teachers were an integral part of making his college experience a formative one. “It is so important students maintain strong connections with faculty after they leave MU,” he explains. “Many of the opportunities I’ve received after college came from recommendations from the music faculty at MU. Dr. Buddy James (now Chairperson at California State University in East Bay), Phil Tacka, Michéal Houlahan, and Kristin Sims are [and were] some of the finest professors at MU.” He says he still keeps in regular communication with them all, even now, over a decade after graduating.
Walker says the musicians who inspire him cross many genres. “I have an appreciation for composers who write in contrasting styles,” he explains. “One in particular, who like me, appreciates both classical and music of the African American diaspora is Adolphus Hailstork. I’ve really been inspired by his life and composition style. I’m also inspired by my mentor and friend Dr. Buddy James.” When he’s not directing or singing, you might find him listening to some other great musicians like John Legend, Tyler the Creator, Maurice Durufle, Henrick Dahlgren, Vienna Teng, JS Bach and ChoirNoir. “And I will forever be a Beyoncé fan,” he adds.
It seems like Walker is in his ideal role as the music director of Pacific Edge Voices. “I was looking for a choir that took musical risks,” he explains. “A choir that broke the mold and didn’t want to perform the same repertoire all the time.” He says that living in California has exposed him to many new ways of communicating music and a greater appreciation for cultural inclusion and awareness. “I wanted those tenants to be paramount in any ensemble I joined,” he says. “Pacific Edge Voices was looking for a music director to take over after the last director retired. I applied and was put in a pool of incredibly talented and respected conductors.” After a long audition and interview process, he was appointed director in the summer of 2020.
Of course, the events of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have led to some challenges in Walker’s new role, as group singing is an activity that’s difficult to do well exclusively in the online space due to audio delays. But Walker says he’s making the best of it and finding creative solutions along the way to keep his singers safe. “We are experimenting with a lot of different techniques to keep us singing!” he says. “We have met over zoom for digital rehearsals, we’ve met in person outdoors with masks on and LOTS of distance, and we are currently implementing JackTrip Virtual Studio technologies that enable us to sing over an internet connection together with zero latency. While navigating a choir during a pandemic has been challenging, the rewards of advancing vocal technologies during this time have been very beneficial.”
This new job comes with a lot of responsibility, Walker says, but it’s also profoundly meaningful. When we asked him about the significance of this role to him, he said this: “It means Black conductors matter. It means community and music-making are paramount even in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty. It gives me a space to be more creative than I’ve ever been able to be. It gives me hope for future conductors of color.”
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