ASU Gospel Choir director breaks down barriers around musical cultures

Professor to talk about growing the ensemble to be inclusive at TEDxASU talk

man directing choir

When Jason Thompson was growing up in North Carolina, he was immersed in all types of music in his church and at school. But when he decided to major in music in college, the curriculum was focused on Western classical music and didn’t include much gospel, pop or other genres.

“I felt like because that was excluded, a part of me was excluded — what I had known,” he said.

Now an assistant professor in the School of MusicThe School of Music is part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. at Arizona State University, Thompson is passionate about valuing all genres. As director of the ASU Gospel Choir, he has grown the ensembleThe Gospel Choir, one of seven vocal ensembles at ASU open to non-music majors, is a three-credit course for undergraduates and graduate students that’s also open to members of the community. from a dozen students to 125 singers in three years.

“Typically in schools of music, there are certain boundaries placed around what gets to count and what doesn’t get to count,” he said.

“Gospel choirs have always been a part of universities, usually student-run, but my Gospel Choir gets to count. Here, students can take it as part of their ensemble requirement, and it’s very meaningful that it’s not just an add-on but curricular inclusion for their degree.”

Thompson will discuss the choir and his passion for breaking down musical silos as part of his TEDxASUTEDxASU is a student-run event that’s based on the enormously popular California-based TED Talks. The March 31 event will feature nine speakers and a symposium. talk this Saturday.

Here, he answered some questions from ASU Now.

Question: What will you talk about in the TEDxASU talk?

Answer: It’s (the overall event) called “Boundless,” and I kept thinking about boundaries. There are all these boundaries I’m having to navigate: a religious context in a public university, or people who are like, “I don’t sing gospel. How can I do this?”

The gist of it was in my own background. It was the idea that there was a musical buffet. You could go to my church and see anthems — my grandmother loves those — or hymns or spirituals or contemporary music. And in my school, there was pop music and musical theater.

When I came to the university to study music, that wasn’t the case. Everything was built around Western classical music. I love Western classical music. There’s beauty in that. But what I found limiting was that it really didn’t account for the rich diversity of music-making happening across contexts. What got me there was not necessarily present or valued in the academic space.

I taught in public schools for 10 years, and I realized the beauty and necessity of cross-cultural music-making. I was teaching these students who were just like me then.

So my talk is called “The Gospel of Musical Inclusion.”

The Gospel Choir is the centerpiece of the talk because there’s so much happening, but I’m talking about “gospel” not necessarily in religion or music. I’m talking about “gospel” as in “truth.” The truth of musical inclusion.

Q: How do you make the choir inclusive?

A: You would think a place like a gospel choir could be exclusionary. But it’s not. It’s really inclusionary, where I recognize that some people take gospel choir as a way to identify with their own personal belief system or faith system. But there are other people who are taking it because they just love the music. Other people take it because they love the social aspects. There also are people taking it for the recreational aspect because you’re moving. It’s interesting that we don’t privilege one way to be in the ensemble.

They sing religious texts. I have two Jewish students, and I talked to them about, "How do you make sense of this aspect of singing a particular text when your own belief system may run counter to that?" And both said, "I just love the music." They see that the text is another way to draw upon their ability as a performer.

I want them to know what they’re getting into so I do talk about religious context. I may bring in Scripture if we’re talking about David’s lamenting. I’ll say, "This is what’s going on in David’s life,” as a way to bring it back to the music. As a performer, they can draw on that knowledge to inform their musical performance.

What I don’t do is say, "If you’ve had a bad day, you need to turn it over to God.”

Q: Is there a hesitancy among the white members of the choir to sing gospel music?

A: I give them the green light to embody the style. I have them listening to things. We talk about the concepts of cross-gospel context. I try to give them as much knowledge as I can about the different schools of thought.

I’m upfront about it. You will always have a select few people who say, "You shouldn’t do this." I don’t necessarily address those. That’s going to be the case regardless of whether we do it right or do it wrong. So I say, let’s do what we can.

And this year, I have this returning group of students, so the newbies see the veteran students. They see people like them who are already engaged and they think, "This is OK."

When we do a Facebook Live rehearsal, there are people commenting, "I’m so glad that people are singing gospel across contexts."

I think part of it is that there is a level of competence. It’s not like we’re doing something without thinking how we do it. When we sing or people watch our videos, they realize there’s a sense of informed knowledge and that the students aren’t making a mockery of this musical culture.

Our last concert this semester will be at a church. We did it last year, and it was beautiful to see. There were so many races and cultures represented, and so many people were supporters.

Q: The Gospel Choir is flourishing. What’s next for it?

A: I would love for us to have more of a community-engagement piece. Right now most of what we do is performance-based. I would love to say, "How can we use our ensemble and music-making for the greater good?" I’ve been figuring out what that might be.

Personally, I want to do more research on the choir. One of my students has been developing a project about how students navigate these boundaries to get to a place where they feel, “OK, I’m competent in this cultural area where I wasn’t at first.”

I’m also interested in some of the attitudinal things. It would be interesting to see the influence that participation has on the sense of community, which is so important for first-generation college students who are looking for something to be a part of.

I get all these anecdotal comments about what effect Gospel Choir has on their sense of community and identity.

It’s a home away from home for them.

Thompson will participate in the TEDxASU talk at 4 p.m. Saturday, March 31. 

The ASU Gospel Choir will perform in “Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique” with the ASU Symphony Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Tempe Center for the Arts and at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 2, at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. The Gospel Choir also will participate in the Spark After Dark Cypher Ritmo, a free event combining music, dance, art and food at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 21, at the Mesa Arts Center.

Top photo: Jason Thompson, by Tim Trumble  

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