November 2, 2021
Frank Watkins is Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Choral Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He holds piano degrees from Jackson State University (BM), the University of Arkansas (MM) and choral conducting from Northwestern University (MM) and Michigan State University (DMA). Dr Watkins was appointed Conductor and Music Director of the Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra in 2016.
PBS Wisconsin sat down with him ahead of this year’s State Honors Mixed Choir performance to discuss the audience’s experience at this year’s Honors Concerts and hear about his favorite memories of musical value from time spent at the foreigner.
The 2021 WSMA State Honors concerts took place live and in person on October 28-29, and concert recordings are available at pbswisconsin.org.
PBS Wisconsin: How did you select the pieces for the students to perform at this year’s concert?
Frank Watkins: I wanted to reflect on the current times and find different voices to influence what is happening in our world. Our program is very diverse; we go from the romantic period to the 20th century with living composers, giving voice to those who have often been marginalized.
We have African American composers, words and lyrics that really speak to this generation and what this world is going through. I wanted to foray into that conversation and make music that the students can think of and think about, but that they can also connect with.
PBS Wisconsin: What have you noticed about the young performers you work with in this program?
Watkins: I’ve always said the students here in the Midwest can’t wait. If you ask them a question about what they think about music, they have these really inspiring and deep answers. They are often very thoughtful and thoughtful, and they are passionate about music. They like to sing in the choir, they like groups and orchestras. The students here are involved, which is amazing. We want to foster this community and encourage them, and continue to encourage them, to sing, play, play and make music.
PBS Wisconsin: You have worked with students across the country and the world. What is your favorite memory from your travels?
Watkins: I have had the chance to travel and study music in many different countries. I think my favorite moment was in Senegal, learning the culture and music there, but also taking students from the university to expose them to different cultures and sounds. Seeing them connect to music and people is really my favorite memory.
PBS Wisconsin: What impact does such an experience have on a student’s development?
Watkins: I think it broadens their horizons; it expands their world. They are able to see that the world is bigger than them, bigger than Wisconsin. They are able to understand and connect with people and see that a universal common thread running through everyone is love and passion for music. Music is part of every culture, and every culture celebrates its music, so it’s great for them to see that outside of their focus here it’s bigger than them.
PBS Wisconsin: Why is music such an important part of life?
Watkins: Music is the foundation of our culture. If you think of any time or touchstone in your life there was music, right? Think of birthdays, graduations and weddings; they are always celebrated with music. This is who we are as musicians, we were born to make music. So I think it’s important because it’s fundamental to who we are as human beings. We are musicians.
PBS Wisconsin: How are State Honors Concerts different for audiences this year?
Watkins: It will be different because after going through a year and a half – almost two years now – of a pandemic, I think people are ready for music again. As a musician, we were sad to see the in-person and live performances shut down. So it’s gonna be different because it’s gonna be new again, it’s gonna be exciting again. It will be something we didn’t know we would miss until we missed it, and we’re ready to get it back again.
The energy of the audience is going to be amazing because they are going to be excited to be there and the musicians will feel excited to play. I think we are all ready for a feeling of normalcy, even if we are not quite there, but just a feeling and a step forward towards normalcy. Nothing better than having concerts in person again in complete safety.
PBS Wisconsin: Have you noticed any bright spots in the performing arts lately, despite the continuing impact of the pandemic?
Watkins: I think one positive aspect of the pandemic is that it has allowed us to pivot and be more creative. How can we now make music in a way we’ve never done before? What new technology with new methodologies can we use to continue creating and producing crafts? I would say pretty much every choir teacher has gotten really familiar with Zoom and gotten really familiar with how to create multitracks, got really great at creating or attempting to create a virtual choir.
We’ve all become full-fledged tech gurus just to figure out how to make music, and that’s really the beauty of what we do. We’re passionate about music, and no matter what, we wouldn’t let music die. We would not let our passion take precedence over the pandemic.
I say hello to all the teachers there because I know we were all in the trenches together, and we were all working hard to make music a reality and provide these opportunities for our students. We are proud of it. It is the resilience of the human spirit, the resilience of knowing that no matter what adversities we face, we will triumph again, music will live on and we will continue to create. No matter what space we find ourselves in, we will always be creating.
PBS Wisconsin: Are there any non-pandemic challenges that have become more evident over the past year and a half?
Watkins: One of the main things the pandemic has revealed is inequality and unequal access. We think how easy it is to say, “Well, we’re just going to pivot. We’re all going to zoom in. Not everyone has access to a computer, the Internet and broadband. I think it really brought to light the disparities and inequalities we face in school curricula. It is important that we are aware of this and that we also fight for better programs, better funding and better access for all of our students.