Love of Music: Christopher Gilliam Changed by the Arts

Christopher Gilliam wants you to love music. Since he was in fifth grade, music has provided Gilliam a life raft up and onward, into adulthood and around the world. Now director of choral activities and artist associate at Davidson, Gilliam revels in his most public endeavor each year, the Davidson College Holiday Gala -- a child of his imagination that has taken on a life of its own (this year's performances are already sold out).

The gala features more than 100 Davidson college students performing choral music, theatrical pieces and dance numbers alongside faculty and community groups.

While the gala is perhaps the most visible show of Gilliam's work at Davidson, he brings the same celebratory passion to his vocation all year long.

Davidson students reap a richness of benefits, if they are willing and able to put in the time.

That's a big "if," and one of the first ones Gilliam encountered at Davidson, where the academics are rigorous and the calendar is full.

"The students were so protective of their time, I could see it in their spirit: 'I don't have time to be in chorus,'" Gilliam recalled of his first year recruiting efforts in 2012.

He pushed, and has kept pushing, because that's what happened to him and it changed his life.

Things That Matter

Growing up in nearby Jonesville and Elkin, North Carolina, Gilliam tested into his school's academically gifted program as a middle-schooler. The program director was "big into the arts," pushing her young students to produce fully staged productions of The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan and Oliver!

Piano lessons complemented the stage work, and Gilliam's musical star began to rise.

"The arts saved me. The arts are what got me into higher education, into learning and loving learning, into a place where I felt I could do something. Being in choir,  ...simply being involved in music... Changed. My. Life," declared Gilliam.

Today, he has followed his natural inclination to share the gifts of music, traveling the world and delivering performances to critical acclaim. And at home in North Carolina, a fun kicker: He directs his former fifth-grade director, Patty Grant, as a singer in the Winston-Salem Symphony Chorale.

At Davidson, Gilliam guides his students' thinking on how to approach music, from the particular and the practical to the universal and even existential.

"Commitment to rehearsal and performance is a way to show you want to spend your time on the things that matter -- things that will help your spirit and engage with other people, and help you become more than you are right now," he said.

On Arts Time

Late-afternoon rehearsals four days a week begin with a minute for everyone to stop and just breathe. It may be the only such intentional minute in a student's given day.

"I tell them, 'You're on arts time now,'" Gilliam said. "They don't have the time to not be in chorale. They need an hour a day to think about and devote time to something bigger than themselves."

The musical landscape of Davidson is big indeed, and the Davidson College Music Department's academic offerings and a wide array of campus ensembles continue to broaden and deepen, including Chorale, After Hours Vocal Jazz, Collegium Musicum, Choral Arts Society, Davidson Singers, Symphony Orchestra, Jazz Ensemble, Jazz Combo, Saxophone Quartet, African Drumming Ensemble and Appalachian Ensemble.

"The work that we do in the Music Department and, specifically, in Davidson College Choirs, helps students at Davidson to develop the 'humane instincts' noted in our Statement of Purpose, through listening and communicating with peers who are diverse," Gilliam said.

World of Understanding

"We perform for and engage with a broad audience base -- locally, nationally and internationally. In choral music, Davidson students learn to empathize with each other and with the world around them through gaining a broader understanding of art that is representative of many American cultures, as well as the music and languages of cultures around the world," Gilliam said.

That broader understanding can happen just down the street, too, said Hannah Thigpen '18.

A chorale singer since her first year, Thigpen is a voice student of Artist Associate Jacqueline Culpepper. Gilliam invited her to step up as his assistant at the Community School of Davidson, where he served last year as interim director at a critical time in their choral program.

"That opportunity gave me the chance to appreciate that no matter what you are involved in, what your beliefs are, or even your mood that day, you always have to give 100 percent to a group of people who look to you for direction," Thigpen said. "We're going to live the rest of our lives with other people relying on us. I learned to be confident enough to express my opinion on things, musically or otherwise."

"Through it all, Dr. Gilliam has been a mentor for me," said Thigpen, who is a music major and a physics major. "He sat me down and was very honest with me about the life of a musician, and making a living at it. He really put in perspective the value of doing what we do as artists. He has mostly inspired me by putting in the energy that he likes to see reflected. Dr. Gilliam is our advocate and our coach, our mentor, an artist and a friend. I think it takes a very skillful and empathetic person to do all that."

For his part, Gilliam sees his role as passing on what was given to him in a world that needs as much skill and empathy as it can get.

"The choral arts prepares these students to interact and make friends with people from all walks of life and from every aspect of our current society," Gilliam said. "This is why I think the arts -- specifically the choral arts, which is essentially a 'team sport' -- are absolutely vital to the mission of Davidson College."


  • November 22, 2016