Composer Laurel Sanders reflects on her new arrangement of a patriotic classic
Laurel Sanders’ many-layered arrangement of “America the Beautiful” – premiering May 4 at the State Theatre as part of the Nittany Knights Barbershop Chorus’s annual show – reveals the love of music and love of country that are, for her, two of the keys to a meaningful life.
“Anything to get people singing and making music together, that’s what I’m all about,” Sanders says.
Every step of her career – including her current job as music director for Grace Lutheran Church in State College – has reflected that passion.
“People expressing themselves, singing, changing people through the arts, is really important,” she says, balancing a copy of “America the Beautiful” in her lap. “I feel like I can be part of creating music that is unique, forceful, involves people.”
“America the Beautiful” was just such an opportunity, she decided, when her husband – Graham Sanders, a retired opera singer and the director of the Nittany Knights – asked for an arrangement that would combine the four men’s parts of the barbershop chorus with four more parts for the ensemble at Mt. Nittany Middle School, the Clef Hangers. A lifetime of composing had prepared for her the task, and the song has always had a special place in her heart.
“I can almost remember, singing this in second or third grade, thinking ‘why isn’t this the national anthem?’ she says. “It’s not just that it’s more moving; it has so many images. Purple mountain majesty, alabaster cities. I can see the amber waves of grain, I can imagine those big clunky pilgrims’ shoes.”
The first step was a classical poet’s exercise: If you were to take a poem and turn it into one word, what word would that be?
“For me, the word was freedom,” she says. “It’s all about freedom. But why do we have the freedom? We have it because people were brave enough to risk their lives to make it possible for those who came after.” So, while the first verse has a “velvety feel,” she says, the second has more of a marching quality.
“Music should be like a tapestry,” she says. “Who wants just one color? Music can express happiness and sadness, rage and aggression and exuberance, with different colors, different instruments, different types of voices.”
The arrangement was also a chance to teach the middle-schoolers. It was important, she says, to make the song memorable and meaningful to them.
“I wanted the kids to sing the countermelody,” she says, “so they could appreciate a new melody dovetailing with the main melody.”
Education joins with faith and music under the all-important heading of “doing things that matter” – values that Sanders says she learned from her parents.
Growing up in York, she attended schools that didn’t offer much in the way of music and the arts, so her father (a church choir director and barbershop singer) and her mother (a flute player) took her to music lessons even when it meant an hour-long drive.
“There are kids who, whatever their parents do, they don’t want to do that; and there are children who, whatever their parents do, they say, ‘I want to do that.’ And I was one of those, because I respected them so much.”
In an example of life coming full circle, her parents, both then Penn State students, met at the State Theatre, where her “America the Beautiful” will premiere.
During high school, Sanders had the opportunity to attend the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts, five weeks that “changed my life.” She chose Ithaca College in New York for its vocal performance program. During a study-abroad year in London, she met Graham at a concert there, and they were married shortly after she graduated. The newlyweds moved to Ohio, where Laurel earned a master’s degree in arts administration from the University of Cincinnati. While in grad school, she worked as a paid chorister and as a waitress.
Graham’s singing career – “I sing or I starve,” he told her – eventually took them to Germany, where they lived for 11 years. She continued her composing there, for children’s choirs, such as a trombone choir and a recorder choir, at their church.
“Some were very good, and some had five or six notes,” she says, so she arranged the music based on the players’ abilities. “I don’t dumb things down, but I try to stretch people to the degree that I think they’re ready to be stretched, and to give them something they can feel good about when they’re done.”
These days, in addition to her work for Grace Lutheran as business manager and music director, she plays in a flute ensemble (Toot-in-Common) and gives music lessons for the benefit of the church.
Her time abroad had a profound influence on her beliefs.
“I have come to believe,” she wrote, “that people are very much the same, separated mostly by the stories we learn about ‘the other’ from media, government, cultural circles, etc. Music is a way of bringing people together to rediscover some essentials of living: listening to ‘the other,’ sharing experiences, finding passion for life, and expressing who we are.”
Sanders is glad to share her music for free with anyone who wants to play or sing it.
“I don’t live my life for money, and never have, even when I was poor,” she says. Her website – laurelsanders.com – lists 31 songs (and counting).
More information on the Nittany Knights show, Good Vibrations, is at nittanyknights.org.
Selden W. Smith is vice president for public relations for the Nittany Knights.