Finding Their Passions on the Podium W&L’s choral conducting mentorship program helps students find and follow their passions through music and mentorship.
“I have discovered a passion for teaching music in a manner that incorporates and respects our diverse world and its cultures. I am excited to see where that passion leads.”
~ Nat Ledesma ’23
Early on in his time as an undergraduate student participating in Washington and Lee University’s choral conducting mentorship program, Levi Lebsack ’21 told Shane Lynch, professor of music and the program’s coordinator, that the one thing that he did not want to do was become a middle school choir director. In an interesting twist, Lebsack now serves as the middle school choir director and school organist for All Saints’ Episcopal School in Fort Worth, Texas, and credits the program with preparing him to mentor, teach and lead his students.
Lynch launched the Choral Conducting Mentorship Program (CCMP) in fall 2009 following his arrival to the university’s music department as director of choral activities. CCMP offers undergraduate students multiple years of conducting and pedagogical training within a small cohort, fostered by leadership positions with the W&L choirs, including assistant conductor and section leader slots that are traditionally reserved for graduate students at other schools.
Currently, 14 students are participating in the CCMP. Participating students receive substantial podium time with the W&L ensembles, including the chance to conduct advanced works with W&L’s renowned University Singers in performances across the country and abroad. Many students also seek K-12 choral and instrumental certification to pursue careers in music education.
Lebsack, who graduated with a B.S. in music with a vocal emphasis, said that one of the best aspects of his time in the program was the practical experience that sparked a passion for teaching and prepared him for his current career path.
“In one class, we planned a concert for a middle school or high school program,” Lebsack said. “You’re doing projects that actually apply to future professional experiences.”
Lebsack added that the program’s hands-on approach is what differentiates it from other undergraduate-level music education.
“I was working with ensembles my freshman year, on the podium my sophomore year and with University Singers my senior year,” he continued. “If you are looking for the experience of doing things yourself, that’s what this program offers.”
“In most undergraduate music educations, the main conductor would never give up podium time to a student,” Lynch said. “In many ways, the work is about the main conductor, not the students. The CCMP doesn’t work like that — it allows the students to see me working, of course, as they need that role model and they need to see the conducting work being done at a high level — but it allows them the chance to immerse themselves and work, with successes and failures, in real time. That is just so invaluable and watching how the students grow through that experience has been so rewarding.”
As director of choral activities at W&L, Lynch conducts the University Singers and the Glee Club, while Lacey R. Lynch, W&L instructor of music, conducts Cantatrici. Both work extensively with the CCMP students. Additionally, the students work with Gregory Parker, W&L professor of voice and director of vocal studies; Christine Fairfield, W&L instructor of voice; and Kyle Nielsen, who teaches vocal music methods and literature, as well as coordinates the choral program, at nearby Southern Virginia University.
Lynch also works closely with Chris Dobbins, W&L associate professor and director of instrumental activities, along with local musicians such as Martha Burford, the director of music at Grace Episcopal Church, who help provide additional opportunities for CCMP members.
CCMP students form an educational cohort and can pursue the program either through a B.A. or B.S. in music. The cohort’s work for each semester includes conducting various university ensembles, planning the literature for choral concerts for Cantatrice and Glee Club, attending professional conferences on choral music, and performance. Beyond the core music curriculum, the coursework within the degree focuses on advanced choral conducting, vocal pedagogy and diction, and vocal methods.
Morgan Luttig ’14, who majored in music and vocal performance and minored in education, describes herself as the “guinea pig” of the program’s foundational years. She said that much of her coursework and meetings with Lynch resulted in a rewarding mentoring relationship that inspired her to thank Lynch in her doctoral dissertation at Florida State University. Following her graduation, Luttig subsequently returned to W&L’s campus to help lead CCMP during Lynch’s sabbatical, and she noted how much the program had grown and evolved since her time as a student.
“By the time I returned to campus to teach, Shane had a system in place where sophomores had the chance to work in sectionals with groups, juniors got to conduct the treble and tenor bass ensembles, and seniors got to work with University Singers,” Luttig said. “He created a lineup of how everyone progressed through the program.”
Luttig is now the director of choral activities for the University of Alabama, a dream she said she could not have imagined when she started her journey at W&L. She remains in regular contact with Lynch and others from the program.
Like Luttig, Lebsack said he also values his ongoing relationships with CCMP peers.
“We text about vocal pedagogy,” Lebsack said. “Though my time as a student in the program is done, I’m still very much taking part in the program.”
Michael Colavita ’18 said CCMP shaped his life and career in unexpected ways. Colavita, who is currently the director of choirs for Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, initially intended to go to medical school upon graduation. However, he quickly found his calling within CCMP’s tight-knit and supportive community.
Colavita added that he particularly appreciated the opportunity to participate in an alumni rehearsal that Lynch holds each year during the university’s Young Alumni Weekend, in which past and current members of university vocal ensembles practice together in the same space. More than 30 alumni participated in CCMP during their time on campus.
“I could always tell that Dr. Lynch was investing so much of himself in my development and the development of my peers,” Colavita said.
Nat Ledesma ’23, a current CCMP student and vocal music education major from Missouri City, Texas, said the program has shaped their undergraduate experience and helped refine their post-graduate career plans.
“When I came to W&L, I knew I wanted to be a conductor, but I didn’t know where that career path would take me,” Ledesma said. “The opportunities I have found through the program — such as working with incredible composers like Rosephanye Powell and Stacey Gibbs, and spending my summer studying the bluegrass music of the Appalachian Mountains — have helped me narrow that focus into education and ethnomusicology. I have discovered a passion for teaching music in a manner that incorporates and respects our diverse world and its cultures. I am excited to see where that passion leads.”
Annie Thomas ’24, a double major in music and English from Jackson, Mississippi, said that before joining CCMP, she assumed her interest in music would never be anything more than a hobby, but was inspired by watching junior and senior conducting students bring their choral pieces to life on the podium. Now, she is confident that music — and the community she has found within it — will be a part of whatever path her future holds.
“One of the best parts of CCMP is that we all love to help each other become the best we can be,” Thomas said, “and that doesn’t have to wait until you get here. Everyone in the program is passionate about what we’re doing and would love to answer questions from prospective students to help them figure out if it’s the place for them.”