Originally from the Midwest, Emilie Amrein, DMA, found her way to USD as she was searching for an institution to become her “home” school. A competitive job market didn’t hold her back from pursuing a role in an ideal location with a justice-forward mission — USD.

During her campus interview in 2014, she stayed at USD’s Casa de la Paz guest residence, overlooking Mission Bay, and ate lunch at La Gran Terraza. “It was warm, lush, vibrant…a sensory experience.”

She was especially drawn to the criteria by which faculty success is measured and prioritized: teaching, research, service and mission fit (how faculty align their work with the mission of the university).

“It’s been wonderful how I see myself and space for my work in the mission, and that infuses everything else. Resonance in all things. My teaching is connected to my values — justice work, access, community — also connected to my research, with students who are participating in both, and in service commitments at and outside of USD. It feels not so much like work but a calling, a purpose. A mission.”

Since beginning at USD, Amrein has created campus and local community rooted in song and justice. Most recently, she won the 2020 Seed and Nourish Award for launching The Choral Commons, a virtual space for choirs and conductors to envision innovative and equity-centered choral futures, by producing podcasts and interactive webinars, engaging community partners, and incubating new choral projects.

Amrein says that while the tradition of European choral music is strong and beautiful, in reality, humans have been singing in community for over 70,000 years. The Choral Commons connects a community of music students and educators beyond the traditional canon to encompass what she calls “a more human sociological tradition,” addressing topics such as gender identity and expression, arts and incarcerations, housing insecurity, the global refugee crisis and poverty. The Commons also seeks wisdom from outside choral studies to understand how art can be used to bring cultural change on an institutional level.

As an extension of her values and personal mission, Amrein has designed justice-centered courses as a way of exploring the histories of singing people that have been often excluded from music education. In her “We Shall Overcome: Singing for Justice, Freedom and Peace” seminar, students learn about the role and impacts of communal song in social movements from the Civil Rights Movement to the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa.

Students write their own lyrics and even stage a mini protest on campus as part of their student research. She says the structure of the course gives students learning opportunities to “embrace their own voices as a way of invoking this vision for a world we haven’t had yet.”

Additionally, through her cross-border program, Common Ground Voices / La Frontera, Amrein brings students to sing and be in community with refugees, asylum seekers, deportees and the internally displaced in Tijuana shelters.

“Music has been such a source of hope, in the context of conflict and struggle…seeing how songs have been passed from one protest movement to another, connecting struggles on a global scale.”

As she continues her work in decolonizing the music curriculum, Amrein gets energy from her students, who she says have a hunger to make their work and lives meaningful. She encourages her students by centering their work as a powerful collaboration.

“The human voice is a tool and is part of our humanness; singing and storytelling is a birthright. Affirming people’s belonging in this global community as participants of song is my personal mission. I want people to recognize that they have this inherent human expressive tool in their own bodies — they can use that tool for all things. When you use that tool in the community, you can change a lot.”

The above comes from a Dec. 10 release from the USD news center.