This summer Cami Wilson (’24) explored choral music while based in London. Cami worked under the guidance of Dr. Christopher Gilliam and through the generosity of the Richter Scholarship Program, part of the URECA Center at Wake Forest. Before she left for her research in London, Cami shared her goals, including bringing her research into her work as Music Director for the a cappella ensemble Demon Divas and as a member of Wake Choirs’ Schola Cantorum.

*interview has been edited for brevity and clarity

Wake Music: What inspired you to move forward on this research?

Cami Wilson: Choral music has been such a big part of my life. It was why I decided to be a Music major. I sing all the time. On campus I’m involved in different choral activities. The first is Chamber Choir, and then this past year Dr. [Christopher] Gilliam started Schola Cantorum which is a group of 12 singers, and then I’m also in an a cappella group. Very different styles, but all vocal ensembles.

This past year I really dove into the Music major. Dr. [David] Geary [in the Department of Music] is the one who asked if I’d thought of the Richter Scholarship. I’d been abroad twice already, and I was just itching to go back. We were brainstorming ways that I could go abroad again and the Richter Scholarship came up naturally. It’s just such an awesome program that we have at Wake, so I applied for choral music. I’m hoping to go to London to experience different techniques and different styles.

WM: What a cappella group are you a part of on campus?

CW: I’m in the Demon Divas! I’m the Music Director. Part of the reason why I wanted to do this research was so that I could get inspiration for my leadership role in Demon Divas.

WM: Congratulations!

CW: Thank you!

WM: Are there any particular ensembles that you’re hoping to see? Will you be focusing on London, or are you hoping to travel outside of London, or more broadly in the U.K.?

CW: I would say mainly London. There’s a couple of opportunities in Cambridge that I’ve been having my eye on, but for the most part I’ll be focusing my research on London.

There’s a Bach choir, there’s a cappella groups focusing on jazz, there’s a younger ensemble that’s very similar to Wake Forest’s Chamber Choir. I thought that would be perfect to include as it’s most similar to my work at Wake. A lot of different styles. There’s a concert at the Royal Albert Hall that I’m going to go see. One of the choirs I’m researching is performing with different instrumentalists. A big celebration of music!

WM: You’re looking specifically at choral ensembles, or ensembles with a focus on vocal music. Are you also planning to see musical theatre productions on the West End, or even at Shakespeare’s Globe?

CW: The vocal ensembles are my main area of focus, but I was talking to someone today about what shows I might go see on the West End! Maybe go see a show at the Globe Theatre! If I can incorporate that into my final research I definitely want to because there’s a lot of vocal ensembles in those works as well. The chorus of a musical: that’s vocal singing, that’s ensemble singing. I’m inspired to incorporate them, too.

WM: Are you drawn to any particular time in music, or any particular composer? You mention that vocal music is what brought you to music. What specifically about vocal music draws you to a particular genre or composer?

CW: The way I sing complements the Baroque style. I have a lot of interest in the Baroque composers and the Baroque style of singing since that’s where my voice fits. My a cappella group has pushed that boundary for me. I’ve explored the pop and jazz genres as well.

I’m all over the place in terms of my interests which is why I’m excited to go to London because they have all these little pockets of music everywhere.

WM: You mention the jazz ensembles you’ll be seeing in London. Are they going to particularly impact your work as Music Director for Demon Divas?

CW: I hope so! And I know Schola Cantorum sometimes performs jazz so there’s cross-sectioning there.

WM: Schola Cantorum performed at Wakeville [Wake Forest’s first student-led interdisciplinary Arts festival] this past spring.

CW: Yeah!

WM: Schola Cantorum performed such a wonderful timeline and geographic mix of classical pieces and classic American pieces. Do you prefer singing in ensembles like Schola Cantorum?

CW: I definitely love solo singing to see what I can do alone, but I take what I learn in my [individual instruction] voice lessons and apply that as much as possible to when I sing in ensembles. That’s where I feel I’m making the most music, when I feel connected to everyone I’m singing with. In those ensembles you can see the audience’s reaction and you get to share that with the people you’re singing with. Solo singing, it’s a great feeling, but it’s a little scary. When you’re in an ensemble you get to share it with everyone, and you have the support of everyone.

I think the communication you can have when you’re singing in an ensemble, especially a smaller one like an a cappella group or Schola Cantorum where you’re conducting yourselves and directing yourselves in the piece, that’s when you’re really connecting and producing beautiful music.

WM: Can you expand a bit more on that? What you’re describing sounds collaborative, that you all are really working together to build the piece.

CW: For sure. I think the collaborative element is my favorite part of it. Obviously the conductor is a very, very important part of an ensemble. They set the stage and then it’s really what the ensemble does with what the conductor has given them.

I know that when the Chamber Choir was in Spain and Portugal [on their 2023 international tour], Schola [Cantorum] got to sing at the final concert. We hadn’t rehearsed our song in a while, so we were kind of freaking out, but we went into the garden there, right before the performance and we just sang to each other. That was the moment when we thought, “This is really special; that we get to do this, that we get to collaborate in this way.” That was probably the best concert we had on tour. Everyone just felt the energy in the room that night. That moment when you can transcend I think is when the real music happens.

WM: That’s a great verb: “transcend.” Along with performing you’ve also taken multiple music classes. Your class with Dr. Geary, was that a music theory class? Did you compose in that class?

CW: I did. I also took Dr. [Alan] Reese’s Special Topics: Style Analysis and Composition class this spring [2023].

WM: With a cappella the group breaks down a pop song and then the group works their own voices into it, works their own composing into it- is that the process?

CW: In the past for Demon Divas, we’re such an eclectic group, so not a lot of people are super well-versed in music theory. Sometimes we hire an arranger [for our music]. I’m hoping as Music Director I can arrange a few pieces myself for our group this year. I’ve started a little bit. I have workings of a couple beginnings of songs. I’m hoping that while I’m in London I really get inspired. Definitely the skills I’ve learned in music theory have helped me to feel more confident in my ability to arrange for Demon Divas. Arranging music has always been something I’ve wanted to do. Now I feel I have to tools to do it.

WM: Would you mind expanding on music theory?

CW: I know a lot of people refer to it as “the math of music.” Dr. Geary refers to it as “the grammar of music.” I was always one of those people who was always scared of music theory. Music theory is huge for the Music major. It really helps you to understand why you’re feeling the emotions you’re feeling when you’re listening. Getting to understand what’s happening in music, and gaining that context so you can replicate it was life-changing. Before this I knew chords, I could kind of play the piano. Now I know what a secondary dominant chord is, or that really emotional build [in the music]. Music theory has helped me in any area of music I’m in now. In Demon Divas, now if I can see something interesting happening in the music I know what to ask for.

WM: Has music theory shifted your perceptions of the music you’re listening to?

CW: It’s funny you say that because Dr. Geary asked us towards the end of the spring semester, “Do you guys listen to music differently now”? I think the answer is absolutely “Yes.” Dr. Geary was saying it on a sillier level, like, “Are you dictating the bass line in your head”? (laughs) But I do! I’ll think, “Can I do the scale degrees for this one part of a song that I like,” or “Can I dissect what chord’s happening here,” so it definitely influences how I listen to music now. It brings a new angle to how I listen to music. I’m very grateful for that.

WM: What ultimately brought you to the Music major?

CW: When I was originally applying to Wake someone told me about the Presidential Scholarship. I applied to Wake, thankfully got it-

WM: Congratulations!

CW: Thank you! That was my introduction. I started taking voice lessons, and was in Wake Choirs right off the bat coming into Wake. It was really the first community that welcomed me with open arms.

My first year here was the COVID year [2020]. Choir was one of the only classes I had in person. It was the thing I looked forward to most throughout the week, going and singing with everybody even if it was 10 feet apart with masks on. I thought, “at least I’m getting out there and doing something I love.” I’m very thankful for that happening during my freshman year, because without that [Presidential] Scholarship I probably wouldn’t have gotten involved, just considering the [pandemic] circumstances. Freshman year was when I also auditioned for my a cappella group. Music was a huge part of my freshman year, so at the end of my freshman year when I was thinking ahead of what I maybe wanted to major or minor in I knew I wanted to do a music minor. I was set on that.

Then I went to Venice with Dr. [Peter] Kairoff. I took his music class being in Venice, and Dr. Kairoff would play the piano for me while I would sing my songs for the class. The whole experience was so magical. When I got back to campus in the spring and I was talking to Dr. [Bryon] Grohman and Dr. Gilliam, they thought I should consider a Music major. At that point I had Philosophy as my major and Linguistics as my minor. I wasn’t sure I could do a Music major. It was about midway through the fall when I was taking music theory, I thought “Music major is what it’s going to have to be”! I was basically done with the Music minor. After I had taken music theory, I would have been done so I thought it would only be a couple extra credit hours my last semesters of college. Totally worth it, to be doing something that I love.

Even if I don’t end up in a career in music, saying that I have a music degree is super cool. I’m obviously going to be involved in some form of music throughout the rest of my life.

WM: And thinking about music theory- the analytical skills you learn in that class can be applicable to multiple different fields.

CW: Absolutely!

WM: When you come back to Wake is there a way that you’re hoping to apply your research across campus, within the Wake community?

CW: I’m hoping to work with Dr. G. and Dr. Grohman to work on my conducting skills. Initially I’m going to try and start a small ensemble and hopefully turn that into my major’s thesis project. I would love to do something where anybody from the Wake community could join, and I could walk them through different styles of music.

WM: Maybe a flash mob on the quad?

CW: Yeah! One of the good things to come out of COVID was that we utilized so many of the outdoor spaces on campus. My first a cappella concert freshman year was outside which was different but totally fun. It was free for everyone to come, everyone just sat on picnic blankets and enjoyed, so maybe bringing some of that atmosphere back, because music should be enjoyed by everyone. It can be simple, it doesn’t have to be a huge performance. That’s why I love vocal singing and vocal ensembles as well. Everyone has their instrument with them, at all times, to use.

WM: You’re right! Everyone has their instrument within them. What are any words of encouragement you would give to someone who’s a little shy about singing in public?

CW: I mean, I still get nervous before I sing, you know? It’s such a universal thing to be nervous. A voice teacher once told me to pretend like you’re singing in the car with your friends. It doesn’t have to be the most beautiful thing, the most eloquent, but you’re never afraid to sing in the car with your friends. Singing can be as simple as that. Treat singing as something you enjoy!