2019 Grad Wins Second Place, The American Prize in Conducting

Posted on July 5th, 2019 by

Michael McKenzie conducts the Gustavus Social Justice Choir at Building Bridges Conference in 2018.

Michael McKenzie ’19 has been awarded second place in The American Prize in Conducting–Chorus (Community Division) for his work as founder and conductor of the Gustavus Adolphus College Social Justice Choir.

McKenzie, a music education major, was the only undergraduate student to win an award in the division which included Philip Brunelle, founder and artistic director of VocalEssence, a renowned choral organization based in Minneapolis. Chief Judge of the American Prize David Katz says that the award is based solely on the talent evident in the audition videos, not lengthy resumes. Katz says McKenzie’s “expressive, generous and welcoming gestures,” along with the the fact that he was “obviously listening” made him stand out to the judges. 

McKenzie’s Social Justice Choir performs programs with a mission. The video he submitted with his application was a live recording from the ensemble’s first performance entitled “Afraid, Uncertain, We Sing as Love” which addressed the stigma of mental illness in society. 

“Music has the power to create feelings and emotions within the audience they may have never felt before, or that may differ from their unique experiences as people,” McKenzie says. “I had the idea that a way to fight the stigma on mental illness was to create a program that would elicit feelings of deep sorrow and uneasiness to put the audience in the emotional shoes of someone who battles with mental illness.”

The concept for the Social Justice Choir originated for McKenzie three years ago as part of an independent study with Jon and Anita Thomsen Young Distinguished Endowed Chair in Music and Director of the Gustavus Choir Brandon Dean. McKenzie says his own journey with mental illness made the issue personal for him, however, he never thought it would move past the classroom. But when he found out that the 2018 Building Bridges Conference theme was mental health, McKenzie pulled together 18 friends that formed the first iteration of the Social Justice Choir. 

McKenzie credits Dean’s support in giving him the courage to submit his work for the award and says that his guidance, along with Professor Emeritus Gregory Aune, was integral in the establishment of the choir as a permanent fixture in the Gustavus community.

This fall McKenzie starts work as choir and orchestra director at Eagle Ridge Academy in Minnetonka and hopes to eventually go back to school to inspire the next generation of college students. The Social Justice Choir will live on as a curricular ensemble led by student conductors in the upcoming academic year.


One Comment

  1. Harold A Maio says:

    —— a way to fight the stigma on mental illness

    One does not join one’s own voice to those SAYING there is a stigma, one fights those saying it. Never yield to them.

    Harold A Maio