It was the question that would change her college major and her life: “Can you take this rehearsal?”
In 2004, Arianne Abela was an 18-year-old government major at Smith College. Sure, she had spent her childhood singing with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, but music was just a hobby now. Abela had joined her college choir purely for fun.
Then came a snowstorm and an urgent phone call from the choir director, who was stranded at the airport. Could Abela lead their evening choir rehearsal? Abela was shocked that the director had chosen her over all of the older students. “I was thinking, ‘I’m just a first-year—I don’t know what I’m doing!’” she recalls. Because she is missing fingers on both hands, she was reluctant to have her hands on display. Yet Abela felt deeply comfortable leading the choir, which was working on Gustav Holst’s Ave Maria. “I got to show people how much I loved the piece and get them to love it too,” she says. “I wanted to do that all the time.”
Abela changed her major from government to music and never looked back. She went on to earn a master’s degree in choral conducting from Yale and a Ph.D. in conducting from the University of Michigan.
Today, as the new director of Amherst College’s Choral Program, Abela hopes to help her students find a safe haven in music making. “Every time we rehearse, I tell them to take a deep breath in and just blow out their problems. I say, ‘OK, for the next two hours, let’s just be present and forget everything.’”
For Abela, the “forgetting” that comes from making music together is not about shutting out the world. Instead, it’s about shrugging off the personal angst that might otherwise keep us mired in private concerns. To explain this, she cites her own experience as a conductor. “I’m constantly all over the place and thinking about 20 different things. But when I’m on the podium, there’s a focus that is solely on the music and the people I’m looking at. The first thing that happens is I forget that I’m missing fingers. I’m there to make music, and it’s the only thing I care about.” Body issues melt away. Abela says she would like to help her students find that same confidence and joy.
She also invites them to leverage the power of music. “Why not take music one step further?” she asks. “Why not use it to help others, or to comment on injustices, or to speak up for people?” In a decade of organizing benefit concerts and community-building events, Abela has done all three.
With some fellow grad students at Yale, Abela co-founded House of Clouds, an organization that created high-quality music performances to raise funds for communities in need. While in Michigan, she founded and directed the Detroit Women’s Chorus and Detroit Justice Choir, ensembles dedicated to community empowerment. She juggled these activities with her regular duties as a conductor for multiple choirs or orchestral groups.
Abela’s work caught the attention of the national organizers of the Justice Choir movement (tagline: “Start Local, Stay Vocal”), who were keen to create modern songs of unity and protest. In 2017, they invited Abela to contribute an original composition to the first official Justice Choir Songbook. Abela was happy to oblige. With her tiny baby daughter in her arms, she wrote the music and lyrics to “Rise,” a song she describes as her list of aspirations for the United States:
I will rise to build up bridges for this broken world we see.
I will tear down the walls between us that divide you and me.
The song took off, and now Abela regularly receives emails from groups around the country who are performing “Rise”—some with instruments, some a cappella. The Amherst College Concert Choir will perform “Rise” on campus this April, and Abela will soon launch a Pioneer Valley Justice Choir.
While it was hard to leave Detroit, Abela is pleased to be back in Western Massachusetts, where her musical career began. Like her own college professors, she hopes to help her students see the talents they may not yet recognize in themselves.
Abela praises Mallorie Chernin, the former director of the Choral Program. “I want to build on the foundation she built,” says Abela. “I feel this really good energy from the students.”
Because it can be difficult for college students to get outside of their “campus bubble,” Abela encourages her students to make connections outside of Amherst College. “My hope is for more concerts outside of campus. More concerts with other ensembles. More concerts raising money for other needs.” What sorts of needs? Abela flashes a smile. “I will ask the students to come up with those ideas,” she says.