CHOIR DIRECTOR CELEBRATES THE SPIRITUALITY OF SONG
It sounds cinematic, but the moment Annette Welsh ’79 arrived on campus, she knew she was where she was meant to be. “We got out of our car, walked in front of Camino and Founders, the bells chimed, the birds went flying and I had this sense that I belonged here. I was at home.”
One of 11 children, the then-high school senior wasn’t sure that her family could afford to send her to the University of San Diego. “With joy and a little nervousness, I applied. But my mom knew all about applying for scholarships. I learned in late May that my first year was completely covered, so I was able to come.”
Being away from her close-knit family took some getting used to. But before long, living in a quad in Duchesne Hall — where the girls would do cartwheels and round-offs down the wide, carpeted hallway — helped Welsh make the adjustment. “It was a wonderful time,” she recalls, a bit dreamily.
Music had always been a big part of her life. “Our family sang everywhere we went. On car rides, we never turned on the radio. We would sing all the old songs our parents knew. ‘Home on the Range’ and ‘Oh, How Lovely is the Evening.’”
A love of nature prompted her to major in biology. “As a family, we used to take road trips to different national parks, so I thought, ‘I’ll be a park ranger.’” But music continued to loom large. “I started playing guitar, and was in the university choir, and joined an audition-based elite musical group on campus. It was a wonderful time: We learned about life and music and commitment.”
After graduation, Welsh became a chemist for Bumble Bee Seafood, conducting quality assurance. “I was a chemist by day, musician by night,” she recalls.
A few years later, the phone rang: “I got a call on a Friday night from Mike McKay at USD. He and Father Owen Mullen wanted me to come in and interview for a job I didn’t even know existed. They wanted to move the chapel choir from being student-run to a bigger program. I was amazed.” Even though it meant a substantial cut in pay to go from full-time chemist to part-time choir leader, Welsh didn’t hesitate. “Being a chemist wasn’t my heart’s work. Music was. I’ve always had to make music. That’s just the way it is with me.”
That was 31 years ago, and Welsh has never regretted following her heart. All five of her children have since graduated from USD, and she’s touched the lives of hundreds of students.
“Annette leads the Founders Chapel Choir on very high profile, university-wide events, like the All Faith Service and Baccalaureate Mass,” said Assistant Vice President for University Ministry Michael Lovette-Colyer in a glowing nomination letter recommending Welsh be named USD’s 2016 Employee of the Year (spoiler alert: she won).
“Annette is completely dedicated to making sure all students feel welcome in the choir. It is truly remarkable how effective she is at this; the choir is always outstanding and oftentimes truly sublime.”
While the choir’s quality is important, Welsh makes a point of getting her students out of their comfort zone to perform for more marginalized members of the community. A profound example is the work that they do at Alvarado Parkway Institute. “It’s a lockdown psychiatric hospital,” she explains. “The students sing for people suffering from dementia, psychosis, alcohol and drug abuse, depression, Alzheimer’s. We go from ward to ward and sing.”
These outings have lingering impact: “The most acute patients are the ones suffering from psychosis. It’s not uncommon for them to come and stand right next to you and sing, or talk in your ear, or tell you that they’re the President or kneel in front of you and pray.”
And afterwards? Frequently, the choir goes out for pie. “That’s when we talk about everything we saw. The director of the facility once wrote a note that I like to share with the students. She thanked us for coming and said, ‘They were happy all day after you left.’ That may not seem like a big thing, but given where they are, for them to have a happy day is a beautiful gift. I tell the students, ‘These are the things we get to do with music. We get to make someone happy all day.’”
At a weekly rehearsal, a few dozen students trickle in to Founders Chapel at twilight. There is hugging, laughter, little waves to latecomers before voices are raised in song. In rounds, the men sing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” harmonizing with the women’s “When the Saints Go Marching In.” An island of peace and joy, Welsh stands among her circle of students.
“Amazing grace / how sweet the sound / that saved and set me free,” they sing. Earlier, Welsh had revealed a secret: “We sing it in rounds each week. Since it was my mom’s favorite song, it is a little emotional moment every week, as if we’re saying, ‘Hi, Mom!’”
Faces glow, midterm stress fades away and as the last note lingers, Welsh offers up an emphatic “Amen!” While that particular word typically signifies the end, in this case, the work is just getting started. “Sopranos to the right, altos over here, and bass in the back,” Welsh instructs. “For now, we will focus on just the altos. Ready? Begin.” — Julene Snyder