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Arianne Abela ’08: A Life in Music Started at Smith
According to Arianne Abela ’08, a successful career in choral conducting requires flexibility, creativity, initiative and, most importantly, a passion for the music.
Abela, who had been on the conducting faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, moved back to the Pioneer Valley in late 2018 when she was named director of choirs at Amherst College. She conducts the college’s three choirs, including the glee club, the fifth oldest collegiate singing ensemble in America, with each group’s repertoire ranging from pop to classical. “I try to make sure that students are exposed to all kinds of music,” she says.
Choral conducting is a highly competitive and still predominately male field, says Arbela, which makes her accomplishments shine that much brighter. She is the founding artistic director of the Detroit Women’s Chorus, a social justice ensemble for self-identified women, and, in 2013, she led the 3Penny Chorus and Orchestra to the semifinals on season eight of America’s Got Talent with a classical version of the Carly Rae Jepsen hit, "Call Me Maybe."
Here she talks about her life as a choral conductor and why she credits Smith for getting to where she is today.
What did you do after Smith?
I went straight to Yale University for a master’s in choral conducting, taught high school for a few years, and then decided to get my doctorate at the University of Michigan. I then taught at Wayne State University in Detroit. After that, I decided to apply to the job here at Amherst.
How challenging is it to enter the field?
Choral conducting is very competitive, especially in academia. A lot of people create a full-time job out of conducting several church, community or children’s choirs. But there are also a lot of opportunities to create something new, as I did with the Detroit Women’s Chorus. For a while, my husband, Noah Horn, who is also a choral conductor, and I were conducting 11 choirs between us, because we were piecing together a lot of different ensembles.
What is a typical day for you?
Well, besides dealing with a 2-year-old, which is never typical, I’m often studying scores or preparing for rehearsal during the day, and all my rehearsals are in the evening, so I arrive in the afternoon. I have meetings, and then in the evening at 6 or 7 p.m. I have rehearsal until about 10 or 10:30. I plan to teach choral conducting, but right now I’m doing only the choirs, teaching private voice and conducting privately.
How challenging has it been to balance work and life in your field?
Noah and I have to go where the jobs are. In order for us to both be fulfilled musically, we have to make sacrifices. I’m lucky that he has been really supportive about this job. I also feel that having a family and deciding to be a conductor was part of a conflict for me. I didn’t really know if I could be the best conductor I could be and follow my career and also have a family. I think for other jobs, it might be easier to balance. I just decided I wanted both.
Talk about how your appearance on America’s Got Talent came about.
I was living in Connecticut and had finished my master’s degree at Yale. For fun, my friend Colin Britt and I did a classical arrangement for choir and orchestra of the pop song "Call Me Maybe" and invited our friends over to perform it. We called our group the 3Penny Chorus and Orchestra, posted a video and it got 2 million views in two weeks. We were invited to perform on the Today show and then asked to compete on America’s Got Talent. It was really fun, and we ended up in the semifinals.
What impact did it have on your career?
It definitely helped me understand that I wanted the world to see that classical musicians also appreciate pop music, that there’s not just one way to do music. We heard from a lot of young people who wanted to sing our arrangements and were now interested in singing choral music after seeing us perform so, that, to me, was all I needed.
How did Smith influence your career path?
I was born without most of my fingers and without my left leg. Coming to Smith, I planned on being a government major. I wanted music to be a part of my life, but I didn’t think it could be every part of my life. I sang in the choirs, and my teachers at Smith saw something in me, and they actually told me that I should be a conductor. I thought, “Well, that’s silly! I hide my hands.”
They just kept encouraging me and gave me podium time, which is really rare for an undergraduate. But they let me conduct choirs, they let me conduct the orchestra—they gave me these opportunities. And that is 100 percent the reason I am where I am. All the teachers I had in the music department helped me through that process and continue to support me to this day.
What is your advice for Smith students who are interested in a career in choral conducting?
I think that the great thing about Smith is that it’s not a conservatory, and you can create what you want out of your undergraduate degree. I approached professors and asked many of them for help. I got extra lessons in piano and voice, and I tried to create the experience I wanted. Because of that, I feel like I grew into a more confident musician and was able to follow my career path.
I am about to start a professional ensemble in the area, which is really exciting, and it will be focused on bringing classical musicians and minorities together. Mostly I like to go with the flow and be wherever life takes me. I do know for certain that I will continue to create music and opportunities and think about social justice in terms of music and to use music to help those who don’t have a voice.