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Musical thrust at Univ. of Mobile yields opportunities for students

MOBILE, Ala. (BP)–Only two years ago, a big audience for a University of Mobile student concert was 300. That was before the Baptist university created the Center for Performing Arts and named as its director the founder of one of the first contemporary Christian recording groups, toward becoming a leading provider of Christian musicians for evangelical churches.

Now, the university’s students perform before thousands, learn from internationally recognized Christian recording artists and have extraordinary opportunities –- such as singing a solo at a Bill Gaither Homecoming concert, touring with Christian recording artist Alicia Williamson Garcia and leading worship at an 8,500-member church.

“It’s awesome to see what is happening here,” said Mark Harris, a member of 4Him which has compiled 24 No. 1 hits and 10 albums, with total sales of more than 3.3 million.

Harris, who is co-teaching a new course in commercial songwriting with Wes Tuttle of Integrity Music, said the program “has moved into the modern era, equipping young men and women for the needs of the church. Things are different now because of the change in worship” in the church.

Miller Cunningham, pastor of worship and music at the 8,500-member Germantown Baptist Church near Memphis, Tenn., agreed.

“The need is enormous,” Cunningham said. “What churches are looking for has shifted. Music has changed, needs have changed. The University of Mobile is one of the few places in the country that has its arms around what churches are looking for. In large part, that’s due to Roger Breland’s grasp of churches and ministry and what they require.”

Breland, director of the Center for Performing Arts, said the credit belongs to his faculty and especially to UM President Mark Foley, who wanted the university to expand beyond its traditional music program into preparing graduates for leadership roles in contemporary worship, while retaining the classical traditions. The move is part of an overall emphasis throughout the university to more fully integrate faith and learning with a Christian worldview.

“We’re developing the next generation of Christian leaders,” Breland said. In the musical realm, it’s a generation built on the combination of contemporary Christian music and a solid foundation of traditional musical training, along with a liberal arts education taught from a Christian worldview. The result is a program that is already producing students who are making their mark in evangelical Christian music.

Breland’s credentials in the world of Christian contemporary music span more than 30 years. A member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, he was the founder of Truth, an award-winning group in the pioneering days of contemporary Christian music. Former members of Truth have moved on to success as members of internationally known recording groups 4Him and Avalon. And, Mark Harris of 4Him said, in the Nashville music scene, “Everybody is affiliated with somebody who was in TRUTH.”

With decades of experience touring on the road, and contacts with musicians and at churches throughout the world, Breland knows how to open doors of opportunity for talented college students.

That’s how UM graduate student Alicia Morris earned an opportunity to perform a solo at a Gaither Homecoming Concert slated Feb. 19 at the Mobile Civic Center.

Morris, a UM graduate who serves as assistant director of public relations at the university while pursuing a master’s in business administration, was in the process of making her first self-titled solo CD, which was produced by Jason Crabb, when Breland was named director of the Center for Performing Arts in May 2003.

“I was very aware of her talent,” Breland said. “God has given her a great voice. I believe in Alicia because she’s a dedicated and very hard worker, but more than her talent, what stands out to me is her commitment to what she feels like God has called her to do. We’ve had the opportunity to talk about her career and what she could do to go to the next level.”

That talk quickly turned to action. Breland helped Morris plan her CD release concert in Mobile with the Crabb Family. He then sent Morris’s CD to his friend Bill Gaither, whose Homecoming concert tour included a performance in Mobile.

“I did mention to Bill that she had a single off this CD that had charted at No. 72 on the Singing News gospel chart,” Breland said. “I asked him to consider allowing her to sing with the Homecoming group as a local Mobile artist.”

Gaither’s response overwhelmed Breland and Morris. The gospel legend invited Morris to open the concert with a solo from her CD.

Morris said Gaither receives “hundreds of submissions every year from people who want to perform at one of his concerts. Having someone like Roger Breland who has that connection with him and is able to bring me to him, well, it automatically gave me instant credibility with Mr. Gaither. Those connections opened a door that might not have been opened otherwise.”

Gaither, she said, “is THE man when it comes to Southern gospel music…. His concerts list as some of the top-selling concert tours every single year, right up there with major mainstream artists.

Breland has revitalized a music program that already had a reputation for producing graduates with a solid musical foundation. In less than two years, the number of music majors has nearly doubled, from 45 to 88, with 136 students participating in performing groups. The program has grown from six fulltime professors to 10, including professors who perform professionally with opera companies, symphonies and Christian touring groups. The 17 part-time instructors include Harris, Tuttle and Garcia.

Breland has expanded the course offerings, adding improvisational piano, commercial voice, commercial songwriting and praise band. He has created a variety of new performing groups, including Ram Corps drum and bugle corps, Sounds of Mobile show choir, Voices of Mobile a cappella ensemble, and he plans to add a strings ensemble next year.

Performance opportunities also have dramatically increased. Students can learn commercial voice from artist-in-residence Garcia and travel with her as the student ensemble “Impact.” The university’s “Christmas Spectacular” attracted a capacity audience of 2,300 in 2003 and 2004 at Dauphin Way Baptist Church in Mobile. Thousands attended “StarLight at the University of Mobile,” an outdoor concert on the university campus. The “Sounds of Mobile” performed aboard a cruise ship filled with Christians on a tour to follow the footsteps of the Apostle Paul in Greece, and a student and a graduate joined the Glenn Draper Singers and UM’s senior academic fellow Al Miller for a Christmas concert at the White House.

Breland said the emphasis on performance has a spiritual side.

“During these tours and performances, we’re trying to teach them not only musical skills, but the practical and spiritual things they will need to be leaders,” he said.

Lee Worley, a junior from Hayesville, N.C., was a member of Sounds of Mobile show choir that performed aboard a cruise ship, and he recently completed a 12-day tour, 17-concert tour with the Voices of Mobile and Ram Corps groups, reaching 5,000 people throughout Alabama and into Georgia.

“When you get on the road and you’re on stage, you’re getting the experience of real people and real life,” said Worley, who is majoring in public relations and advertising with a minor in music. “You get to see it firsthand rather than just hear about it from a professor or textbook. It’s the experience that makes it real. You learn the life lessons that you don’t get in the classroom.”

Worley plans to pursue a career performing contemporary Christian music or working in the music industry in public relations.

Being on stage had practical applications for Chad Watson, a 2004 UM graduate with a bachelor of arts in vocal performance who now is associate pastor for worship and music at Germantown Baptist Church.

Watson said the experience of performing before thousands at Christmas Spectacular and StarLight help prepare him to lead worship in a large church.

“That experience really goes in line with what I’m doing now, being comfortable with a large number of people and learning how to be real in front of a group of people,” Watson said.

That’s not all he learned. “I had many opportunities to sit in Roger Breland’s office, and the advice he gave me, specifically on serving in the church, was very helpful. That was a huge preparation for me, his willingness to let me pick his brain and ask him questions,” Watson said.

Germantown worship and music pastor Miller Cunningham said churches are looking for more than people who are technically trained in a good formal music program.

“Coupled with that technical training, you are looking for someone with a heart for God and a heart for the church. The difficulty is in finding all of those coexisting. You’re looking for a school not only with a good formal liberal arts program and musical program, but also a place where they are cultivating hearts for ministry and worship. That was something Chad was challenged with at Mobile, what it means to express and lead worship, along with formal musical training,” Cunningham said.

Morris, who continues to consult with Breland as she prepares for her upcoming appearance at the Gaither Homecoming concert in Mobile, said she believes that, ultimately, God is responsible for her success.

“Of course I know that ultimately God did every bit of this, but God used Roger Breland and the Center for Performing Arts as a tool for making things happen,” Morris said. “Mr. Breland loves to help young people, to invest his life into someone else and help them get where they want to be.”

Morris said Breland’s support and encouragement is helping make her dream a reality.

“My dream is to be able to do this the rest of my life, to share Christ through song,” she said. “The University of Mobile tells us they want us to be change agents throughout the world. My dream is to use the gift that God has given me to be a change agent in the world, to affect the lives of others around me, by sharing through music what God has done in my life.”
For more about the University of Mobile Center for Performing Arts, visit www.umobile.edu.

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  • Kathy Dean