Mike Mitchell, associate professor of music and choral music at Oakland University, loves everything about music — from the different cultures to the different sounds within each genre.
To gain access to Mitchell’s third floor office in Varner Hall, one must figure out a maze of cinderblock hallways, industrial carpeted corridors and a plethora of solid wood doors.
At first glance, it’s institutional-like and forbidding, but when one arrives on the third floor of Varner Hall, a busy mix of music, singing and culture lays behind the classroom doors.
Put an ear to one door and you’ll hear a piano tune and instructors calling out encouragements. Behind another is the melodious sound of a chorus, complete with clapping hands as one song ends and another begins.
Stuff is happening here. Creativity, vibrancy and originality virtually ooze through the cinderblock and burrow into your pores. Even though your finger doesn’t pluck a string and voice doesn’t sing a note, you feel a part of it all simply because you are there.
This is the work environment into which Mitchell enters every day, and it’s no wonder he’s so passionate about his vocation. Students of all ages are equally enthusiastic.
“I’m a vocal music major and I love it,” Kelly Onickel said.
Sarah Joy Gugel, a freshman, also enjoys Mitchell’s class. “I’m learning a lot,” she said.
Mitchell has known since he was 14 that he wanted to be a conductor.
“I knew it was the only thing I could do and be happy,” he said. “Conducting itself is a performance. You have to look like the music sounds and impart that to everybody. In performance, what you are doing when you pick up that baton is communicating with (the musicians) and they’re communicating back and then it goes to the audience. It is our final exam.”
Mitchell said choral music is one of the oldest forms of music there is and it’s always been a conservative portion of the arts.
“It starts with the church and the wealthier people singing the madrigals, and such in the renaissance and medieval times, and (it grows from there). But it’s still very much a form of western art,” Mitchell said.
“As the world gets smaller, we discover there is choral music everywhere and much of it is not born of that western music tradition. It’s not Mozart. It’s in weird languages, and it’s got odd sounds, and (for my generation) it’s not what we studied in college, so people are reluctant to do it. I feel like I can be an advocate for that.”
For Mitchell, however, his music taste doesn’t stop with choral music. In fact, he loves rock ‘n’ roll music so much he invented a course on the history of it, called Cultural Foundations and Historical Development of Rock Music. The class follows the historical progress of rock music, including the African American culture from the time of slavery, as well as the political and social ramifications of the music.
“It is now music worthy of serious study,” Mitchell said.
Born in Mississippi, Mitchell and his family lived wherever his father’s Air Force career took them, including France, England and various parts of the South and Midwest.
Mitchell grew up with music flowing through his veins. Both of his parents were musicians and he was given lessons in classical and other forms of music from the time he could remember.
He enjoyed singing in the church choir with his father, but it wasn’t until he secured a spot in his junior high choir that his path became clear to him.
“I had never sung in that kind of choir before and it was great,” he said. “It was full of all the best kids in school, and it was a really cool place to be at the time. In a very short amount of time I was the best singer in the choir. It was something I was really good at, that I got respect for, and something I got reinforcement from adults for, and I loved it. I was lucky to find my path.”
His father was transferred to Texas when Mitchell was in high school and enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin for his undergraduate degree and completed his doctorate at University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory. It was there he served for three years as a graduate assistant to Eph Ehly, who was “probably the most famous choral teacher in the world,” he said.
In addition to his choral conducting duties, Mitchell finds time to coach the singers in various Varner Studio Theatre productions, and Lynnae Lehfeldt, professor of theatre at Oakland University, said his input is invaluable.
Mitchell was director of the prestigious Detroit area Cantata Academy Chorale from 1999 to 2008 and has toured Europe three times with the group. He is a member of the American Choral Directors Association and currently serves as its Repertoire and Standards Chair for Ethnic and Multicultural Music for Michigan.
Mitchell loves what he does and continues to seek avenues to share his passion for music with the world.