Meeting students where they are
College of Music alumnus builds choral program in South Central Los Angeles.
Joshua Gronlund took solace in music. His parents divorced when he was little, and when his mother remarried, the trauma added to the pain of being a closeted gay teen. Singing in church provided relief. But it wasn’t until he discovered choir and community theatre that he found the empathy he thought was non-existent.
Today, Gronlund is building community and acceptance in South Central Los Angeles through music. He’s about three years into his post as a choral educator at Manual Arts Senior High School where he teaches more than 250 diverse, disadvantaged teens. He’s there, he said, thanks to the education and guidance he received from the Michigan State University College of Music.
“I found exactly what I was looking for,” said Gronlund. “Even when I was 15 and in the closet, I dreamed of being in a work environment where I was accepted. The students here are accepting, loving, people. I really believe we are creating something special here in South Central.”
Making it better
Gronlund found his path and embraced his identity after leaving home in Walled Lake to attend college. He enrolled at MSU to study voice performance, added music education a year later, and graduated from the College of Music with two bachelor’s degrees in 2015.
The summer between his first and second year at MSU, Gronlund and his twin brother, Blake, started a non-profit in Metro Detroit. Music to Make it Better raised awareness of LGBTQ issues, and partnered with local performing artists. Returning to MSU in the fall, Gronlund felt energized and channeled his activism into choral music and music education.
“I began to see it’s possible to achieve equity through choral music,” said Gronlund. “My classes in music education opened my eyes that you can reach communities that didn’t have access to choral music before.”
Professor of Choral Conducting and Music Education Sandra Snow knew Gronlund was capable of handling multiple disciplines. She was impressed by his energy and his ability to sing, act, dance and perform. Gronlund, she said, was always willing to try new things and never closed any doors. He viewed undergraduate education as a time of discovery and exploration—just like it’s intended.
“Despite all his musical talents, Joshua’s talent for people is his best gift,” she said. “While he was unclear about his path as an educator and initially pursued what he thought he should as a singer and actor, his internal desire to teach kept tugging at him. He’s a natural. He should be in the classroom. It’s exciting to see this light go on for him.”
Facing the challenge
Gronlund finished his student teaching and degrees and headed for New York City in 2015. Although he stayed busy performing, he missed teaching. A friend told him about a charter school in Brooklyn, and he taught for a while, helping to bridge the achievement gap for students of color.
Still yearning, Gronlund looked to the West. Within a few months, he found what he was looking for: an inner city school where he could start a music program. He knew the job would be difficult, and questioned whether urban youth—many with traumatic and economically challenged backgrounds—would want to take choral music from a gay white man. But he took the chance, he said, and moved to Los Angeles in 2016.
Gronlund’s first task was to get his physical classroom in order. He fixed a neglected piano, and buffed out the marks vandals had carved into the sides. He cleared cobwebs, painted walls, and hung up posters. When he met his students, many came from Mexico or Central America and didn’t speak English. Some were in gangs. Few had any formal music education aside from a church choir.
“My biggest goal was to develop rapport,” he said. “I told them that whatever you do—be it football, math or music—if you’re good at it, if you succeed, it empowers you. I had them drink the Kool-Aid of choral music, so to speak, and it built community.”
Within a few months, Gronlund had fine-tuned his Spanish, blended choral music with the native folk songs and street music of his students, and got them assembled and performing. Dressed in concert black, students sang three simple songs to a packed auditorium. A few months later, he started an after-school choral program with administrative support that attracted more than 40 students. Within a year, the after-school program produced an advanced curricular ensemble that competes and performs state-wide, as well as an intermediate choir, two treble choirs and two bass choirs.
“This program, these choirs, show these students that they can create great music and succeed,” said Gronlund. “We’ve built a community where students support one another. We’re meeting students where they are, recognizing their backgrounds, and not telling them their cultures are wrong. Despite all the political rhetoric about immigrants and people of color, I have never experienced a more hard-working empathetic and accepting community in my life.”
Gronlund’s rapport extends to staff and administrators at Manual Arts High. Assistant Principal Todd Engle said that the school had discontinued the choir program about five years ago because of the inability to find a quality instructor. Things changed when Gronlund applied and was offered a job.
“Mr. Gronlund has taken our choir to heights never before reached by any previous director,” Engle said. “He helps us out academically as an advisory teacher and member of our School of Medical Arts, Research and Technology. He is a huge asset to our school. He is unfailingly positive and makes our students’ lives better on a daily basis.”
Back at MSU, Professor of Voice and Chair of the Vocal Arts Area Richard Fracker wasn’t surprised when he heard about Gronlund’s successes teaching choir in a marginalized school district. As his primary vocal performance instructor and mentor, Fracker said he never heard Gronlund say a critical word about anyone, and that no one was ever lonely or left out when Gronlund was in the room.
“Joshua has always had a soft spot for the underdog, the vulnerable, the underprivileged, and is genuine about his own vulnerabilities,” Fracker said. “It’s a perfectly organic fit for Joshua to be doing what he is doing, and absolutely no surprise that he is excellent at it and experiencing success.”