Dr. Brad Holmes, professor of music and director of choral activities, has been traveling the world since his college years, sharing his love for the beauty of collaborative music. “I knew from very early on,” Holmes says, “that I wanted to put people together to make music.”
Growing up in Albuquerque, N.M., Holmes was surrounded by music. He performed in the Albuquerque Boys Choir, played oboe in the Youth Symphony and for musicals, played saxophone in a jazz band, directed a group of fellow vocal students and often sang with his family.
His passion for collaborative music led him to Las Vegas. “I knew of this group doing backup vocals,” Holmes says. “They were going onstage in two weeks, desperate for a baritone and, to be honest, I was the right size for the costumes they had.”
Holmes eventually pulled the plug on his Vegas gig to spend his summers working, first with the Continentals, an international ministry of Christian singers, then with various church organizations in need of a director. And during summers between his undergraduate studies at the University of New Mexico, Holmes had his first taste of worldwide touring.
“We weren’t always the greatest musically,” he says, “but we sang to a lot of people in a lot of places. I went all over the South Pacific, all over the Caribbean and all over Europe.” In his early 20s, Holmes was tasked with looking after more than 40 singers between the ages of 16 and 25 in foreign countries he had never visited.
After teaching high school music in Albuquerque, Holmes left to pursue his doctorate at Arizona State University, where he met his wife, Beth. They were married just two weeks after both were offered music positions at Luther College in Iowa, where they served as assistants in a nationally known choral program. However, as he gained more experience directing, and even earned tenure at Luther, Holmes found himself wanting to direct his own program. “I had some visions of my own that I wanted to see played out,” Holmes says, so in 1991, the couple moved to Decatur so Brad could serve as director of choral activities and conduct the Millikin University Choir (UChoir). Beth conducted secondary choirs.
Holmes replaced the late Dr. Richard Hoffland, director of choral activities and professor emeritus of music, who had led Millikin choir and the Vespers concert tradition with his wife, Kay, for more than 30 years. “There was certainly a feeling of stability and tradition, but I also saw room for growth,” Holmes says.
Vespers blossomed further as Holmes decided to include every Millikin choir. To showcase the more than 300 Vespers performers, Holmes set up surround-sound.
“We broke the proscenium wall and spilled out into the audience,” he says. “We stood choirs in the aisles so they could help the audience sing. It’s like the audience is listening through headphones.”
Holmes also has found success leading the University Choir outside Decatur. In 2007, UChoir was invited to sing at the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) national conference in Miami.“That’s probably the biggest jump we’ve made in terms of exposure to the country,” he says. “For us, this is the Final Four of the choral world. For Millikin to be brought into that conference as one of only 10 university choirs was just huge.” Millikin’s performance in Miami was so stunning that nearly 100 higher education directors and ACDA representatives sent Holmes letters of congratulations.
One letter was from Dr. Weston Noble, conductor emeritus of Luther College and “really an icon of the choral scene,” Holmes says. Noble said, “in my conversations with colleagues as to choirs who impressed them the most, the Millikin University Choir kept coming up over and over.”
Choral directors from around the country were talking about Millikin’s Cinderella story. “There was a basketball team from nowhere, Winthrop College, that got into the Sweet Sixteen that year,” Holmes says, “and people were calling us the ‘Winthrop of Choirs.’”
Last spring, Holmes received Millikin’s Research and Artistic Achievement Award recognizing that remarkable ACDA conference UChoir performance in Miami, Holmes’own compositions, plus his more than 200 guest conducting engagements around the U.S., including Carnegie Hall. But he insists that he is simply one part of a greater whole. He praises a Millikin voice faculty led by Helen “Hadi” Gibbons, associate professor of music, and conductors Guy Forbes, Ted Hesse ’93, Beth Holmes and Matt Leese, who have only three months each fall semester to prepare freshmen singers to perform in Vespers for four sold-out performances in Kirkland Fine Arts Center. “They have a much tougher job than I do,” Holmes says.
For Holmes, each hour spent teaching takes him closer to the joy of bringing people together to make music. “When people sing together it creates something outside of themselves. It’s beautiful,” he says. “There’s a knitting together that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I guess that’s what grabbed me around the neck and dragged me into this pursuit.”
Jackson Lewis ’13 was a writing intern for the alumni and development office for two years. He currently works in Chicago.