It began when Briya Alford’s mother, Shalonda Williams, put a microphone in her hand.
“My family is a singing family,” said Alford, a senior at Arkansas Tech University. “They love to do church revivals. We just get up there and sing…make any kind of harmony. It may not be the best, but we’re going to have some fun.”
It was the beginning of a journey that has carried Alford from glee club member to collegiate choir star to aspiring conductor.
She will continue chasing that aspiration at the 2023 American Choral Directors Association Conference, where Alford will be one of just four vocal music education students from across the United States selected through a competitive process to participate in a conducting master class. The conference is scheduled for Feb. 22-25 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“I’m going to cherish every second while I’m there,” said Alford. “I feel like I need to represent Arkansas Tech and the State of Arkansas well. I feel honored, and now I have to represent.”
Alford’s interest in vocal music education was sparked at Conway High School by teachers such as Sam Huskey.
“Some of my best friends came from choir,” said Alford. “Going on choir trips, doing choral festivals, doing all-region and all-state auditions…choir people just love to sing. I met so many friends and developed some rivalries through healthy competition, which I love and I am so here for. I can definitely say I grew a village and a lot of support from mentors who pushed me. I never really thought about music education and directing choirs until Mr. Huskey told me I was capable.”
When it came time to choose a university, proximity to home and a quality music department were high on Alford’s checklist. Arkansas Tech checked all the boxes.
“I toured (at ATU), and I fell in love with it,” said Alford. “I love the trees. I love that it’s only about a 45-minute drive so I can go see my mom anytime. It is very affordable, and the vocal music education program was starting to skyrocket. The choir showed me they are a family, and that’s the type of environment and culture I wanted to join.”
Alford has evolved to become a leader at Arkansas Tech, both inside and outside the ATU Department of Music. ATU’s Homecoming queen in 2021, Alford has served as chapter president of Zeta Phi Beta sorority and has held membership in the African American Student Association, the ATU Choral Artists and the ATU University Singers during her time on campus. She has worked as community assistant for the Diversity and Inclusion Validates Everyone (DIVE) living and learning community through the ATU Department of Residence Life.
Her family in the ATU Department of Music has been there for all the highs and all the lows along the way.
“The good thing about matriculating through the music program (at ATU) is you are going to see these people every single day,” said Alford. “Not only in your ensembles and your rehearsals, but in class. The same people I started with freshman year, we still spend the whole day together with classes during the day and rehearsals at night. At that point, you get pretty close-knit and you starting learning a little bit more about each other than you really wanted to. It becomes a brother-sister, family kind of thing. You want to see them succeed just as much as you want to succeed. If you are upset with someone, you might as well get over it because you’re going to see them again pretty soon.”
Now Alford regularly stands in front of her fellow students as a choir conductor. The transition from performer to conductor was built upon her love of the music and the people who make it.
“At first, it was nerve-racking,” said Alford. “The first time I stood before a group it was just a small ensemble in the Choral Methods class. I had practiced so hard the night before because I was terrified of making a mistake. That’s the competitive nature of being a music major. When I got up there, my hands were shaking. It almost brought me to tears…creating music with your hands is a whole new experience. I fell in love with the culture you can create by sharing the bonds of music.”
Alford earned the right to participate in an undergraduate conducting master class as part of the 2022 SW-ACDA Conference. Among all the undergraduate applicants from universities in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, only six were selected based upon anonymous evaluation by a panel of adjudicators. Two — Alford and Zontray Kendall of DeWitt — were from Arkansas Tech.
As she prepares to step onto the national choir conducting stage, Alford will do so under the tutelage of Dr. Elizabeth Schauer from the University of Arizona.
“I’m excited about making connections and the opportunity to meet people from across the country,” said Alford. “I want to see their take and their interpretation of the music. It’s one of those conferences where everyone from across the whole country will be there. I’m hopeful that if I can leave a lasting impression on them they’ll want me for graduate school because that’s my next step.”
Alford is also open to the possibility of teaching and conducting K-12 choir during the early stages of her career.
Her long-term goal is to earn a doctoral degree and become a college choir conductor.
Alford can move forward with confidence because of the support she has received each step of the way, from Mr. Huskey at Conway High School to Dr. Christopher Harris at ATU and beyond.
“Hopefully it means that Mr. Huskey was right,” said Alford. “Maybe this is the path for me. It’s definitely helped with some of the imposter syndrome I’ve had and I think any musician has, especially matriculating through this rigorous degree at Arkansas Tech. I like that. I want to have that cognitive dissonance to feel like I am learning and moving forward. If it’s easy, it’s not for me.”