Life on the Road, Part II

My Experience with the American Spiritual Ensemble

In October of 2015, Longy singer Todd McNeel Jr. auditioned for the American Spiritual Ensemble. In March of 2016, Todd was selected to join the group for an April tour that features 9 marquee performances across 5 states, punctuated by many more masterclasses, visits to schools and community centers, radio presentations, and more. This is the second of a three-part series. Read part I and part III.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

By Todd McNeel Jr.

On paper, week two seemed as if it would provide some sort of break. We would finally be based in a city for more than two or three days, and we were now focusing our rehearsals on our huge concert with legendary opera singer, MET Opera soprano, and Grammy Award-winner Kathleen Battle. While the benefit of spending five days in one place made it easier to feel rested and more settled, it did not make the week any less busy. We were scheduled for two-a-day rehearsals in preparation for the concert on Saturday, and any free time we were allotted was filled with running errands and handling personal matters that we’ve all been putting off. My personal matters I attended to were finishing homework assignments, tuxedo dry-cleaning, a haircut and a little bit of House of Cards binge watching. 

Although the week ended up becoming much busier than we all expected, I can’t say enough about the magic that occurred. As I mentioned earlier, American Spiritual Ensemble was joined in performance by Kathleen Battle. I’ve grown up watching and listening to videos and clips of her warm, gorgeous, angelic tone, and in my wildest dreams and days of listening to her recording of “O Mio Babbino Caro” for my daily morning routine, I never would’ve imagined that I’d have the opportunity to share the stage with her. 


Ms. Battle is a lover of fine musicianship and precision. She believes in being prepared—and very well rehearsed. Working with her this week, I was able to witness an amazing artist be truly in her element and learn the importance of technique and being expressive. It’s all about the music with her. Music is a sacred art, and ASE quickly realized that in order to gain her trust and see her vulnerable side, our musicianship as an ensemble needed to replicate the same amount of precision and dedication that she portrayed. Once she knew she had our full support and trusted that we would not leave her hanging on stage, the real music making began. 

American Spiritual Ensemble and Kathleen Battle’s mission go hand in hand. We are all on a quest to spread the joy and heritage of the American Negro folk song, and keep it alive. It’s American bred music, and deserves to constantly be recognized and preserved. These songs tell the tales of a culture that helped build and shape this country. Spirituals are for everyone; this genre is not designated to any specific race. What a joy it’s been to look out into the audience and see people from all backgrounds and demographic’s celebrating and enjoying the music we present.

I’ll look back on this week and forever be grateful that I had the chance to sing with a living legend, who still sounds like her recordings from 30 years ago. It has been truly an unforgettable experience, and what makes it even more memorable is that my family was in the audience rooting me on. 

We hit the ground running for week three, with travels even further south into the churches, universities, and country clubs of Alabama and Tennessee. I can’t wait!


Todd McNeel Jr. is a Graduate Performance Diploma candidate in Longy's Opera department. Todd is the recipient of the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Centennial Scholarship and, when he's not on the road, works as a graduate assistant in Longy's Marketing & Communications office.