It Takes A Choir
Alumni establish an endowment in honor of former Director of Choirs James Armstrong
May 24, 2023
By Jacob A. Miller ’18
“Since singing is so good a thing, I wish all [people] would learn to sing.” — William Byrd, 1588
On a warm late spring night in 2022, around 300 people filed into the Williamsburg Presbyterian Church on Richmond Road for the final performance of the W&M Choir for the academic year. Most of them came knowing that there was a surprise awaiting James “Jamie” Armstrong HON ’22, P ’21 at the very end of the concert. The one person who didn’t know of this surprise: Armstrong, or as he is affectionately known by former students, Dr. A.
That surprise was the announcement of the James Armstrong Choirs Endowment, named in his honor and established by William & Mary Choir alumni spanning over two decades. The effort was spearheaded by Andrew “Drew” Dyer ’99, who was president of the Choir while he was a student at W&M.
“I was very much surprised,” Armstrong recollects with a smile. “Usually I am full of things to say but in that moment, I had nothing to say. That tells you the extent to which I was overwhelmed by the kindness of it all.”
Those in attendance, however, knew there were few people more deserving of this honor than Armstrong. He had just retired the previous fall after coming to William & Mary in 1996. Over his more than two decades as director, he helped to shape the Choir and take them in a new direction.
“There are so many pieces of music that I have had the pleasure of delving into with my students,” Armstrong says. “We explored historically informed performance, and I tried to choose pieces that evoked something. There is so much beautiful music, I didn’t even scratch the surface, and I rarely returned to music I had done before. Going on journeys in song is what I have found the most gratifying. I have loved the journey.”
Molto Vivace — Journeys in Music
And it was quite a journey that brought the W&M choir community to this point.
In many ways, the Choir is the face — or more appropriately the voice — of the university, performing at all major events and serving as ambassadors throughout the region and across the globe. It is an interdisciplinary organization as well, comprising majors from all over the school, not just those studying music. The choral area works across the university’s schools and units to gain richer understanding of the pieces they perform, from engaging with a foreign language to contextualizing a piece through sociology and more.
For many new members, a highlight of joining Choir is that it offers you a ready-made community and social group. Much of the tone and spirit of the Choir is guided by the director.
“I was in Dr. Frank Lendrim’s, or as we called him ‘Doc,’ last choir, and it was an incredible experience,” Dyer remembers. Dr. Lendrim had been only one of a very few Choir directors since the group was founded in 1922. “You get very close to people in Choir, have lots of unique experiences across campus and the world, and you become a family. Much of that was thanks to Doc’s leadership, and that was what we saw in Dr. Armstrong when he took the baton.”
Dyer was one of the student members of the Choir who interviewed Armstrong for the Choir director role, and while Armstrong was very new to the W&M Choir world, Dyer recalls that he “picked things right up.”
Over the next 20 years, Armstrong took the Choir to a whole new level of complexity and variety of musical performance — moving pieces filled with dynamic changes, layered harmonies highlighting student solos and rousing renditions of African American spirituals, the meanings of which Armstrong discussed with his students and audiences. Through that, Dyer says, Choir members gained a deeper appreciation of the music and art they were creating and sharing with audiences, in a way they otherwise wouldn’t have in other ensembles.
Both Armstrong and his wife, Jamie C. Bartlett P ’21, are music educators and directors at William & Mary. Due to sharing a first name, some people collectively refer to them as “the Jamies.” Most students, though, know them affectionately as “Dr. A” and “Dr. B.”
“From 1999 onwards, this has been a joint effort,” Armstrong says with evident pride and love. “I’ve been lucky to have my wife as my colleague, and we’ve had the pleasure of going on those journeys together with our students, now for many, many years.”
Armstrong and Bartlett came to Williamsburg in 1996 from Wisconsin, where they both received their Doctor of Musical Arts degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At that time, Armstrong took over the role of directing the Choir from Lendrim. He helped to reorganize the choral groups at W&M, allowing each group to develop its own identity separate from the others, and he emphasized a focus on both learning and performing in the choirs. In honor of his exceptional teaching and research over his career, Armstrong received the 2006 W&M Alumni Association Faculty Service Award, the 1999 WMAA Fellowship Award for Teaching and the Julius Herford Prize for Distinguished Doctoral Research in Choral Music.
Three years after Armstrong began working at W&M, Bartlett joined the faculty in the Music Department as well.
Still a member of the faculty, Bartlett conducts the Barksdale Treble Chorus (formerly Women’s Chorus) and the Botetourt Chamber Singers, and her ensembles perform extensively on and off campus. She also teaches beginning and advanced conducting, eurhythmics and introductory theory classes. Bartlett has served as a clinician and guest conductor in several states across the country. She was also active for many years as a church musician, most recently as director of music at the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists, where she directed the 45-voice adult choir.
And another member of their family also joined William & Mary, this time as a student. Their daughter, Caecilia, graduated from W&M in 2021.
“Since each of us does this work, there is so much that is implicitly understood,” Armstrong says, “But we are very different people. The way we approach music is different, the way we approach people is different, but fundamentally we share the same values.”
Rarely do spouses have the opportunity to work in the same organization, let alone the same department. The love and respect the two music educators share for each other is palpable as they talk about one another.
“Jamie came in as a wonderful steward of what came before, and he brought so much care and nurtured it for the future to grow. He then broke things open and helped move it forward into the next era,” says Bartlett. “He is a genuine person — he is absolutely who he is. He’s an intellect, a wonderful musician, brilliant, all these things, but he is just a genuine human being, and he loves people.”
For Bartlett as a music educator and director, and a deeply genuine person herself, she finds the greatest reward in her work in the students she mentors. Her passion for musical expression is clear and equal to her desire to empower her students to be their best selves.
“Being there with them for all four years, witnessing their human growth, their confidence, is so enriching,” she says. “If you watch the news, you would understandably be worried about the future. But I work with these students and I know that we are going to be just fine, because they are what gives me hope.”
Unis. — Out of many voices, one song
In late 2020, when word came that Armstrong would be retiring, Dyer began a grassroots campaign among Choir alumni to come together and establish an endowment in Armstrong's name.
“It was one of those things I just had to do,” Dyer says emphatically of setting up the Armstrong Endowment. “Choir was an enormous part of my college life, as it was and is for a lot of people — you get experiences out of Choir that last for life. Honoring the person who helped make that possible for us all was a no-brainer.”
Many endowments at William & Mary are established through generous gifts from either one or a small group of individuals. For Dyer, he knew that — like a choir raising their collective voices in song — for the James Armstrong Choirs Endowment, the entire Choir family needed to get involved to honor his legacy. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, they did just that, carrying out the first fundraiser for an endowment utilizing social media to raise the majority of funds.
“This wasn’t any one or two or three donors setting up an endowment — this was a group effort by Choir alumni, family and friends of Choir up and down generations, to make this happen,” says Dyer. “We set up a Facebook group, I made announcements and asked for suggestions, and within 48 hours we had a couple hundred folks joining the group.
“And, of course, it was all hush-hush to keep this a surprise for Armstrong because he is so humble that if he had gotten wind of it, he would have wanted the glory to go to someone else.”
In a year’s time, they had reached their goal. As of March 31, 2023, the Armstrong Endowment has received nearly $125,000 in funds from over 150 donors, roughly 88% of whom were alumni that graduated while Armstrong was director. Funds from the endowment will be used to provide support for the most pressing needs of the choirs at William & Mary, at the discretion of the Music Department Chair in consultation with the Director of Choirs.
When Bartlett retires, the endowment will be renamed the James Armstrong and Jamie Bartlett Choirs Endowment to honor her service to the music community at William & Mary.
“What overwhelmed me most,” Armstrong says, “Was the generosity of so many choral alums who thought that it was important to do something concrete so that the choral groups — not just the Choir, but also the Botetourt Chamber Singers, the Barksdale Chorus, and Ebony Expressions — could flourish.”
Dyer recalls that when he was a student, the Choir had to work hard to secure funds for purchasing new music folders, cleaning their polyester robes and traveling to performances. Those are just some of the pressing needs that this endowment aims to address.
“One of the things I hope this endowment helps achieve is allowing all students to participate in our international and domestic tours,” Bartlett says. “Becoming a support mechanism to allow students to take advantage of opportunities like that would be incredible, especially as that relates to curriculum and experiential learning opportunities like our tours.”
The Armstrong Endowment comes ahead of the grand opening of William & Mary’s new performing arts facilities, slated to open in the fall of 2023. Upon the completion of the Arts Quarter, the music department will move into a brand new, state-of-the-art building located right next to the newly renovated Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall.
New performance spaces are included in both buildings — the music building’s amenities include a concert hall, recital hall, separate choral and instrumental rehearsal spaces and a recording studio. As the choirs move into this new space to practice and perform, the endowment will help cover costs to ensure they can thrive well into the future.
“We will finally have an acoustically designed space to perform in that is dedicated to music, helping us become more visible,” Bartlett says. “We will be centrally located, near ample parking, feeling like we are an attractive and inviting part of campus, inviting people in to participate in what we are doing.”
Poco a poco cresc. — Ending with a flourish
For Dyer, it only made sense to honor Armstrong in this way, marking the end of a career at W&M that saw Armstrong and the Choir perform at President Clinton’s second inauguration and for Her Majesty the late Queen Elizabeth II, go on multiple international tours to perform at the Vatican, in Vienna, London, South Africa and the list goes on.
“Dr. Armstrong is an extroverted introvert, if that makes sense,” Dyer says. “He can bring someone in on day one and make them feel at home — there’s no pretention. It can be intimidating when you join a group like that, but Dr. Armstrong makes you feel at ease and like you belong. And he elevated the profile of the Choir to something beyond what could have been imagined.”
Dyer says he wasn’t surprised to see how many people wanted to honor Armstrong in this way, but he was deeply moved and overjoyed to realize just how many people were impacted by both him and Bartlett.
And it was fitting that Bartlett was there at Williamsburg Presbyterian, that spring evening when the endowment was announced. In fact, she had known about the surprise and had to keep it a secret, helping to convince him to come at the request of the outgoing seniors.
At the end of the Choir’s final piece, Dyer took the stage to announce the establishment of the endowment. Armstrong was brought up to share brief remarks of gratitude and was met with a thunderous, extended standing ovation.
“Jamie has touched so many people’s lives, but I don’t think he fully understood the impact he had on all of those people until perhaps that moment,” Bartlett says, remembering that night. “He exudes a care in all he does, and all our choirs have benefited from that greatly over the years. The students at William & Mary are so gracious and generous and aware, and they share a connection knowing they are part of something bigger. This endowment is representative of that and will help make that possible for future students.”
Reflecting on the endowment — and in his usual, humble manner — Armstrong turned his focus back outward, bringing the spotlight back on the Choir rather than himself through his gratitude.
“It’s a beautiful gift in that it’s unlike all other choral endowments,” Armstrong says. “It has no limitations on it apart from the wellbeing of the choral area, allowing communal singing to flourish on the William & Mary campus — not just to be, but to flourish. And while that was overwhelming, at the same time it wasn’t the least bit surprising. Because that’s what William & Mary, at least in my experience, is — it’s generosity, it’s selflessness, it’s putting others and their needs before your own.”
Now retired from William & Mary, Armstrong continues to delve into journeys, not only in music, but in literature, travel, introspection and more. He is also working to complete — as much as a work like this can be completed, he says — a scholarly catalog of the sacred music collection belonging to the Hungarian-Austrian Esterházy family — well-known patrons of the arts — who employed Werner, Haydn, Hummel and Beethoven, among others.
So much of what makes the William & Mary Choir special is the people who comprise the community, the instant family that comes with singing together. Much of the tone of that community, not only in performance but down through the years, has been set by the example and stewardship of leaders like Armstrong and Bartlett. And so much of what has made that possible lies in the moments which cannot be put to words.
“The things which for me have been most enriching are the things which are intangible, that are ineffable,” Armstrong reflects, pausing carefully in thought. “It’s for others to decide what they might remember of our time together, good and ill, and we must be honest there are both. The question isn’t how I should be remembered, but rather, what I might myself remember until memory departs. And there are so many great things that will stay with me for a long time. I was perhaps most myself, free to be most my best self, with my students. Music seems to express those things we would like most to say but haven’t the words. Those moments I will always prize tremendously.”