Joseph To is making his mark locally as a music director, and now he adds to his lengthy resume by joining the Magnolia Chorale. As the recipient of the outstanding emerging Choral Director Award 2022 from the Washington Chapter of American Choral Director Association, To is looking forward to bringing diversity of music and participation to the Magnolia Chorale, while continuing to serve in other community roles.
To wants to create a safe, welcoming, and enjoyable environment as leader of the Magnolia Chorale. “I’ve always found that community choir is very special,” To said. “People getting into these choirs, they really want to be there. They are the most dedicated choristers.”
To began his own dedication to music in elementary school. “One day, my percussion ensemble teacher asked the whole class about our dream, what do you all want to be when you grow up?” To said. “I answered that I want to be you, waving my arms to make music with people.”
He got his wish. “My teacher pulled me out from class to teach me conducting, gestures, listening skills, music literacy,” To said. “My music teachers were my inspiration for me to pursue music.”
To began conducting choir at age 13 while in middle school before moving to Washington state to earn a Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Washington, and then a Master of Arts in Music at Washington State University.
Since then, To’s experience has mirrored the diversity he aims to foster, having served as Music Director for the Norwegian Ladies Chorus of Seattle in its ninth decade. “As a Hong Kong descendent, Cantonese is my mother tongue,” To said. “I have never thought that I would become the music director of a Norwegian Chorus.”
To feels that it is his responsibility to promote world music. “Directing the Norwegian Ladies Chorus allows me to learn a language, Norwegian, that I’ve never thought that I would learn,” he said. “I think it is such an achievement to learn more than fifty Norwegian pieces last year.”
This contrasts with To’s experience as Music Director for the Tukwila School District. “Tukwila School District is the most diverse school district in the U.S.,” he said. “There are more than eighty languages spoken in the district across five schools.”
But To was eager for the challenge. “It didn’t have a concrete program before I took over,” he said, “and I was able to double the enrollment in choir program during the pandemic.”
To discovered that his students’ identities emerge from their cultures and languages. “As educators, we have to acknowledge and respect their language and culture by choosing music that reflects our student bodies,” he said. “This is one of the ways to empower our future generation artistically.”
To’s work hasn’t been easy. “It is hard to be an immigrant,” he acknowledged. “It is even harder to be an immigrant building a career in music.”
This proves especially true when the music is western or European. “People often might think that we have to consult with European musicians or music directors,” he said. “However, we are equipped with the skills and knowledge, and oftentimes, our voice doesn’t seem as valued as our Caucasian music colleagues.”
But for To, giving up wasn’t an option. “In that regard, I felt that I have to work extra hard to earn the trust and respect that a music director deserves,” he said. “I always feel like I have to work 120% in order to get somewhere.”
Wanting to make things easier for the next generation, To serves as co-chair of the Racial Equity Committee of the Northwest Girlchoir (NWGC). “My job is to guide the committee to evaluate our different areas in our program,” explained. “The committee goals are to break down barriers that prevent choristers from joining NWGC and enhance the sense of belonging of the choristers and their families.” To looks forward to doing the same at Magnolia Chorale.