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Alumni Spotlight // Music

A VOICE RAISED IN PRAISE

Dr. Diane L. White-Clayton MA `96, Ph.D. `98 Dr. Diane White-Clayton performs at UCSB Gospel Choir 25th Anniversary Concert
Dr. Diane White-Clayton performs at UCSB Gospel Choir 25th Anniversary Concert.
PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Perko

For one year, Dr. Diane White-Clayton – known as “Dr. Dee” to her students and colleagues –directed the gospel choir class while completing her graduate studies at UC Santa Barbara music department.

“I was blessed to have this one great singing aggregation on campus,” she told the audience at the UCSB Gospel Choir 25th Anniversary Reunion Concert at the Lotte Lehman Concert Hall this month. “I thank UCSB for understanding the cultural significance of gospel. This is the core of American music.”

A classically trained pianist and soprano vocalist, White-Clayton spent her childhood singing and performing at her father’s church in Washington, D.C. At nine years old, she directed choirs. At eleven years old, she composed and performed her own music.

After completing her undergraduate degree in music at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, she received the Rotary Scholarship to study classical piano at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris and toured Europe as a solo gospel artist. After she finished her master’s degree and doctorate in music at UCSB, she went on to hold numerous leadership positions at universities and churches across the United States.

Now an established recording artist, performer and author, White-Clayton currently serves as the director of choral music at the Faithful Central Bible Church in Los Angeles, California, where she founded the Sacred Praise Chorale. Her compositions have been performed at venues like the John F. Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, the Air Canada Arena and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. White-Clayton’s scores are also featured in festival repertoires for middle school, high school and collegiate levels. She also instructs school choirs as a vocal workshop clinician for Disney.

In this Alumni Q&A, White-Clayton talks about what brought her to UC Santa Barbara, how she triumphed over challenges during difficult times, and how music and faith keeps her life in tune.

Diane White-Clayton performing.
PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Perko

Why did you choose to complete your graduate studies and doctorate at UC Santa Barbara?

To be honest, I had never heard of UC Santa Barbara. At the time I was living in St. Louis, Affirmative Action was still in existence. One of the recruiting UCSB professors was African American -- he was trying to help diversify the the department, so he did an outreach to black music faculty asking for good candidates and asked for their names.

My voice teacher just happened to be African American. She sent my name without my knowledge. At that time, I wasn’t even interested in graduate school. I got this letter talking about UC Santa Barbara from the Special Minority Fellowship. I filed the letter away.

Then a year later, I had a change of heart. The program was great. I loved it. I never intended to do both my graduate studies and my doctorate in one place. We had a very close-knit graduate program at the department. We had some really great professors. The department was small enough…and large enough. It wasn’t so big that you felt like a number – and it wasn’t too small.

I loved my colleagues. I have a lot of close friends from there among the faculty. I had my challenges here and there – but who doesn’t?

I also taught while I was there, as part of my fellowship. I was blessed to have a lot of teaching assistantships and ended up winning a campus-wide teaching award.

What was your life like as a student at UC Santa Barbara?

I’m pretty much a “studyholic.” I was always on the books. During that time, we had a black graduate student association. It was just a handful of us. Our meetings amounted to every Friday, we would go to the Elephant Bar to eat. None of us drank, but we would fill our plates with all this free food. From 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., you would have free with your drinks -- it was great. We would also have game night at my apartment.

It was fun – and there was the beauty of Santa Barbara. There was so much that Santa Barbara offered that met my needs – and I was not a super dooper partier!

What was it like during your tenure as UCSB’s gospel choir director? Why do you think the gospel choir draws so many people from the UCSB community?

The gospel choir is a class that is one of the ethnomusicology ensembles in the department. It started four years before I got there. When I first came, I found out about it because I also sang.

One of my fellow graduate students told the department directors about me. So one night, I came and joined the choir as a class. That was during the second quarter that I was there. I stayed on for the rest of that year – and then, when our choir director left, I was asked to take it over.

It was a really large group – I think almost 80 to 100 people from campus. Many students who joined the choir came from completely different cultural backgrounds. For many, it was a novelty - it was cool and fun, and they could rock out.

There’s very little choral music like gospel music. This music has a very deep message that touches the soul – it is highly rhythmic and brings a level of excitement and energy. The songs are very passionate and communal – more accessible than music that can be a lot more difficult in terms of execution. It’s easier to get into a gospel when you’ve never sung before. All those factors were a drawing card for a lot of our white students. For a lot of the black students, it was about missing home and their churches back home, of needing that spiritual connection. For them, if they didn’t have a black church, Tuesday night rehearsal, we were having church. There were students who joined regardless of their skin, as a faith issue – singing in choir was about loving God, loving Jesus and singing praises.

I’ve always believed in showcasing a very diverse palate within gospel music. I included not just contemporary gospel but also Negro spirituals and old hymns. I also changed the structure in terms of the how it was run -- I run a tight ship and the choir had gotten really lax. I came in like a taskmaster. The running joke on campus was that by 7:10, if people were running, they were heading to gospel choir. I brought discipline. They understood what was expected of them and I auditioned each and every person on the choir.

We had packed audiences. We did two concerts that were in Campbell Hall instead of Lotte Lehman. We had a sellout in Campbell Hall – two concerts on a Friday and Saturday – and it was televised.

What lessons from your time at UC Santa Barbara do you still carry with you today?

I took the choir in the midst of a transitional time. What I learned – because it was a difficult transition– was that I learned to stand on my faith and to just be who I was.

Sometimes, when you take over an institution or a business or enter in a new relationship, when you are really different from the person preceding you, some people change to try to please others and not be who they are. I was raised to just be myself – I always had a very strong personality and know what I want. I realized just being who I am and approaching what is before me with my own strengths was the only way.

When I was going through my qualifying exams the first time, I didn’t pass. It was devastating to me on many different levels. It was embarrassing. Looking back, I knew that there were some things that I wasn’t strong in that I needed to work on.

I always a really good student, but for the qualifying exams, you needed the big picture. From medieval times to current history, it was a lot of material. I was studying the way people told me to study. When I didn’t pass, I regrouped and did it Diane’s way. I have a sister who achieved her doctorate. She helped me rethink how I studied. I just realized how good I was at oral retention, so instead about reading about Beethoven’s music – I memorized the scores. I could sing the themes.

Finishing my doctorate, by the end, it was very hard. If I didn’t have God or if I didn’t have a strong constitution, I would’ve given up. It was hard because of the pressure and the stress. Just the exams alone -- it was a whole week of 8-hour sessions. Then you take home over the weekend a big analysis, then you have your orals. I had dreams afterwards. It was always the same nightmare – I would be somewhere and my committee would “say you have another assignment,” and I would wake up all breathing all hard!

But despite it all, I really do love music and I love what I did. What I appreciate about my committee is that I had to rise to the occasion. By the time I finished, I felt like I deserved it. I did the work! And I’m so grateful to the professors that I had, who were really brilliant.

The other thing that I learned was appreciating that UCSB was such a beautiful place. When I failed my exam, I had been working so much and haven’t taken advantage of being in such a beautiful place. I didn’t have balance – it was all studying, all work. So I went to the beach, I went outside.

I had some of the most wonderful memories of my life there at UC Santa Barbara. I organized the Black Christian Fellowship bible studies and worked with some of the campus ministries. Some of the ministries came to me and we promoted sessions on diversity. I did a lot of bridging between gaps. I wanted to help all groups.

How did you feel about coming back to campus to perform at the UCSB Gospel Choir’s 25th Anniversary Reunion Concert?

It’s 25 years later. It has been a minute! I’m afraid to get lost on campus!

I love Santa Barbara. I was there for nine years. Other than home – my home where I grew up in DC – Santa Barbara is the second longest place where I lived. I was very involved in the churches, did community work and performed a lot in Santa Barbara. I love this place and have a lot of dear friends.

What inspires you as an artist and as an educator?

God inspires me. I believe one of the main things for me as a Christian is to do is to spread the love of God through music. I get a chance to share love, to entertain and to touch people with the music.

People inspire me. When I perform, I can uplift people. I think we can get so down these days – on personal image, on what you think you are…there are so many things that tear people down these days.

When I am leading people, I get to build them up. I make them work hard to achieve a goal. That’s a very powerful thing. I want people to know that you are not alone. Being in a choir, your voice is the only instrument inside your body. And in choir, that sound is not by itself – everyone is there sounding with you, and adding to it. Gospel music shares something wonderful - that God loves you and God hears you. It’s good stuff. It inspires me to see the results of transformed lives from the music.

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