We Are the Dream

Penn State's Essence of Joy uses music to connect the past, present, and future, spreading a message of strength and equality.

Room 101 of the Music Building isn’t very exciting. With the exception of the shiny black grand piano in front, it’s actually kind of grey. But all of that changes when, at 3:30 p.m., members of the Essence of Joy choir stream in for rehearsal. Even though it’s the first Monday after the three-week holiday break, the group is buzzing.

Though the choir, led by Anthony Leach, professor of music and music education, is busy year-round, January is particularly meaningful, as the singers raise their voices to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

"The music of the Civil Rights Era is rich in the message of encouragement and empowerment for singers and listeners to not be afraid while confronting obstacles, whether physical or psychological."—Anthony Leach

A female student stands in the foreground singing. The emblem on her shirt reads, "PSU Essence of Joy."

Essence of Joy soloist rehearses

"We're very representative of the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ve never met a more accepting group. There’s members of every color, every race. It’s wonderful."—Essence of Joy choir member

Image: Michelle Bixby

"As choir members, we can say, 'We are the dream' because not only do we represent a wide variety of disciplines at the University, and cultures and hometowns, we also show that we as peers are able to teach each other kindness and respect."—Essence of Joy singer

A choir conductor stands with one arm raised. Behind him in a large mirror is the reflection of a group of college students in navy shirts singing. The backs of some of the singers heads is in the foreground of the photo.

Anthony Leach leads Essence of Joy choir rehearsal

"Familiar lyrics and melodies, combined with prayer and affirming words of encouragement, provided comfort to people who knew that they were risking their lives and time in jail for participating in acts of civil disobedience."—Anthony Leach, choir director

Image: Michelle Bixby

"Music speaks for people. I believe the spiritual was a therapeutic response to oppression, freeing people in mind, body, and spirit."—Essence of Joy singer

Essence of Joy

Essence of Joy is one of ten choral ensembles in Penn State's School of Music. Organized in November 1991, the choir performs sacred and secular music from the African/African American traditions. Annual campus events include fall and spring concerts, A Celebration of African American Spirituals (February) and Our Gift In Song (December). The choir involves undergraduate and graduate students from many academic programs at Penn State.

Essence has performed throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland as well as New York City; Washington, D.C.; Naples, Florida; Amelia Island, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; McComb, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; Richmond, Virginia; Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina; Charlotte, North Carolina; Columbus, Ohio; Dayton, Ohio; and Chicago, Illinois. 

International tours to Krakow, Poland; Prague, Czech Republic (2001); and South Africa (2005) have provided an expanded focus for the choir. Travel is anticipated to the Pacific Rim countries as well as other countries in Africa in future years.

The choir has released five compact disc recordings, "The Soul of Essence and The Spirit of Essence," which feature settings of African American spirituals and traditional and contemporary gospel recorded between 1996 and 1998. "Essence Live" was released in February 2000 and features campus performances from April 1998 through October 1999. "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and "Our Gift in Song" are special projects that commemorate the tenth anniversary of the choir and were released in December 2002.