Up Close: Henry Panion, III

Mike Lawson • Features • March 9, 2015

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Henry Panion, IIIFrom Gospel to Classical, Pop to Rock, Hip-Hop to Be-Bop, the illustrius career of Henry Panion, Music Educator.

Henry Panion, III is a remarkable educator, composer, arranger, and symphony orchestra conductor. His music career is one most will only dream of having, which found him working with the legendary Stevie Wonder, Chet Atkins, The Winans (for Quincy Jones), Aretha Franklin, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Chaka Khan, hip-hop artist Coolio, as well as American Idol winners Carrie Underwood and Ruben Studdard. His career spans the genres of the musical world, from classical to gospel, hymns to hip-hop, R&B to pop. He has conducted over 50 symphony orchestras worldwide, from the Tokyo Philharmonic, the Royal London Philharmonic, and the Gothenburg Sweden Symphony to the Atlanta Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra in the U.S.

All of this has taken place while he continued to work as an educator, teaching theory, composition, arranging, and music technology programs as a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. While there, he founded the UAB Recording Studio, recording the school’s UAB Gospel Choir, the UAB Jazz Ensemble, and many of the other traditional music groups at the university.  His music technology and audio production programs at UAB require an audition, with a focus on taking musicians and teaching them real-world skills to make them employable in the myriad of careers that surround the music industry in the 21st century. 

In March of 2015, Panion conducted a symphony orchestra with an all-star lineup of guest performers and a thousand-voice choir. The event marked the 50th anniversary of the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, a pivotal event in our nation’s history, which ushered in a new era of civil rights and the Voting Rights Act.

If someone were to ask, “Who is Henry Panion,” what would you say?

Oh, I don’t know. I am a father, a husband. I’d probably say I’m a college professor. I teach at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. One of the things I always say to people who ask, and I joke, but seriously joke, and say, “I’m a working musician.” But, I wear a number of hats. I am a professor in the department of music at UAB. I have my own recording studio and entertainment company, Audiostate 55, outside of UAB. And as an arranger, conductor, and orchestrator, I have had some amazing opportunities to work with a lot of wonderful musicians in orchestras. So that’s kind of it in a nutshell.

When did you first figure out that you wanted to be a musician?

I’ve been in music since I was in kindergarten. But I think seriously, it was in high school. I had great band programs, and just really couldn’t imagine doing anything else. And I think that’s where it all started for me, in middle school band, but particularly in high school, in jazz band, and then concert band, and then marching band, and so on. Ensembles and honor bands, those things shaped my world. And at that same time, I was being influenced heavily by some of the great music I was hearing on the radio, particularly by artists such as Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago. Just to hear those arrangements, I was just kind of blown away. So I think that’s when it began to really kind of crystallize, as it were, for me.

What instrument did you play in the band?

Trombone. I did the trombone in high school band and went to undergrad on scholarships on trombone. I began to pick up other instruments, more brass instruments particularly. But I had studied piano all through, since a young age, as well.

When did you first start studying piano?

My first piano lessons were when I was five. The piano was there for my sister, who would do piano this week, and cheerleading the next week, and ballet the next week, and whatever she was interested in. And I would do piano this week, and the next week, and the next week, and couldn’t change.

Was there someone influential in your family that made you take piano lessons?

My aunt was an educator, and basically, the truth of the matter, she was responsible for me actually getting into the band. I used to be able to hang around the band program whenever I’d go up to school with her. And I’ll never forget, at a young age, not being old enough to march in the band, but being allowed to ride on the car behind the band wearing a band uniform holding an instrument. So I think I was indoctrinated at a very, very young age. But my folks bought me instruments.

Was your aunt a music educator?

No, she was not. She taught math. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, attended Midfield Schools, but I went to a number of different schools throughout my early age. She was a teacher at Hard School and was able to get me in kindergarten early, so I started first grade early because she was a teacher there. I don’t know how she did that. I went to Brighton schools for a while, but really, my years of being in music that counted really started in the Midfield city schools, in middle school. And I really credit my band director, Randall Harwell, with being that role model at that age that really inspired me to go on into music.

This was your high school band director?

High school and middle school. He taught both.

At what point did you decide to learn arranging?

I was at Alabama A&M on a scholarship, and there are three different styles of marching band. There’s the core style, which I had done through high school. There are the show band styles, particularly predominant at HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities]. And there was the more traditional marching style, like Ohio State and Michigan State. I attended Ohio State in graduate school. But as an undergraduate, I became a drum major and was a music education major.   In those days, we didn’t have Sibelius, didn’t have [software] programs like that. This was in the mid-70s. A few of the music majors would get together on Monday and copy the parts for the band directors and their arrangers. With show bands, the band is the most important thing. I mean, the football team may win or lose a game, but if the band didn’t win its competition, that was the real tragedy.

So every week there was a new marching band show. We would learn the dance routines and all the things that would go along with that. But we would also play new music, and most of the music performed in show bands is stuff that’s popular on the radio. So, I began to watch these arrangements, as the band directors would give it to the music majors to copy on Mondays. He’d review the show, and then on Tuesday he would pass the music out. And I said, “You know, I could do this,” and I began to do some arranging on the side, just thinking that maybe one day they would read it. It wasn’t common for them to take student arrangements, but to my benefit, my junior year, the head band director went to the University of Michigan to finish his doctorate. During this time, I did an arrangement of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “In the Stone,”  as well as an arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” They allowed me to read them with the band on a Monday, the band loved them, and the rest is history, as they say.

Panion with studentsSo to be on Legion Field with 75,000 people in the stands, as the drum major, hearing my arrangements, blew me away, and I then decided I really wanted to be an arranger. I sent those off to graduate schools, after the undergraduate program. At that time, I knew I wanted to be a college professor, but I wanted to be a high school band director earlier on, and got a full ride to come to Ohio State for graduate school, and that kind of started the whole process.

The career path for you started with playing piano in elementary school and progressed to having your arrangements read and performed in front of 75,000 people. It’s not a short path typically, is it?

No, it’s not. It’s a lifetime of commitment is what it is.

Do you still do arranging?

Almost every single day of my life I’m arranging music. I was teaching orchestration, and doing the traditional analysis of the orchestration within major classical works and major classical composers when my students began to say to me, “We see what you’re doing in class, but we’ve heard the arrangements you’ve done for the likes of Stevie Wonder,” and other artists I had written for.

And so I began to bring some of those things into my orchestration class, using Finale and eventually using Sibelius in some of the programming we were doing. I recognized that kids were getting the foundations in orchestration, but they really were not getting what they needed to be successful in the industry. Some of the things I had done in notation programs began to come on the scene, and I began to do a lot of gospel arrangements that were being used at some of the largest musical conventions in the world. At the Gospel Music Workshops of America, that’s where I actually began to be able to sell my arrangements. We’d go to a convention where there were 20,000 choir members and choir directors, and we’d have a choir of 1,500, with every single one of them having to buy new sheet music chosen by a selection committee. Well, if my music was printed and scored, I could sell it to them. In the early days, you had to go to a professional printing house to have stuff done. To be able to do this on my computer was simply earth shattering.

So are you a go-to-technology guy now, or is your first instinct to sit down and scratch it out by hand, before you open Sibelius or Finale?

No, it may depend on what I’m working on. Typically by the time I even go to pencil, or go to Sibelius, what I want to do is in my head, I’ve really got to formulate and get my mind around what it is that I want to do. Because what will happen invariably, if you just sit down with the technology with no sense of ideas, it’s just something you begin to play with and begin to do all kinds of things. So I like to synthesize, if can I used that word, in my head what it is I want to achieve musically, harmonically, melodically, rhythmically, and orchestration-wise.

What year did you graduate from college?

I finished the undergrad program in ‘81, finished my masters in ‘83, and finished my doctorate in ‘89, even though I left Ohio State in ‘87 to take a job. I took an extra year for my dissertation, and completed the doctorate in ‘89.

How do you go from doctorate program, deciding to be from high school to college professor, to getting a call to work on projects by Stevie Wonder?

One day I was in my studio on campus, just working, and the secretary for the department called over and said, “Stevie Wonder just called you and said he’d call you back.” I said, “Right, don’t play with me.” And she was kind of a serious person, so I took her seriously, and in a couple of days he called back. And at that time, he was looking for someone to take many of his classic hits and a significant number of new works, and rewrite them and orchestrate them for large, symphonic orchestras. By this time, I had done a Quincy Jones-produced record, by a group called The Winans that had won a couple of Grammys. I think he had heard about that, but he also had heard about an arrangement I had done for the Columbus Symphony of “Oh, Happy Day.” Between Quincy and that work, my name came up.

So I get this phone call, and of course, I’m star struck like anybody. Stevie said, “I’m going to send you a few numbers to orchestrate, and I want you to send them back.” I thought I would finish these arrangements and send them to him, but by the time I finished them, he wanted me to come out to a rehearsal. So I flew out there, thinking that he was going to like the arrangements, or maybe not like the arrangements, but either way thinking it was going to be a nice little weekend, a couple of days to meet him and that would be it.

Stevie Wonder and Henry Panion, III

So in the midst of that he asked me, “What are you presently doing? We have this little tour. We didn’t know you were a conductor. We love the arrangements. We’d like to have you come on tour with us.” And I said, “Really? When?” He said, “Oh, in about three weeks.” I said, “Well, where are you going?” He said, “Going to Europe.” I said, “For how long?” He said, “About a month, or so.” And UAB worked it out and allowed me to go with him. And what was supposed to be one little tour has turned into 22 years of being an orchestral arranger and conductor. It started with a cold call from Stevie Wonder, isn’t that something?

That’s an amazing story. So let’s back up a minute, because he found you from your work with the Winans, that Quincy had produced. How did you end up with the Winans?

That’s another amazing story, and I have so many of these. Because it’s always about the opportunity. I try to tell the students all the time, “You may not gain an opportunity, but if you’re not prepared for it, it will be just like you hadn’t gotten the opportunity.” So preparation has to meet opportunity.

I was asked to be an arranger for a very large church body, and that organization had two international conventions every year. I went there, thinking that once again, they want me to be an arranger and they’d take some of my arrangements for the orchestra, with a large choir and things like that. And they always invited guests. But when I got there, they said, “Can you come down? Because the arranger, our conductor, had to go suddenly on tour to work.”

So I started working as an arranger and conducted for this organization. It was the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (PAW). Well, the Winans were the invited guests. And most people know that Andraé Crouch, who passed recently, discovered them. And I was a big fan of the Winans, even before I knew them. I just wondered, “Who could write these songs? And have these great harmonic textures, and just the chord progressions in all the things they were doing as progressions.”

So my goal for the invited guests would be to rewrite their hits for a large choir – and I’m talking about maybe 150 in a choir – and the orchestra that we put together just for the convention.

Well the Winans are supposed to be there, and we were supposed to rehearse. They get there late, and they tell me, “Obviously we can’t go on the stage with the orchestra and the choir, because we haven’t had a chance to practice.” But I guess they could see how depressed I was getting [chuckles]. And so I said something like, “We got this. We can do this. We’ve got it. We’ve got it. Let’s do this.” He said, “I don’t know. I really don’t know.” I guess my emotions were all over my face, and they saw how I felt about it, because I was a real fan. I knew we had it though.

He said, “Okay, Panion. We’ll do the tune, but it’s going to be at the end of the concert, and we’re going to have our musicians close by, just in case it doesn’t quite go right. If we mess it up, we’re going to tell everybody in the audience that you did it.” I said, “We got it.”

But let me tell you what happened. They came on stage and it was such a hit, that even when they left the stage during those two numbers, the crowd was so into it, they didn’t have to come back on stage. And we just vamped and vamped it with the orchestra. So after the concert, here goes the opportunity part. They said to me, “If we ever get a chance to work together again, we’d love to work with you.” They were on Light Records, and then, two months later, Quincy Jones signed them to his Qwest Records. They called me to arrange music on the album.

The album wins two Grammy awards, and other people start calling me to arrange. And it’s so interesting, because my work there got me more opportunities to do classical work. It was the classical work that got me opportunities to do more gospel work and jazz things. It’s amazing how that works, being trained to do one thing, but that one thing opened the door to do all these other things.

So the real back story here is that you worked very hard at learning your craft of arranging, and you took opportunities and sought opportunities, and then people, because of that, approached you for more opportunities, and that opened the door to where you are now.

Exactly. And students want to know, “Well, how did you get a chance to do that?” And I say, “Well, it’s not the kind of thing you go and apply for.” I joke and say, “I would write music and do something for a love offering, and there wouldn’t be much love in the offering.” But you do it anyway, you know. And I took it from writing for the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and conducting them, and doing Ellis Marsalis on the jazz side. I’ve always loved a lot of music. I’ve loved everything from hip-hop to Rodgers and Hammerstein. I’d be in the house with my sister, sliding across the floor to The Sound of Music. Then flipping the script, going out and listening to Parliament-Funkadelic, then coming back and watching Leonard Bernstein. And then on Sunday afternoons once a year, I couldn’t wait to see The Wizard of Oz. I was just sucking in all this music. Some of my folks would be listening to blues, like Bobby “Blue” Bland. All those things I really, really loved. I’d take my boom box to DCIs competition, listening to Drum Corps International, and recording these amazing drum corps bands.

I think it was my experiences in all these different things I loved that have enabled me to really bring legitimacy to the artists for whom I’ve worked. And that’s a good point, bringing legitimacy. Because with Stevie, for example, I can’t go in and just take his music and do anything I want to it. I’ve got to take it and add elements where I can and where he wants me to add, but I’ve still got to preserve the integrity of that music for those the listeners.

No matter what continent we were on, they want to be able to recognize the song, but yet, I want to be able to add a sense of freshness to it, add something to it. When I think about that Natural Wonder record we did with the Tokyo Philharmonic, it’s just a really good culmination of my doing all that stuff with Stevie and his most amazing songs. But I do it with everything, every genre of music. I try to bring legitimacy to it, as best I can.

I think that arranging really is composition. You may be given elements to work with, not unlike a theme in variation. And in many ways, the best arrangers might be better composers. If you can’t add anything to an arrangement, why bother? That’s where the compositional, the craftsmanship of a composer comes in.

There are a lot of different things I’ve done, but one of the most significant compositions of mine was one that was premiered by Leonard Slatkin, the conductor, and the National Symphony Orchestra, when he was the conductor. It was my “Fanfare & Elegy” for orchestra, and that would have been in ‘96.

My production, conducting, and arranging are featured on Gospel Goes Classical. That album actually is historic in the sense that it became the first record to chart at the top of both the classical and gospel charts simultaneously, on Billboard.

When you say “gospel,” are we talking what people would think of as Southern Black Gospel? Are we talking hymns? What genre of gospel are we talking about?

It varies. I mean I have written hymns. I think there’s a hymn of mine that’s actually in the Catholic hymnal, as it were. 

That’s interesting that having worked for the Pentecostals, you have a hymn in the Catholic hymnal.

Oh, yeah! One of my first experiences was working as minister of music at a Catholic Church in Columbus, Ohio. I’ve worked across the genre, from Baptist to Pentecostal to Catholic, in churches as far away as Hawaii. It’s just music to me. That’s the whole thing. It really is just music. I’ve studied music and compositional styles going all the way back to the early church of the Middle Ages.

When you hear my music, you probably hear all these things that make me who I am. I’ll never forget the hip-hop piece I wrote. I took “Amazing Grace” and turned that around with a whole hip-hop flavor to it. Because we do synthesis in programming. We teach computer music [at UAB] so I’ve been able to jump all over the place and have a chance to bring all of that to the forefront.

I’ll never forget doing “Pastime Paradise,” kind of a Brazilian thing, with Stevie and the Rio de Janeiro Philharmonic orchestra, but with the hip-hop artist Coolio, who later did that with Michelle Pfeiffer in the movie Dangerous Minds.

Bringing all those things together has been something I have always enjoyed doing. But I think you have to do it faithfully.

What are the primary subjects that you started out teaching? And what are you teaching now?

My doctorate is in music theory, and so I’m a theorist. And when I came to University of Alabama at Birmingham, I taught most of the theory courses. But as the program grew, we added music technology to our offerings and I began to teach technology as well.

When you say “technology,” what are you talking about?

We teach Computer Music I, II, and III, which these are courses that involve everything from sequencing to scoring with notation software. Our students go through Pro Tools certification. One of my biggest courses that I teach is Computer Music III. That course places emphasis on music synthesis.

In my other course, Multimedia Production, we teach students how to make films, and sound for film, games, industrial videos, and the Web in our recording studios at UAB Recording Studios.

I was in graduate school in the ‘80s when a lot of this software and technology was just getting to a point where it was starting to be commercialized. When I was in graduate school at Ohio State, much of the software we use now was in its infancy. Many graduate students were allowed to serve as beta testers for the various companies. So if you look at the major software packages of the day, you know, Mark of the Unicorn had Professional Composer, which was the notation software package, and then they had Performer. Then on the Opcode side they had Vision.

I probably wouldn’t have gotten into using computers had I not been at graduate school at Ohio State, and had the Macintosh not come on the scene. 1984 was when that happened, so it was a wonderful time for me. We were among the first to be able to study this technology at a time when it was just coming on the scene. And I’ve been able to maintain that as a significant part of what I do.

You’ve been using music technology for 30 years.

Yeah, we’ve been heavily in technology for a long time, and I think that’s one of the reasons why my work with Stevie has worked so well. Because invariably I would be on the road with him, going someplace I have never been before, thinking I’d get a chance to tour like everybody else and sight-see when I get to these places. And I’d get there and all of a sudden Stevie would say, “Hey, I got this idea,” and “Can we do this number tomorrow?” So I’m stuck in a hotel room orchestrating, and I could do these things and use orchestrations and Stevie could hear these things before we would go to the show.

We would always joke about that saying, “Bach had to walk 250 miles to hear his work.” I don’t know how true that is, but people say it. I think about the need for doing this, and how we built those music technology programs in Hawaii when the University of Hawaii wanted to build a program there. Then there was the program we built at American University in Cairo, Egypt, with this same goal: giving musicians an opportunity to do more than just the traditional, and trying to give them a leg up, so they can have viable, long, sustainable, and meaningful career.

As an educator, that has been my goal, to try to bring relevancy to what we’re teaching our students. To make sure they are current, make sure that they can be fresh and know what’s going on in the industry. And many times in the academy, we will kind of — I’ll just say it — we’ll hold our noses up in the air at things that are going on in the industry.

I’ll never forget, when I had a chance to hang out for a week on the Bodyguard tour for Whitney Houston, doing work with them. And to be backstage, and just to see the rig that was used in this show, not the orchestra, but the live sound rig. And knowing that there’s an engineer that’s running all these things, and the special effects, and the sounds, and it’s synchronized. And you’ve got backup rigs so one full rack has all this stuff and another engineer runs the other one and they’re synchronized. Recognizing that, “Boy, if we aren’t able to get our students exposed to this, they might as well go back to writing their music on sheepskin with a quill.  Well, that’s how dated they would become by not being exposed to these new technologies.

What work did you do with the Bodyguard tour?

I was asked to orchestrate. They were using an orchestra, and Rickey Minor, who was the musical director for Whitney, asked me to do some arranging for that show. And I had a chance to spend the whole week at Radio City Music Hall. I had a chance to go up there when they were doing that show with an orchestra and Whitney.

I want to point out, this is four years after you got your doctorate.

My doctorate was in ‘89. This would have been ‘93, ‘94? I started working with Stevie in ‘92. And this was at that time.

Some people get their doctorate, they go into teaching for a while, and maybe try to dip their toes into even the fringe of what your career has been. But yours started while you were still in school.

Exactly. But guess what, early on, many times there was not a lot of pay. If someone would ask me, “Henry Panion, can you write a steel drum band piece with a harp and a flute and this and that?” If I hadn’t done it, I’d say, “Sure, I can do it! Yeah, I can do it!” You have to always believe in yourself. But I felt I could even if I hadn’t. You’ve got to prove yourself, right? And you don’t get that call back if you blow it.

When you have students coming into your music technology programs, do you emphasize musicianship and theory to them?

Well, they can’t even take our technology courses unless they have passed a certain level of music theory.

So you don’t just turn out software operators working with beats. They have to be musicians first.

Right, they can do beats, and love beats, and all of that, but the bottom line is, you have to audition to become a music major. You are a music major first, and the goal of technology is to use the technologies to enhance what you do as a musician. Not to use the technologies to make you a musician. The technology can’t make you a musician. They can enhance what you do as a musician significantly.

There are some educators who come from a traditional background, with orchestras and marching bands, who don’t fully appreciate what music technology programs in schools are doing for today’s music student. But clearly at UAB, you have to be an auditioned music student first to even get into the technology programs.

That’s correct. Exactly.

And do you find, because of that, you don’t have to do as much music appreciation? That you have a well-rounded student body that isn’t stuck on one genre, or one area of interest?

Oh, absolutely, absolutely. if I’m discussing waveforms, physical modeling, and subtractive synthesis, it’s important for the class to know how them elements affect the music they are making. But I’ll give you a good example. Where an audio engineer may understand rolling off five dB around 2k to make it sound just a little less harsh, musicians understand what harshness means. So the point is there are scientific elements and there are musical elements and sometimes they say the same thing. And so our goal is to give our musicians the tools that will enable them to be the producers, the engineers, because that’s what the industry needs.

I mean, when you had some of these great producers  to come on the scenes, particularly like Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, L.A. Reid, and Babyface, even the stuff with Prince’s group and all the stuff out in Seattle, when these musicians began to be the producers, it’s because of the technology. Because in the earlier days, it really was more the tech people and the business people who were the producers.

You have the rare occasions, like Quincy Jones, who truly is one of the few people — well there are several — but he is one of the ones I looked up to for sure. He epitomizes the great musician who understands studios, and understands quality in sound, and understands all that — and is a great musician.

Does Henry Panion still go out and gig? Do you still go play with people for fun?

Being at the university, I’m more of a university professor, and my wife and I still have three boys at home. I have an older daughter and three boys. My three boys are all musicians. Two are music majors in college and one is a ninth-grader in high school and band. And so we try to follow them and keep up with them. But typically, when I get a break, I don’t really do music for fun. I mean, it’s fun to do it, but I’m so busy doing things that I never have time to just do music for the sake of doing it. I’m always doing it because somebody has commissioned me to write something. I’ve got to go conduct this, or write this, or do this, or teach this, or whatever the case may be. And it’s just a time thing. It’s not because I wouldn’t, it’s just that there is always a deadline that you’re working on. But you know, I go to concerts and things like that.

What year did you graduate high school?

I graduated high school in ‘76.

You were experiencing integration firsthand in the epicenter of that was going on in this country back then, being from Birmingham, Alabama. Did that impact the band programs you took part in growing up?

Well, the one thing I will credit my folks with, my grandparents when I’d visit their home, my aunt I told you about, was that there was never racial discussion, particularly disparaging racial discussions, in my home at all. So even though I grew up as a young child here in the ‘60s, as we are getting ready to celebrate 50 years of the Selma March, when I saw it on television, it could have been in any other country. Our folks sheltered us from that. And as I look back on it, I think it was because of not wanting there to be a sense of hatred. Because you know, you can grow up in these environments, and I know so many people who were affected by all of this, that they may have a level of bitterness in their hearts and toward others.

But music is kind of the great – what’s the word I want to say – I was about to say “denominator”, but definitely it’s the unifier. And it’s become universal. So when you have to come together to work on one cause, and you’re out there sweating bullets in the sun, marching down the field, keeping the lines straight, making sure you’re playing correctly, you come together on a common goal. And sometimes those things, like race and other things like that, they just go away in that context.

I’m not so naive that I didn’t know some of the things that were going on, and I can remember cases where I’ve experienced people who may have had racial issues with others, just because of the color of their skin, and I don’t want to minimize that. But I had a significant number of buddies in the band who were white.

I was in an integrated program in Midfield. We may have had twelve black kids at that school in the band program when I was in it, and the rest of the band was white. When I was in seventh grade, we lived so close to the school, which was predominantly white, that this was where I went. There was a lot of strife about integration and all of that and people were protesting and marching. And I will never forget the band director, who was white, saying to me, “Henry Panion, don’t get involved in that.” And I’ve appreciated it since. I wasn’t [going to] anyway, you know. But I do remember the school burning down, and I don’t know if they ever found who did it, but there were so many discussions around whether or not some blacks burned it down because they didn’t want to be there or some whites burned it down because they didn’t want it to be integrated. I was too young to really know, but I do remember those discussions.

I went through the exhibit at the 16th Street Baptist Church, and I left there a changed man.

One of the most important pieces I wrote was a piece in 2013 for that 50th commemoration of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, called “Here We Are.” The Alabama Symphony premiered it. That piece is significant because I was trying to do a number of things  — even for me, even for people who may have been in many ways close to it being here [in Birmingham] — it’s a whole idea of painting the scene of being in there on a Sunday morning, what it must have been like, getting ready for church, having a good time, getting ready to have a praise service, then all of a sudden, the parents began to wonder where their kids are, just the emotion of that. And then, boom, it goes off.

“Here We Are” is basically the parents looking for them. But when they recognize that, they get a response of “here we are”, it’s not because the girls are safe on earth. It’s because they’re safe in the arms of the Lord. And that is what “Here We Are” is. I wrote this piece around that. It features the Alabama Symphony and a large, symphonic choir, and when it premiered with a girls’ choir from the 16th Street Baptist Church, it was a very touching moment in my life. But the point being that, regardless of whether you lived here or not, when you go through that church, you better believe it, you do change.

This is the 50th anniversary of that very pivotal moment in our history. How did the Selma performances that you’re preparing for come about? Who approached you and asked you to put this together?

For many years, there’s been a march in Selma on Bloody Sunday. And since this is the 50th anniversary, the planning committee wanted to do a much bigger event. I was asked to produce a show that would be kind of an All-Star Tribute.

So on Sunday, people will march across the bridge, like they normally do, with all the dignitaries from the White House, all the artists, and all the civil rights leaders. They’re expecting 100,000 people, so I was told. And then once they go across the bridge, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they’ll go another quarter of a mile to a stage. And that stage will have an orchestra. We put out a call for a choir of a thousand and we’ll have a thousand. And I think one of the reasons they called me is because they wanted, and needed, somebody to do it quickly, and that’s usually how it works. You need someone to do it quickly. And they wanted a certain caliber of audience there singing, of course. So, I’ve got the Blind Boys of Alabama – all of their orchestral book, I wrote. We’ve got Ruben Studdard, American Idol winner from Alabama. I’ve written for him and most of his records are recorded in my studio. We’ve got Tramaine Hawkins, of the great Hawkins family. She will be there. Most people know Kelly Price, R&B artist. She will be there. We’ll have – we won’t know for sure, but maybe by the time you get this done — Fantasia, American Idol winner as well.

We also have Richard Smallwood. Kirk Franklin, probably the biggest name in gospel, will be there. I reached out to these artists because I’ve written and worked for all of them. I’ve written orchestral music and arrangements for every one of those artists over the years, and so it’s easy enough for me to bring them and do stuff I’ve always given to them, and performed with them or recorded with them.

And to have this orchestra there, this choir, we’re doing numbers that are appropriate for the occasion. Like with the Blind Boys, we’ll do “People Get Ready.” With Tramaine, “Oh, Happy Day” and “Changed.” With Kirk Franklin, “Why We Sing.” Just numbers that I’ve pulled in my repertoire. I look in the library of various orchestrations that I’ve done and various artists that I’ve worked with. It was easy, so I think that was one of the reasons that I was asked to do this.

Are there any new compositions that you’re programming for this?

Yes, I’ve just completed a new full orchestra arrangement of “Glory” from the movie Selma. The concert will open with my arrangement of “Ride On, King Jesus,” which is a Negro spiritual that people know. I have an orchestral overture that I created from that spiritual. 

Who is the orchestra? Where are they from?

They’re an orchestra that I put together primarily. It’s mostly the Alabama Symphony. It’s members from the Montgomery Symphony and the Tuscaloosa Symphony that we’ve combined for this. I’ve always called “my orchestra” when I’m not doing something for a particular orchestra, and I put a group together that I call “my orchestra.” I call them the GSC Symphony Orchestra. And that stands for Gospel Symphony Celebration. On my recordings and all the things I do, that’s what I call them. But they’re professionals and they’re made of those three orchestras, primarily. I think there may be some from the Huntsville Symphony as well, so the Huntsville, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, and Alabama Symphonies, various people coming together for this production.

There have been things where music kind of takes on more of a meaning, and once again, this Selma event, many times people ask you to do things seemingly last minute. I have to tell you, they only asked me like a month and a half out, to do this. So what do you do? Do you say, “Well no, I don’t have time?”

No, you take the opportunity when it’s presented to you, as you talked about earlier.

Yeah, and you recognize in this situation, the cause is much more important. If those guys, Representative John Lewis, and others could walk across that bridge and be bludgeoned, beaten, and hit with tear gas, and others around that event killed, then the least I can do is give my time and work to make the commemoration a success. Just the mere thought of being here in Alabama, if they hadn’t done that and others hadn’t done the things they had done, guess what? There might not even be a Henry Panion. I might not have had the opportunities to do the things I’ve done right here in Alabama.

Panion at ConsoleOur audience is primarily high school marching band, symphony, school orchestra, concert band, and jazz band. Is there anything that you think that they should be doing to prepare their students for a music program like the one at UAB?

We have an endowed scholarship in his name at UAB as Stevie Wonder Music Technology Scholarships. And I received a grant from the Joint Prison Commission of the State of Alabama, just to do a little camp where we would get kids involved in music. And of course, you know what their goal is, to keep them off the street in the summer.

Well, what I discovered in this process of awarding these scholarships or working with this grant, is that regardless of the student background, we have these models that we use for auditioning kids to go into fields in music like performing, vocal singing, instruments, band director, music education, and the like. But there was nothing in place to properly train young people to be prepared for the music technology industry, or the commercial music industry, as it were. These young people who were juniors and seniors in school said, “I think I want to be a music tech major.”

And I said to them, “Well, what have you done? Have you even played with GarageBand? Other kinds of software?” So what we began to do – and this has been really my evangelistic kind of part of me – is going around, trying to prepare young people from middle school on up, just to be exposed to the technology that’s out there.

For example, they all know the names of producers like Timbaland and Dr. Dre. But when they see an artist on stage, a performer or rapper, or whatever the case may be, what they don’t recognize is there are probably more careers, and actually more sustainable, lifelong careers, behind an artist, than that artist will have. And [those careers] involve this technology and all the things we’re doing. They don’t recognize that engineering, physics, creative, critical thinking, computer science, math, and the Mac are all of these parts of the STEM education that everyone is talking about now. You get that when you go through music technology. And that is what we have been doing.

In fact, I spoke to a group of scientists last week, a room filled with about 60 of them, about STEM. I served recently on a National Science Foundation committee because my passion has been to establish what I call “pre-college music technology academies”. We’ve done some here in Alabama. Like I told you, we built two in Hawaii, at the University of Hawaii, and outside Hawaii, where people can come and do these camps.

One of the ones I’m really most proud of is the one we do now in Birmingham, the Woodlawn Music Tech Program. We actually have 160 kids during the school year, in my labs, over at my studio, Audiostate 55. We have three middle schools and a high school who take it during the school year. They get high school credit for taking music technology from us. I go just to expose them, so they get a chance to write, produce, arrange, do videos, and deal with engineering and wiring. There is only one goal in mind, when they get ready to get out of high school, they will be prepared. They will have had the kind of experience that [allows them to say], “Oh, I know what I want to do.”

Many school programs are cutting out their music programs, for whatever reasons. They don’t have the budget. They don’t have the time. They try to do more in science, technology, engineering, and math. They’re cutting out the arts. Parents don’t have time because they’re working and don’t have time to take them to band practices and choir practices. There are all these reasons why these programs are diminishing in many, many places. My goal with this technology is to provide an opportunity.

And there’s another reason, too, why they’re diminishing. The kids are no longer interested in a lot of this. They see other things they want to do. So my goal is to try to provide ways just to show them some other things, show them how this technology is shaping their world. “Have you thought about what happens when you hear that sound effect in the movie that just bounces you out of your seat?”

Well, you think it’s the visuals that cause you to be scared. It’s not the visual, because you can anticipate the visual. You see what’s happening many times. It is the sound effect that is doing that. Well, do you understand what a looper is? Do you understand what a Foley artist is? Do you understand what a sound engineer is, that basically does the sound design? So we’re trying to get them exposed to these kinds of things in the industry. I’m probably more passionate about that, right now at this point in my life, than almost anything that I do.

I don’t want to lose the emphasis on the fact that, in spite of that passion, your first goal with your students is for them to be musicians. You don’t take software operators. You take musicians and teach them software.

Right. The beautiful thing about the technology today, it is a great democratizer. It allows people to get in without musical abilities and do some things that they can feel good about themselves. So I’m not judging young people who don’t have a musical background. One of the things I like to say is that those who are creative will be creative. Think about it. If they can’t get into our college programs because they don’t have this musical background, this skill set, then we need to go train them first as musicians so that they’ll be prepared by the time they’re ready to audition and to apply for college.

Making music education in middle and high school — and I mean traditional music education — even more so important because they’re not getting into your program if they can’t come to you with that base.

No, they aren’t.

What’s interesting about you is you’re conducting not just symphonies and band programs, but you’re also conducting choirs.

I spent years in choir. When I was in college, I was in the jazz band. And then in church, I was in gospel choirs. In college, I was in the classical concert choir. I was in the concert choir in high school at the same time I was in the the jazz band and the marching band. I was in the opera, singing in the opera. I didn’t have any lead roles, but I sang in opera. And like I said, it’s always been doing them all. Wow, I guess that’s the whole point, isn’t it? I’m grateful that I had all those experiences.

And all those experiences make up Henry Panion.

Exactly. They really do. Just imagine, on one hand, I take Chaka Kahn and her music – you know, she was a jazz artist, but people know her as a pop artist – and I put her with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, and she is doing my arrangements of Chaka Kahn with Lionel Hampton. I mean, it’s just crazy how this works, but I think I know jazz. I definitely love R&B. But it’s because I really like these things, you know. It’s just amazing. It really is. Even Aleatoric Contemporary Art Music that only a few of us would go to see, I’ve studied it just because I wanted to do it. I wanted to know what was going on in contemporary art music, even though it’s usually reserved to college circles.

I’m a constant student. I think that is the most important thing when it comes to educators. Many times, we feel that we want to learn something and we feel we have learned it. When I was teaching theory primarily, the theory hadn’t changed in 250 years, and the best I would do is change the examples year after year because the students wouldn’t see those same examples unless they failed my courses. But you go with technology, and while I’ve got one manual for theory, every software package you use has a thick manual, thicker than that theory book, and you have to teach that. So, how do you do that? I tell our students, “If you think you can conquer technology with a mindset that you can talk it and then you know it for the rest of your life, you can forget it.” You are constantly in a state of learning. Learning, learning, learning. So what you have to do is learn how to learn and how to apply. You have to be a student. You have to be excited about what’s coming out and how it can impact you today, as you were when you first saw it. Otherwise you will become obsolete.

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