Ellen Oak

artistic excellence | intellectual acuity | spiritual imagination | cultural courage

What Others Say

     It is difficult to put into words how extraordinary Ellen is as a liturgist and as a choral conductor.  I sang with Ellen for three years at EDS (Episcopal Divinity School) in the seminary choir, and outside of EDS in the Three Rivers Chorus which was founded and directed by Ellen.  Ellen chooses a wide range of music that always expanded my choral skills, my spiritual experience and my musical knowledge. At EDS we sang worship songs from several different countries and cultures, in several languages (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, more than one African language, French, German, Latin, Arabic, Russian), always broadening our understanding of multicultural religious devotion. 

     Ellen is a scholar, teacher and performer and enthusiast of the liturgical compositions of Hildegard of Bingen and of Gregorian chant.  Her own singing of the chants is powerful and deeply moving.

     Ellen is an accomplished vocalist and voice instructor.  In our choral warm ups Ellen taught us awareness of the whole body as our vocal instrument, right down to the stability and flexibility of the soles of our feet. She taught us placement of the breath, as well as attention to the throat and jaw and tongue.  She emphasizes attentive listening to each other while singing and a collaborative, mutually supportive effort.  And she encourages risk taking, telling us at the end of each warm up to shake out our bodies and “try something new, surprising” in our movements. Her personal philosophy, she has said, includes daily trying something new she has never done before.

     Ellen is brilliant, exceptionally talented, dedicated and works tirelessly to bring about extraordinary musical experiences, whether in a short prayer service  (ie.,morning prayer) or in a grander choral performance (such as Advent Lessons and Carols).  Recently Ellen put together a choral concert as a “vibrational send-off” to the EDS chapel. The body of work was in 6 languages: English, French, German, Italian, Arabic, and Spanish. Included in the program were Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia,  Lauridsen, Monteverdi, Mozart, Brahms, and a Sufi Zikr  chant.  The event began and ended with arrangements of “Alleluia,” and included two simple arrangements of the same that invited audience participation. Singing in that concert was inspiring, challenging and transforming. Ellen brings delightful expansion to her singers and to her audiences.

     Any institution that is lucky and blessed enough to hire Ellen will be profoundly grateful for her contributions musically and academically. 

Katharine Newhouse, Student and Singer, Episcopal Divinity School

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The following salutation was written by the members of the Boston Women’s Rainbow Chorus on the occasion of Ellen’s completing her work with them. B’Orech Nirei Or is the Hebrew title of a haunting two part setting of Psalm 36:9 by Shefa Gold—one of the women’s favorite pieces to sing.

B’Orech Nirei Or

In your light,

We see light.

In the motion of your firm gentle hands, 

We are guided and held.

Each stroke and movement

Is filled with purpose and direction,

And we know we will not lose our way.

In your eyes,

We see confidence, passion, and energy.

We see you seeing us even better than we see ourselves,

And our voices and spirits rise up to match that vision.

In our music,

We find a connection—

A wholeness, freedom, and hope

Greater than the sum of our individual voices.

We are united and powerful—

A bond that cannot be broken.

In your soul,

There is a spirit so strong

That inspiration radiates without need for words,

And we discover the meaning of faith.

In our hearts, deep in our hearts,

As we journey forth,

There will always be a light that shines for you:

Our greatly respected teacher and friend.

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     I do not have words enough to thank you for the gift of your presence at the Faith, Health, and Spirituality Summer Institute. Your presence in liturgy, your gorgeous voice, and the spirit you bring to worship deeply moved and touched us all.  Your course helped me and others see how central the role of music and singing is to creating people within and among people. You gave us all many useful tools to work with in congregations and an enthusiasm to go with them. You are a gift beyond compare to this place and I thank God for bringing you and your many gifts into this school where so many can learn from you and be inspired by you.

Brita Gill-Austern, Professor, Andover Newton Theological School

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     Reviews of the Harmony of Heaven, Ellen’s solo unaccompanied rendition of songs by Hildegard of Bingen:

  • “Ellen Oak’s exquisite voice gives us a glimpse into the Sacred Mystery with its beauty and radiance. Evocative . . . stunning . . . this is a gift.”  Joan Borensynko, author of Fire in the Soul and Pocketful of Miracles.
  • “ . . . . A rich mezzo of considerable quality used with skill and feeling. There is an integrity to Oak’s approach, suggesting the pieces as their composer’s personal, inner visions or expressions.”   American Record Guide
  • “In its honesty, purity, and depth of understanding, this is the best recorded performance of Hildgard we have.”   Barbara Lachman, author of The Journal of Hildegard of Bingen.

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     The final lines of Ellen’s final prep notes to the choir encapsulate what is remarkable and compelling about her style as a conductor: Thanks for giving your passion, curiosity, courage, flexibility, intelligence and dedication to this project. I hope you are getting what you came for. You might want to take a bit of time to reflect on why you signed on for this concert; and on your specific desire for our concert experience tomorrow. The power of intention is remarkable. For this concert — a difficult, varied, and lengthy program prepared in an intensive, condensed time frame — Ellen provided sufficient audio resources, then trusted her singers to learn parts. She deliberately emphasized commitment and community. Time in rehearsal focused on proper physical and vocal warm-up, listening to each other, dynamics, phrasing, and text. Her leadership opened the singers to find and trust their own musical intelligence, with impressive results. 

Susan Butterworth, Singer, “Love is Strong as Death” Concert

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      I am confident that every skill and gift that Ellen has will bring nourishment, energy, and new inspiration to the community she serves in wonderful ways. I have known Ellen since June 2015 when I audited a course she taught at Episcopal Divinity School: Feeding the Fire of Sung Prayer. Although I was a non-matriculated auditor, Ellen warmly and firmly invited me to participate in group discussions, presentations, and individual performance assignments, so that I felt truly welcomed and empowered. The affirmation Ellen gave me, together with the experience of truly artful worship services at the school where she had the role of director of liturgy as well as music, greatly influenced my decision to apply to the school.

     In the worshipping community at EDS, I see Ellen as the spiritual leader who expands, enriches, and enlivens the notions of liturgical/musical leadership. Ellen beautifully embodies her conviction that the goal of every leadership role in worship is to serve, strengthen, and nourish the congregation as the gathered Body of Christ in need of transformation by love. The way Ellen is so gentle, delicate, and extremely elegant as liturgical/musical leader also allows the congregation to deeply and artfully engage with the liturgy. Ellen is a nurturing presence as a great teacher who consistently ensures that her students are gaining practical competence in liturgical/ministerial skills. For two years I participated in the weekly chapel staff meetings—first as a community member and later as a staff member. I witnessed how Ellen, as a facilitator/educator, was attentive to the needs, the challenges, and the growth of each student staff member. Not only did Ellen provide a structure for every participant to share appreciations and constructive criticisms  about chapel life; but she also listened so lovingly and deeply to the subtle messages each staff person conveyed. How dearly she received and respected them was reflected in her interaction with each individual with such intensity.

     Ellen skillfully created abundant room for diversity within the stability of the structural rhythms of worship. She created the framework for Morning Prayer at EDS that invites the wide variety of content that each presider brings, while at the same time supporting the integrity of the community. She mentored many students to take on the role of presider at Morning Prayer, and made herself available to each one for practical advice in preparation. Ellen always supported creative worship, and she was clear that worship must be alive and energetic so that the pastoral needs of the faith community and the wider community can better be served. I observed many students, often with conservative backgrounds, grow into liturgical leaders and freely express the passion for social justice in the liturgies they crafted within the structure of Morning Prayer. Ellen was also sensitive to the growth of the community as a whole in terms of liturgical/musical competence and constantly discerned the next step to take, in order that they can receive more nourishment from worship for service to the world and for the work they do toward holiness and justice within God's creation.

     I have also known Ellen as conductor to various choral groups in which I participated as a volunteer singer. I was always amazed at how she could be so flexible in her teaching style according to the musical skills and abilities of the participants. I have watched a number of people gaining musical competence in a short time they spent with Ellen and many among them wonder why they could acquire such skills they never could get in their previous musical education. I do not know fully why this is the case, but one thing that is clear to me is that she freely interprets musicality into spirituality, and then also  translates it into physicality. She offers creative theological annotations to each musical piece, and the practice of making music in general, so that it gives life to the performing itself and the performers themselves. It seems that there is almost no distinction among being spiritual, musical, and liturgical for her. Ellen is also excellent at creating a strong group dynamic by encouraging the artistry of each singer, and by providing practical instructions which also spiritually penetrate the heart of each individual.

Fumiko Sakakibara, Student, Singer, Chapel Staff Member, Episcopal Divinity School

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     You helped to make the event educational and profoundly spiritual. . . You have been been uniquely gifted and it is wonderful to see how you use your music to “touch heaven to earth.” Thank you so very much for your leadership at the Rhode Island-Southeastern Massachusetts District Fall Celebration.

David A. Purdy, District Superintendent, United Methodist Church

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    Ellen is not only a brilliant conductor, but also a trained singer. I've worked with Ellen the past several years, and whenever I'm able to, I accept her gigs because she's truly a joy to work with.  She brings her intimate knowledge of the human voice into her choral direction, and as a result, she pays attention to vocal health and makes changes as needed. She works with the voices that she has in order to make the best sound that that given group of people can make. Her directing is clean, precise, and consistent. It's clear that she has a natural ability along with extensive training and experience that she combines with thorough prep work in order to bring her best self to every rehearsal. Another quality I truly admire about her is her ability to live in the moment. If she does worry about what may come, it's clear that she makes a conscientious effort to live in the moment, and experience both the good and bad moments that come with live performances. I've worked with many a conductor who falter in their confidence after choral mistakes. That's not the case with Ellen. She accepts the good with the bad, and seems to appreciate and love the performance experiences she has, as long as everyone put in the time to prepare and tried their best.

Laura Cervinsky, professional soprano

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     You have consistently helped us all to express the inexpressible in the music you have offered with your beautiful voice, your inspirational piano playing, and your expert conducting. Our worship has been taken to new heights because of you! Thank you for your dedication and hard work—and for the passion and creativity you bring to living each day.

Miriam Gelfer, Dean of Students, Episcopal Divinity School

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     Singing with you is always a transcendental experience. Thank you for providing me the opportunity to participate in this concert. The repertoire was at once challenging and compellingly beautiful. It was truly an honor to stand aside professional and accomplished amateurs alike, while the music came alive under your ever inspiring direction. The rehearsals were so well organized and enabled even an inexperienced singer like myself to grasp the nuances of the music - phrasing, language, intent, and soul. I hope we have the chance to some or all of this music again!

Karen Cummings, singer in Three Rivers Chorus and  “Love is Strong as Death” concert

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     I am overflowing with the Grace of your work. Your wonderful openness to the Spirit is empowering. She flows into sound, rhythm, true inspiration through your music. When I listened to Songs of the Love of God, my body leaped into dance. When I celebrated the Eucharist with my Wisdom House community I played “Bakerwoman God” and drummed before our altar with you. We were transported. Your sensitivity in mirroring masculine/ancient and feminine/modern-and-more-ancient is most effective. Every religious community of any brand should experience the possibilities you set forth in inclusive worship. Thank you, my sister, for being true to your vocation, for taking risks, launching out, daring all. You are a true priest in your sacrament of music and song. Keep celebrating this sacred soul speech. Shine on!

Alla Bozarth-Campbell

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     As always, singing with you was a lifetime and memorably wonderful experience! The repertoire of 18 pieces was challenging in the number of works, and also in the variety of styles and languages, including Urdu? Farsi? Amazing! Ellen, you are an amazing and unique artistic director and conductor. Beginning with your very physical, musical, and psychological warmups, you engage singer(s) completely.  I feel very differently about my body as an instrument when working with you, and the blend and listening to each other that you work on is much greater than I have experienced in other choruses.You also pack a great deal of directing, coaching, instructing, and information into your rehearsals!You are very efficient, respectful, and disciplined.  Your “bar” is high, and you do all you can with your numerous and creative skills to bring us all to the level of performance and achievement you expect. The works you program are wide-ranging and a stretch to work on, rehearse and perform.  They encompass the full experience of being human – especially in our increasingly diverse and divergent world.  You bring the audience members and the singers together during the time of our performance into a shared time of concentration, collaboration and connection.  You ask for and receive 110% commitment from all – yourself, your chorus and your audience. You give us each the opportunity to engage with the art form of music in ways not usually offered, by your work with the singers and also with your direct connection – and inclusion – of the audience by your talking and by your offering the audience members the opportunity to sing with the chorus. It is always a pleasure, a privilege, and hard work to sing with you and the singers you bring together – always a changing and unique group!  I’m grateful for connecting with my body as instrument via your warm-ups and rehearsals, and being fortunate and blessed to perform a concert of interesting, challenging, inspiring and gorgeous works which touch the audience and singers in the core of our beings. 

Emily Teller, Singer, “Love is Strong as Death” concert