Woman stands in front of music stand.
Lida Bourhill, who receives her degree in music education in May, would like to pursue a career as a choral conductor. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Class of 2020: A pivotal weekend in eighth grade led Lida Bourhill to study music at VCU

The music education major wants to inspire others the way she was inspired to make notes come off the page.

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Though VCU will not hold an in-person commencement ceremony this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the university will host a virtual commencement celebration May 8 and spring graduates will be invited to participate in the university's formal commencement ceremony on Dec. 12. In these challenging times, thousands of students will earn their degrees this spring. These are some of their stories.

Lida Bourhill can pinpoint the moment she realized she wanted a career in music.

She was 13, an eighth-grader in the All-Virginia Chorus. The conductor was a musician named Jeffrey Benson, Ph.D., now director of choral activities at San José State University. 

“He just made the notes come off of the page and it was so different than anything I had ever experienced before as far as singing goes,” Bourhill said. “And everyone was so good at singing. I had just never experienced that. And I knew, over the course of that weekend, that that was what I wanted to do — specifically conducting. I wanted to be that person who has that kind of influence.”

At one point, the Franklin County, Virginia, native toyed with the idea of going to law school and eventually entering politics, “but I think it was always going to be music for me,” she said. “For a while, I was just kind of exploring options, but it was always going to be music.”

She knew she made the right decision when she came to Virginia Commonwealth University for the first time to audition for the music program.

“I remember this really sweet lady who was running the audition and she was really friendly,” Bourhill said. “Now I know it's Marcey Leonard [admissions assistant], who takes care of all of us. She was just so friendly and everyone was really friendly in the audition. I very much felt like the people who were auditioning me were on my side and they wanted me to succeed. It wasn’t a super judgy, critical thing. And they even gave me feedback. … I felt comfortable and I felt like I could really learn here and it would be a positive learning environment.”

It was.

One of Bourhill’s fondest memories came during her sophomore year. Her class sang Vivaldi's “Gloria” with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra and the Richmond Ballet as part of a class taught by Erin Freeman, D.M.A., director of choral activities at VCU and director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus.

“That was one of the coolest things I've ever seen because I'd never seen professional ballet before,” Bourhill said. “I'd probably never seen amateur ballet, maybe on TV or something. Their precision and dedication was so inspiring and — it sounds so obvious to say this, but — it just truly clicked in my head how much I was watching the visual representation of music.

“That was the first time I'd ever sung with the symphony. It was a very different setting, and we were in the orchestra pit under the stage and the ballet was on stage and it was amazing to watch Dr. Freeman lead a ballet, an orchestra and a chorus all together with one baton. It was really cool. That was something that really inspired me for sure.”

And I knew, over the course of that weekend, that that was what I wanted to do — specifically conducting. I wanted to be that person who has that kind of influence.

Bourhill, who receives her degree in music education in May, would like to follow in Freeman’s footsteps as a choral conductor.

“I really idolize her,” Bourhill said. “From my first day of classes, I was like, ‘I want to be her when I grow up.’ … Since then, I've just really enjoyed being in her choirs and observing her and learning from her. She's just one of these people who always makes the time no matter how busy she is. And she's an incredible musician and an incredible leader, which are two different skills. … We're really lucky to have her. I wouldn't be the person I am without her.” 

The conductor studies the music to understand who the composer was, why they wrote the piece and how the piece is relevant to that time in history, Bourhill said. “You know all the parts and you study the structure of the piece and the form of the piece. And then you would often be the person who adds the artistic interpretation. So how you want the piece to sound in a way that's appropriate to the style and the genre, the era, and what the piece means.” 

Last summer, Freeman tapped Bourhill for the unprecedented honor of leading the Richmond Symphony Chorus in a rehearsal. 

“I was very scared, really nervous,” she said. “But Dr. Freeman had never put me in a situation that she didn't think I was prepared for. She's also never put me in a situation and then not helped me get through it. So I knew that she would guide me where I needed it. And so I studied the music and wrote a rehearsal plan and came up here and did it. It was really funny ’cause it seems like I'm always nervous before, but then once I'm up on the podium in front of people, I have no time to be nervous, you just have work to do. And then it becomes fun. It was a great experience.”

Bourhill has had a multitude of such singular experiences while at VCU. She’s a choir scholar at River Road Presbyterian Church. For the past three summers, she has served as operations and artistic assistant of the “Sing with Us!” program at the Wintergreen Music Festival. And she conducts the Recovery Ally Choir of Richmond, which comprises people in addiction recovery and their allies, most of whom are not trained musicians.

That isn’t a problem for Bourhill. 

“It's about finding ways to teach people who may or may not read music that actually isn't as hard as it sounds, because people are more musical than they think they are,” she said. 

Bourhill was the VCU Commonwealth Singers’ conductor assistant for five semesters until she began student teaching this past fall at Manchester High School. This semester, she’s teaching at Rural Point Elementary School, where she had just finished her second week when the schools closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, both learning and teaching remotely are providing a completely new experience for Bourhill.

“We collaborate with our host teacher to participate in the ways their school has decided to stay in contact with the students,” she said. “It's certainly not ideal, but there's nothing to do except get creative and move forward. My host teacher, for example, has created a website where his students can enjoy music-related activities on ‘Music Mondays.’ On this website, I am responsible for choosing a Musician of the Week. I provide a picture of the musician, their biographical information, and a link to their music.” 

Through observation, Bourhill is learning that the trick is to stay connected without overwhelming the students or their parents.

“It's a time when everyone wants to do something,” she said. “I know I feel antsy and rather useless. I have to remind myself that if a student listens to one song during the week, that's a connection. If they see their teachers online and know they are missed, that's a connection. These things will add up.” 

Though she has been studying education for four years now, Bourhill said she’s never been more proud to be a part of the education system as she watches the teachers and their supervisors work tirelessly to figure out ways to stay connected with their kids.

“It's going to be a game full of short plays, but the teachers are determined and dedicated as ever,” she said. “Though the circumstances are more than unfortunate, I feel lucky to be learning from these people.”