Stories of Faith

BYU–Hawaii’s choral director uses her voice in a big way—from aiding refugees to building harmony in the Church

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Photograph courtesy of Erica Glenn
BYU–Hawaii Media Productions

Even before she could speak, Erica Glenn was drawn to music. As a baby, she communicated through song before she could form words—humming her mother’s favorite lullaby when she was tired or mimicking the sound the microwave made when her bottle was ready to show she was hungry.

A native of Pleasant Grove, Utah, Erica has always appreciated the power of music in bringing people together. She wrote her first full-length musical at age 12 and composed pieces for her high school choir and the Young Women’s Worldwide Celebration two years later.

“There was something so beautifully connective about all of those experiences,” Erica says. “I knew from a very young age that I wanted to go into music professionally.”

As an undergraduate, she studied music theory and composition at Arizona State University (ASU). Then, after completing her studies early, Erica served as a full-time missionary in the Ukraine Donetsk Mission—an experience that would ultimately shape her personal and professional life for far longer than 18 months.

Photograph courtesy of Erica Glenn

She would go on to receive extensive education, completing a master’s in music composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College, a master’s in the arts in education from Harvard University, and a doctorate in choral conducting from ASU.

In one of her first professional experiences as a choral director at an innovative charter school in Utah, she witnessed miracle after miracle among the students she taught.

“I saw the way that music helped them overcome personal trials, learn to empathize with each other, find support, and bridge differences,” Erica says. “I knew that I wanted to do that at whatever level the Lord was willing to use me.”

And the Lord would use her. Erica’s willingness to be an instrument for the Lord has led to incredible opportunities worldwide, from offering hope to war refugees on the other side of the globe to uniting students in song and heart on an island in the Pacific. Her testimony of Jesus Christ compels her to encourage everyone that they belong in the fold, regardless of age, background, marital status, or any other difference.

Erica’s life story is far from over, but her experiences powerfully show that one dedicated voice plays an essential role in bringing together the rest in harmony.

A Rickety Piano in Ukraine

Since her first master’s program, Erica spent her summers traveling across the world through research grants. She worked with Broadway’s Charles Strouse in New York City, participated in a chamber musical festival in Bulgaria, sang with a local folk choir while studying Russian in the country of Georgia, and conducted research in Russia and Estonia.

To immerse herself in Ukrainian for her doctoral dissertation, Erica studied the language in Kyiv. She planned to return a few years ago to draft a biography of the country’s first female composer, Stefania Turkevych, and even received funding from an American Council’s Grant and a Fulbright Grant.

She was forced to pivot plans, however, when the war broke out.

Instead, Erica received approval to travel to Poland and work with Ukrainian refugees, interviewing them about how music supported their efforts to create cohesive, diasporic communities outside their home country.

“It was a profoundly transformative experience—and one of those experiences where I just felt like the Lord had blessed me to be in certain places in my life so that I could be useful in this particular period of time,” Erica says.

Erica was fluent in Russian and Ukrainian and already knew a little Polish. Her education and language skills allowed her to help with a wide variety of tasks at the refugee centers, from translating for dentists and doctors to leading music sing-alongs.

One of the centers had a rickety upright piano, so Erica played Ukrainian folk songs to help bolster people’s spirits. “People would gather around me, and it was like an instant community formed,” she says.

Erica Glenn plays the piano at a refugee center in Poland while a group gathers around her.
Photograph by Sharlee Glenn

This sense of unity was even more remarkable considering the number of people who had been displaced. “At one refugee center, there were something like 5,000 people [in] a converted conference center,” Erica says. “They were packing in as many people as they could because there simply was not enough space in actual family placements.”

A Ukrainian Refugee Center in Poland
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A Ukrainian Refugee Center in Poland
Photograph by Sharlee Glenn
Rows of cots in a Ukrainian refugee center in Poland.
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A Ukrainian Refugee Center in Poland
Photograph by Sharlee Glenn
Erica Glenn leads a music class with children at a Ukrainian refugee center in Poland.
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A Ukrainian Refugee Center in Poland
Photograph courtesy of Erica Glenn
Erica Glenn with volunteers at a Ukrainian refugee center in Poland.
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A Ukrainian Refugee Center in Poland
Photograph courtesy of Erica Glenn
Erica Glenn with supplies at a Ukrainian refugee center in Poland.
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A Ukrainian Refugee Center in Poland
Photograph courtesy of Erica Glenn
Erica Glenn with volunteers at a Ukrainian refugee center in Poland.
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A Ukrainian Refugee Center in Poland
Photograph courtesy of Erica Glenn
Erica Glenn reads to children at a Ukrainian refugee center in Poland.
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A Ukrainian Refugee Center in Poland
Photograph by Sharlee Glenn
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A Ukrainian Refugee Center in Poland
Photograph by Sharlee Glenn
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Erica’s efforts also helped carve out new opportunities for the refugees. For example, one woman was a principal opera singer at the National Opera of Ukraine, arriving in Poland with only the clothes on her back, some documents, and her favorite sheet music. When the singer recognized Erica as a trained musician, she asked Erica to accompany her on Bach’s “Mein Gläubiges Herze.” A video of their performance circulated widely on Facebook, and within only three or four days, the singer received several offers for work and a place to stay.

“It was miraculous what music facilitated,” Erica says. “Even those who said that they had no connection to music prior to the war said that it became the thing that they clung to.”

Witnessing this connective power within the Ukrainian community reminded Erica of her own pioneer heritage and how early Latter-day Saints from many different nations relied on hymns to unite together and overcome physical, emotional, and spiritual trials.

“The revelation ‘If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing’ came in Winter Quarters during ostensibly one of the most difficult, awful periods for the early Saints,” Erica says. “There was real wisdom in that counsel from the Lord to come together, join voices in song, express faith, and form community. This allowed them to carry a sort of portable medicine with them that cost nothing and weighed nothing.”

Harmony in Diversity

Like the Ukrainian refugees and early Saints, members of the worldwide Church today rely on music to create unity and hope and express culture and identity.

“I’ve come to believe that music has a very real spiritual and social mission to fulfill, and it goes inward and radiates outward,” Erica says. She has especially come to appreciate this musical capacity through her current position as Director of Choral Activities and an Assistant Professor of Music at Brigham Young University–Hawaii.

“It wasn’t until I came to BYU–Hawaii that I found myself in a professional space where I felt like music could rise to its fullest potential amongst diverse people in ways that were not just musical,” Erica says. “It feels like I’m able to really leverage what I’ve learned in eastern Ukraine about the power of music.”

Erica Glenn conducts an ensemble at BYU–Hawaii.
Photograph by Brigham Busania

The university has students from over 70 countries, and Erica’s chamber choir of 40 students speaks 21 different languages. A recent survey showed that over half of the choir was born outside of the mainland United States, representing countries like Tonga, the Philippines, China, and Mongolia.

Her non-auditioned choir of 100 (the Seasider Singers) integrates students from around the globe, faculty members, and even senior missionaries.

As part of BYU–Hawaii’s mission to strengthen the global Church, the auditioned chamber choir has a strong intercultural peace-building focus. The choir’s name—the Hoʻolōkahi Chamber Choir—means “to bring about unity; to make peace and unity” in Hawaiian. Erica explains:

“We operate on this idea that harmony is possible not despite diversity but because of diversity. So, our tagline is ‘harmony in diversity.’ And truly, that’s what we find in this space.

“Our students are culture bearers. … They coach us in the music of their country, the proper performance style, the diction, and the language. We strive to perform as authentically as possible—both for our own learning and to do justice to music that means something deeply to an individual in our group.”

In a way, Erica feels that the choir acts as a microcosm of the global Church, demonstrating how music can help bridge cultural, geographic, and language divides by providing a vehicle through which all can express their faith in Christ and learn from each other.

The choir also actively engages with the community, organizing benefit concerts to support refugees and natural disaster relief efforts and connecting with local schools, communities, and congregations.

The Power of a Single Voice

No matter where Erica has lived or traveled, she has found a sense of home and belonging through her local wards and stakes. These congregations have been especially meaningful to her as a single woman in her 30s.

“It can be particularly difficult to be single in a religion that places such heavy emphasis on family,” Erica shared recently in a video for the Church. “Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that marriage is the only way to build community and develop Christlike qualities like selflessness and patience and charity. But our individual gifts and circumstances vary as widely as people themselves as we serve in the body of Christ.”

As Erica has focused on actively building communities wherever she goes, she feels closer to the Lord and has developed more confidence in her ability to make an impact. Her efforts to reach outward have led to meaningful friendships that she says have not only enriched her spiritual well-being but also blessed her professional life.

Erica acknowledges that reaching out to others may involve moving out of your comfort zone, but she has found greater peace and joy through actively seeking out relationships in every sphere. She says:

“Certainly, we should seek after romantic connections, but we should see relationships of all kinds as profoundly spiritual, edifying, and connecting. …

“In no way do I want to minimize the pain that can sometimes be felt when people feel like they fall outside the norm or aren’t fully embraced within a community, but I have found that pain tends to increase when we wait to be invited in, rather than communicating with the Lord and figuring out how we can serve, bless, and build.

“So rather than waiting for the community to become what we want it to be, we can actively take part in forming a Christlike community using the skills we’ve been given.”

Through her experience as a choral conductor and professor, Erica has a strong belief that the Lord has blessed each person on the Earth with unique gifts—whether that be something more evident like musical talents or less tangible skills like the ability to have empathy or think outside of the box.

“These gifts are real, and there’s always a way to employ them to build community,” Erica says. “There is so much joy to be had in building the Church, and the Lord wants us to be part of that process.”

Erica’s studies, research, and service around the world have given her a deep understanding of the power of one voice to contribute to a larger group. And when the Spirit is involved, the results can be nothing short of miraculous.

Erica Glenn conducts a choir.
Photograph courtesy of Erica Glenn

“Music is so infused with the Spirit that it hits you straight in the heart without encountering any barriers along the way,” Erica says. “And studies have shown, from a scientific perspective, that when singers breathe, it’s like a meditation because they’re inhaling and exhaling at the same rate, and hearts will literally begin to beat as one.”

One of Erica’s favorite lyrics from the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is “tune my heart to sing Thy grace.” After performing Mack Wilberg’s arrangement countless times in choirs as a vocalist, organist, and conductor, Erica says that she continues to be moved by the way the music underscores the words:

“This idea infuses the lyrics that unity is possible and that we can learn to speak the language of Christ through song. And we can do this collectively.

“Music can profoundly transform our hearts and bring us closer to Christ. That’s something that people experience when they sing this hymn.”

As we learn to unite our hearts in Christ through song, we find harmony in diversity, growing stronger in our ability to collectively do good in the world—not despite but because of our differences in categories like language, culture, age, or marital status.

To those who struggle to recognize their spiritual gifts or find belonging in the body of Christ, Erica recommends:

“Start within yourself and have it be a conversation between you and the Lord. Ask Him to help you find your strengths and your talents. … And then pray to know how you can utilize those things in service of your local and church communities—how can you be a contributor of light to the world.”

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