“Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.”
Attributed to Albert Einstein, that quote serves as the email signature of outgoing One Voice Chorus (OVC) artistic director Gerald Gurss — a man who clearly strives to be one of the few. Gurss, born and raised in ultra-conservative small-town Kansas, has traveled the U.S. bringing the power of music, and LGBTQ community activism, to a number of perhaps surprising locales. Having graduated with a bachelor’s degree in voice in his home state, he went on to earn a master’s degree from Ohio’s Miami University, again studying voice, with an emphasis on choral music.
In addition to vocal performance, Gurss embraced his talents for both composition and education. He’s led a music program at Leavenworth Catholic Schools and written for choruses from New Jersey to California, all the while growing more confident in his identity, his values and his unique humanity. Now, as he prepares to depart the Queen City, Gurss reflects on what’s made him who he is, and what he’ll pursue in this next stage of his life and career.
When did you discover your passion for music?
I was in middle school. I only sang in the choir because my friends were in it, but I really wanted to play the sax. I thought Lisa Simpson was so cool (I mean, she is though, right?).
Was there ever a time when you considered a different path?
There was this time Hawthorne was closed so I took Central Ave all the way around…oh, yes. Music is a tough career — one which few people have the honor of doing full-time. When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be a veterinarian for the Topeka Zoo. Then, I realized I’d have to work on animals besides the cute furry ones, like snakes, so I decided a discriminating veterinarian wouldn’t be very cool.
What’s been the most rewarding or memorable part of your tenure with One Voice Chorus?
Getting to create beauty in the lives of people. Every so often, I get those private Facebook messages thanking me for bringing music back into people’s lives, or those even more serious messages telling me that One Voice has “saved me from self-destruction.” In those moments, my gut wells up, my eyes water, and I realize that we all have so much power to be heroes. But, as we found out in the first “Incredibles” movie, “No capes!”
If you had the chance, is there anything you would do differently?
I would have learned to love myself at an earlier age. There’s a huge difference between ego and truly knowing how valuable you are as a unique, worthy, human being.
What do you enjoy most about living in Charlotte?
Besides the amazing group of friends I’m lucky to call my family, I’d have to say it’s a tie between the amazing breweries and the geographic placement between the beach and the mountains. You didn’t ask me what I like least, so I’ll tell you anyway: the insane amount of expensive apartment buildings popping up like acne on a teenager. Also, the insane amount of traffic that comes with the city’s growth. Traffic is considerably more chaotic than it was in 2008.
You’ve also spent time in Kansas and Miami University in Ohio. Is there anything about those places that you miss?
Many people think that Kansas is flat, and that tornadoes come through, pick up cows and toss them through the air along with hags on bicycles. While this is mostly true, Kansas has a stretch of rolling countryside resembling an English tableau. It’s called the Flint Hills. In the Cincinnati area, I miss the stunning architecture of the old brick homes and commercial buildings.
How did you come to combine music with involvement in the LGBTQ community?
In my junior year of college, I lived in Emporia, Kansas. Remember the cows and flat land? Keep thinking of that. I was a good 1-2 hours away from a real city. My neighbor sang in the Heartland Men’s Chorus in Kansas City (a good two-hour drive away). I started riding with him up to sing with that group every Tuesday. It was a gay men’s chorus. Emporia didn’t really offer any role models of adult, out, gay men. On those Tuesday nights, I got to experience about 150 different ideas of what it meant to be a gay man. At a time when I was battling religious brainwashing (thank you, Southern Baptist Church), that chorus became more of a mental health refuge than an arts organization. During that time, I knew I wanted to be able to give that back to the world.
Aside from your work with One Voice Chorus and Midlands Men’s Chorus, are you involved in either the LGBTQ community or the wider local scene?
I’d say yes. When I moved to Charlotte, I took a very part-time position with One Voice and needed to supplement that, so I bartended at the Charlotte Eagle (a community staple I dearly miss. Now that space is Argon). When the Eagle closed, I bartended at Bar 316. Besides slinging drinks (which was really fun), I compose music for many LGBTQ choruses across the U.S., including Turtle Creek Chorale and the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus, to name a couple. Aside from that, OVC has partnered with numerous LGBTQ community partners in the Carolinas.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
Yes, but rather than grabbing the picket sign and marching, I change hearts and minds one song at a time.
If you could have an extra three hours every day, what would you do with the time?
I would love to volunteer at the Humane Society or another no-kill shelter. I’d probably still be in bed by 8:30 or 9 p.m., and still get up around 4 or 5 a.m.
When there’s a project or task you’re dreading, do you put it off or tackle it right away?
I usually tackle it right away, but make small, manageable goals. When I was a kid, I had a crazy mother who would not let my brother and I watch a lot of TV or listen to mainstream radio, so on long car trips, we’d get to listen to Christian adventure stories for kids: “Captain Patch,” the soul-saving pirate! Of course, there were silly songs that were included. I remember one of the songs talking about this very topic, and I still sing the lyrics to this day when faced with a large task that I’d rather avoid: “Little by little, step by step. By the yard it’s hard, by the inch, what a cinch! Never stare at the stairs, just step up the steps! little by little, inch by inch…it’s a cinch!” (Yes, I’m a dork.)
Do you have any creative outlets or hobbies outside of music?
I love to read poetry. I can spend hours in a bookstore reading poetry books. I also love my gym time.
Do you remember the first time you ever performed?
Oh, wow. Yes. It was first grade — some ridiculous kids’ musical about a farm. My friend Kelly and I were pigs.
In the course of your music education, has there been a teacher or mentor who particularly inspired you?
The two biggest influences were Dr. Terry Barham at Emporia State University and Ethan Sperry at Miami University. More recently, Dr. Kristen Wunderlich and Janet Hopkins have been voice teachers whose love and knowledge really inspire me to be more like them.
As an artist, you’ve doubtless faced judgment, positive or negative, on work that felt deeply personal to you. How do you handle that feedback?
The hardest part of being an artist is facing criticism. The best thing you can do is believe in yourself, yet evaluate yourself. Also, surround yourself with positive people who will both pull you off the ground, but also let you know when you’re in the wrong.
You have extensive experience as a composer as well as a performer and educator. Are you working on any new pieces right now?
I am. ‘m working on two new works. One is a Lady Gaga mash-up for a show choir in West Virginia, and the other is a larger work for TTBB chorus, piano and string quartet, which commemorates World AIDS Day.
What do you hope to see from One Voice Chorus now that you’re moving on?
I know OVC will continue to bring positive change to the Carolinas through the lens of artistic excellence. Some of the best people in Charlotte sing in that chorus, and their power in song will continue to be a force in Charlotte and the larger LGBTQ chorus community.
And finally, what’s next for you?
I will be moving to the Twin Cities area to take on the role of artistic director for the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus.