New Year’s Day 2019 was one that shook Millikin’s School of Music forever. Dr. Steven Widenhofer, or Doc, as students called him, passed away.
For years under his direction, Doc took OneVoice and vocal jazz to new heights. Its impact reverberates at Millikin, but throughout the world as well. They commanded the stage at conferences and at vocal jazz performances around campus. Two years ago, they took Chile by storm. They were ready to share their music: a repertoire filled with harmonic honey voices.
With Doc gone, a position opened up, but it wasn’t one that just anyone could take. This person couldn’t replace him, but he would need to have energy to keep OneVoice’s standards at an all-time high. They would need to have someone who had an iota of Doc’s passion.
Then, a Californian professor strolled through the door. His name was Dr. Benjamin Hawkinson.
Dr. Hawkinson saw OneVoice perform at the American Choral Directors Conference in Oklahoma City. It was the first time he heard them, and their sound blew him away.
“When I heard [OneVoice], I knew it was something special, really something formative,” Hawkinson said. “I knew working with them would be the ultimate dream come true.”
Ten years later, Dr. Hawkinson was looking for a change from teaching in LA. He saw there was an opening for a job at Millikin, and he swooped in to take that opportunity with no hesitation. The staff and students’ welcoming attitude impressed him. He felt confident that he could call Millikin “home.” He even embraced a new nickname the students gave him: Doc Hawk.
Doc Hawk strives to bring the best musicianship out of every singer that comes to OneVoice. He came with a keen ear. When the group sounds good, his eyebrows crinkle and his ears go crazy about how great the sound is. It’s a quirk that hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially with OneVoice pianist Andy Rauff.
“[Doc Hawk] has a lot of knowledge of the scientific way music works,” Rauff said. “He understands and knows how to make the minute adjustments on what he wants for certain pieces.”
For some, the difference between Doc and Doc Hawk is obvious. Doc had degrees in jazz studies and conducted OneVoice as he played for them on the piano. Doc taught with an instrumentalist’s ear and shaped a student’s sound as if they were the saxophone or trumpet or bass violin. Doc Hawk doesn’t have any of that.
What Doc Hawk does have is youthful energy, giving OneVoice a new perspective on how they could shape their sound.
When students solo, Doc Hawk gives pointers that help them sound better. When rehearsing “Brazillia,” he advised bassist Jaylen Davis to hold the mic close to his nose. That way, it would give more resonance to the bass sound.
An important goal for Doc Hawk is to find “the money sound.” During one rehearsal, he got everyone to plug their nose in. The goal is to not sound nasal when they sing with their nose plugged in. When the group finds that perfect sound, they get excited, and he lights up.
At times, Doc Hawk will express his frustration when the group isn’t giving their all. In response, he says, “Do it again, but do it better.”
Together, they pursue greatness and rebuild the powerhouse OneVoice has always been. But first, Doc Hawk would need to find those students who would be willing to help him achieve his dream.
The Many Voices of OneVoice
As the semester begins, Millikin students audition for various ensembles. For some students, it’s a nerve-wracking experience. For senior commercial music major Bekah Ford, it’s not nerve-wracking as much as it is bittersweet.
Ford has been a part of OneVoice for three years and is the oldest vocal member in the ensemble. She had first heard of the group through a family friend, and soon after that, she fell in love. It was a love that only grew when she met Doc. She had worked with him for two of those three years. She found him quite knowledgeable and good at explaining his vision for students. She always remembers him, especially when she reminisces about the 2017 trip to Chile.
As she worked with Doc, Ford also served as the group’s liaison, the main line of communication. When Doc took ill last year, she took it upon herself to make sure everyone was on the same page. Even now, she takes charge of OneVoice’s social media, posting updated headshots of the group.
Having Doc Hawk in the equation provides an interesting challenge for Ford. Doc had jazz composition and jazz studies under his belt. Doc Hawk is more proficient in the jazz experience, such as soloing and performing. Ford finds Doc Hawk’s approach to be intriguing. But she still worries about the group ever finding their sound again.
“Right now, I’m concentrating really hard on listening to other people and making sure I’m immersing myself in this group’s sound and not last year’s or the year before, and letting myself be open to a new experience,” Ford said.
For some days, the strain of all she does for the group gets to be too much to take in at once. Yet, when it gets to be especially straining, Ford finds it easy to take it one day at a time. In fact, after a good day’s work in rehearsal, she feels better than when she first comes in the door.
“It’s cool to get that new perspective on what our sound is like and how we could change,” Ford said. “Although things are really hard, [OneVoice] is still here, and something like this doesn’t just go away.”
Junior commercial music major Aly Gabriel knows that sentiment all too well.
Gabriel never heard of OneVoice until she got to Millikin. She auditioned for BluBop, and she figured singing vocal jazz would be fun. From there, she got to know Doc.
Though she only got to work with him for less than a year in OneVoice, Doc was her academic advisor. She got to know him on a more personal level. She thought him to be extremely talented, especially when playing the piano. She also found Doc personable and open about himself to others.
“[Doc] was one of those jazz cats who was serious at one point, but he could crack a joke at any time,” Gabriel said. “It was very fun and uplifting to work with him.”
Like Bekah Ford, Gabriel was a part of OneVoice last year. When she looks at Bekah in performing, bittersweet memories of what was flood in her brain. It serves as a reminder that there will always be a part of the old group that will stay with her for the rest of the year.
“I made some of the closest and best relationships I’ve ever made in my life last year,” Gabriel said. “We bonded so much over the music, not even for each other, but over what we were producing, and I live for that, so I’m excited to do that again.”
Gabriel also feels excitement and happiness with the new members. She thinks Doc Hawk brings new energy to the group and gives excitement to what he does for it.
“I don’t know what’s gonna happen with the group, but I’m still excited to find out what it’s going to be,” Gabriel said. “I feel like a small piece of a large puzzle that would hopefully continue to grow.”
For people like sophomore music BA major Jalen Eskridge, OneVoice opened a door to a new world.
Eskridge sang with BluBop during his freshman year. He especially appreciated the experience under Brenna Pfeifer’s direction. He not only appreciated her as a musical director, but as a person as well. In fact, he loved his experience so much that he insisted that he stay there.
Near the middle of the fall semester, he started to develop what he thought was strep. Over time, it got worse until one night, his family drove him to the ER, where they diagnosed him with whooping cough. He had to take the rest of the year off to recuperate. In that time, he missed singing in choir as well as any type of schooling at Millikin.
This year, he began to catch up. He auditioned for and got accepted into OneVoice. Although he didn’t get to know Doc super well, he has respect for what he did for the group. He also found himself appreciating Doc Hawk’s direction for the group.
“What Dr. Hawkinson brings to the table, what he does for our sound, just feels different than what I learned in BluBop,” Eskridge said. “It feels like I’m actually bringing in all the instruments—the trumpets, the guitar—through my voice into the piece.”
Holly Bender and Madelyn Alvarado, fellow BluBop alums, also got in. They are part of a OneVoice that only has two members that sang in the ensemble for more than a year. Eskridge hopes they find time to grow close to each other as friends.
“It’s only been a semester, but I do see the potential of us becoming closer, like a family,” Eskridge said.
Senior Andy DeLeon can aspire to that goal. In high school, his choir director, Jason Hawkins, involved himself in vocal jazz. He hyped up OneVoice for DeLeon. He wanted to get involved with the group, but he had always been nervous to audition.
When he got to Millikin, DeLeon decided to sing with Tudor Voices instead. He stayed with the group for the past three years of his college career. When Dr. Guy Forbes retired, that singing ensemble dissolved. That got DeLeon thinking of trying out for OneVoice.
“I told myself, ‘Well, if I’m not gonna do [Tudor Voices], then I thought I’m gonna hike up my shorts and audition for OneVoice,’” DeLeon said.
DeLeon’s journey in OneVoice molded into something special when he got accepted. At the start, his goal had been trying to find how he fits in the puzzle. As rehearsals continue, it has been easier and a lot more fun for him.
“It’s fun getting to work with a group of people that all have the same goal of wanting to do really well,” DeLeon said. “We do have a legacy to uphold, and I think we’re all looking at that like knowing what OneVoice was and seeing what we could do with it.”
What’s Next for OneVoice?
Collage 2019 should have went without a hitch. They went over their then-short repertoire “Moondance” and “Brazillia” without much problems. But that night, Aly Gabriel noticed that her mic wasn’t up to par with everyone else’s. When she walked up to sing her “Brazillia” solo, to her and everyone else’s horror, the mic wasn’t working. Doc Hawk motioned for Rachel Diaz and Gabriel to switch mics. That saved the rest of the performance.
To have a director that quick to think on his feet, it says something about OneVoice’s prospects. While it isn’t what it once was, it’s not something completely different, either. It still has the stride to make good music for Millikin and the world at large. It’s a cred at Millikin’s community, as sophomore Madelyn Alvarado would attest.
“[OneVoice]’s a staple of the music department at Millikin,” Alvarado said. “It’s a dream I’ve hoped for a long time, and I still can’t believe I made it.”
“This group’s presence is huge not only in Millikin but around the world as well,” sophomore Rachel Diaz said. “That weight is on our shoulders to live up to the expectation of giving a quality performance.”
“It’s so surreal to be here. I’ve been wanting to do something like this since I was thirteen, and I was hyped for singing in this group since high school,” freshman Bailey Banks said.
“I really like Doc Hawk. To have that much on your plate, I don’t know how he does it, but he does it, and does it well,” freshman Nick Benjamin said. “Now [OneVoice] is my favorite part of the week, probably the thing I like most about being here.”
“I didn’t have to be [in OneVoice] because I’m a musical theatre major, but I’m here because I love it!” sophomore Holly Bender said. “I mean, it’s so hard because you don’t know what you’re going to get, and I think we got lucky with [Doc Hawk].”
“[OneVoice] performed vocal jazz to a level that I had never heard before, and they just blew my mind away,” sophomore Tobi Osibodu said. “It feels like [Doc Hawk] is one of us students, even though he’s our director, and he’s more knowledgeable than the rest of us.”
“There are so many different generations of people that sung in the group, and it means so many things to so many different people,” Jaylen Davis said. “Being a part of that has to be the most important thing for me. It’s really special.”
And what would Doc think of all this? If he were still alive today, would he enjoy the group’s sound? What do we know for sure? Senior Bekah Ford may have an idea.
“I think he would be proud of those continuing in the group and would be supportive of those who have come in, especially Dr. Hawkinson,” Bekah Ford said. “Doc would have his own opinions, but I’d love to think he would be excited for the group to continue in a new way.”