Choral Celebrity

Alum Ernest Harrison talks viral video, life at and after Mizzou

GMCLA in black tuxes on stage at the awards show.
Photo by Tommaso Boddi, Getty Images.

By Ryan Gavin

In a now-viral video from the Film Independent Spirit Awards on Feb. 8, the Gay Men’s Choir of Los Angeles pays tribute to LGBTQ moments in film. Or maybe they were better described as “the gayest moments in film you may not have realized were gay.” With over five million views across platforms, the clip has taken on a life of its own.

Headshot of Ernest Harrison in a black suit with a white shirt and red tie.

Leading the chorus in the video is Conductor and Music Director Ernest Harrison, who received his master’s in choral conducting from Mizzou in 2016. Since graduating, Harrison is pursuing a doctoral degree in choral conducting from the University of Southern California; works as a professor of voice and conducting at USC; leads multiple choirs; and has been selected as a member of the internationally renowned ensemble Conspirare.

We caught up with the Tuskegee, Alabama, native to see where life has taken this #MizzouMade leader.

How were you and the choir brought in to this project?

Our executive director was contacted by the producer of the Spirit Awards, who wanted to shine a light on the LGBT community through film and be a little campy with it. They had the lyrics but had to find a composer. Greg O’Connor, who’s an Emmy winner, got with the lyricist, and I got the call when I was in in Missouri [two weeks ago]. It was a very quick turnaround.

What was the choir’s reaction when they found out that they would be performing?

They were very excited to be a part of it. Living where we live, being in the atmosphere of Hollywood, it’s awesome when you get the chance to actually participate in it all. GMCLA was invited in 2012 to perform at the Oscars, so this was the first one for me. It was an opportunity we leaped at, but the workload was significant. We were really concerned with getting the text right to make sure people got the message. Once the first laugh landed, we started to enjoy it.

Could you tell during the performance that this was provoking such a great reaction with the audience?

The neat thing with the Spirit Awards is that everybody was laid back and talking to people. The celebrities were engaging with us and having a great time. With a host like Aubrey Plaza, she set the stage perfectly for us. But I didn’t think past the award show, honestly. To me, it was ‘We get to be on TV and that’s going to be fun!’

Video from the performance courtesy IFC.

When did you know this was something bigger than the award show?

It wasn’t until Sunday morning when I was in church and my phone would not stop going off. One of the members was posting the places the articles were showing up. The titles were all different, so I knew it wasn’t just the same thing getting posted in different places. I was thinking ‘People are really looking at us. This is something significant!’ When I got to the office [Monday] morning, they mentions kept coming in. We’re now getting international feedback in French and Spanish and Italian, so it’s going all over the world.

Is it surreal seeing yourself and your choir get so much attention and even appear in memes now?

It’s a mixed feeling. It’s not surreal in that GMCLA has a 40-year legacy, and I knew of them even well before I moved to Los Angeles. It was most definitely surreal to see my face and my name involved in any of this. In my mind, I’m just the guy to make sure it’s all running smoothly. One of the things I learned from Dr. Paul Crabb at Mizzou is that we’re a part of the ensemble; I’m not separate. But yeah, when the Buzzfeed article came in, and I saw my head in that, that caught me off guard.

Take us back to your time at Mizzou. What were some of your favorite things in CoMo and at the university?

Whenever I go to Columbia, I never say, ‘I’m going back to Mizzou.’ I say I’m going home. It’s hard to distinguish what my favorites were because my time there was so life-altering. So many experiences occurred while I was home. I came of age and grew there. Some of the concerts had such significant impact on my life.

I got to work with so many different ensembles at Mizzou and in the city. Don’t discount smaller towns because Columbia is overflowing with musical talent. It’s amazing the amount of music in that town. Asking what my favorites were is like asking someone ‘What’s your favorite part of being home?’ It’s being home with people who love and support you.

So after Columbia, what has life been like for you since moving to LA?

When I started my academic music career with my second bachelor’s at Auburn, I knew I was going to go straight through to my doctorate. In my third semester at Mizzou, I talked to Dr. Crabb about possible places to go, and USC was the first place he mentioned. I auditioned, got a TA job, taught right away and things kept growing.

I’m very much a people-person, and what I’ve learned is that people are pretty much the same anywhere. I don’t necessarily seek out like-minded people, but I do look for people who care about others, who take the time to have conversations and build relationships. No matter where I am, that’s the thing that makes me feel at home. It helped make the transition easy. Things like traffic, you know about that before coming out. I have an aunt and uncle here, so I basically already knew what it was. I’m doing what I love, so what am I going to complain about?

Photo of five conductors from the Unity benefit concert.
Harrison (second from right) with fellow Mizzou alumni and conductors at the Fifth-Annual Unity Benefit Concert: Nathan Fratzke, Harry Cecil, LaMont Walker, Emily Edgington Andrews and Jordan Walker. Photo by Ryan Gavin.

You’ve been back to Columbia a few times to sing as a soloist with Choral Union and conduct in concerts like Unity. What has it been like to be on the other side of things?

It has been so rewarding. I cannot tell you how good it felt to be back home performing with Choral Union. To sit in front of the choir right next to Dr. Crabb, who I grew up making music with. Now I was singing from a different position because I used to be the TA in the back making sure everything was running OK. It was great to experience a different role and different function in the same atmosphere where I grew up.

Most days I try to keep my head down and do the work but also live in the moment and enjoy each thing. If I stop to say, ‘I’ve made it’ — I don’t ever want to lose the humility. I went to Illinois to clinic some choirs at Blackhawk College, and the [director of choral activities] there was reading my credentials and résumé. I just said, ‘Y’all need to know I’m just a guy who wants to make music and help you.’ I’ve gone from Auburn to Mizzou to USC with world-renowned professors. They bring in guest artists, and I would sit in wonder as they read off their accomplishments. To me, it made them unapproachable and unable to ask the questions because they were made to be these huge figures and I don’t really want to be that. Glory to God if I do make it. But please come ask me questions, please come ask advice, please come learn. I want people to know they can come up and talk to me because if I’m not reaching people, I’m not doing my job. I just want to help.

Do you have advice for people who want to follow in your footsteps?

One word of advice from my father and one from me. My father always said, ‘If there’s something you want to do, find someone and talk to them. It’s just that simple.’ For me, I tell people it’s never too late to pursue your dream. You have to be honest about two things: What are your goals, and how are you going to get there? Dream as big as you want, write all those things down and be real with how you can develop a path there.

You can follow Harrison and the GMCLA on Instagram and YouTube.