A "Living" Room: Spivey Hall looks to inspire, draw in students
(May 23, 2023) - A Clayton State University student is singing her heart out, pouring her very soul into one of her final performances of the semester.
Her booming, melodic voice soon carries well beyond the stage and envelops the lobby at Spivey Hall, capturing the attention of veteran musician Mary Miller.
She smiles in a mix of pride and nostalgia and takes it all in as she walks through the halls of, what she calls, the “Carnegie Hall of the South.”
“I’ve been on that stage as a performer and I’ve been in the audience – it’s amazing,” said Miller, the interim manager of the Spivey Hall Children’s Choir.
A capella, brass performances, jazz bands – Spivey Hall is the epicenter of all classical music for Clayton State University, the surrounding community and, arguably, all of Georgia.
The venue’s acoustics have been boasted to be so good that you can hear the residual echo of a pin drop from the very back of the 400-seat venue.
Some of the world’s most famous musicians even travel to play here regularly from New York City, London, Berlin and more.
And for Clayton State students, little do many know, it’s located right on campus in Morrow just a stone’s throw away from both the Athletics Center and University Center.
“It’s amazing how many students don’t realize that Spivey Hall is here,” Miller said. “It’s amazing how many impromptu tours [happen].”
Following her tours, Miller said that, generally, most students are left in “amazement,” as if the building had simply eluded them up to that point during their time on campus. Even after all her years involved in music, she is still left in amazement too right alongside them as she shows off the 32-year-old building.
“It’s a large enough hall that you don’t feel claustrophobic,” Miller said. “It was built for soloists and small ensembles. You can hear everything – the sound is just crystal clear.”
As mentioned, Spivey Hall was built as a more intimate venue.
Regarding its location, while one may wonder why it wasn’t built in Atlanta, that was never the goal for Emilie and Walter Spivey – the namesake couple who called Clayton County home.
Spivey Hall Executive & Artistic Director Katherine Lehman said that the venue opened in 1991 and that the Spiveys poured their hearts into it.
“Walter was a developer, Emilie was an amateur musician – a very fine organist,” Lehman said. “So, they decided they wanted to build a hall that would feel like [their] living room. People would feel welcomed, it would be a gracious space, and it would host the best artists on the planet.”
But unfortunately, the couple never got to see their music hall open.
“Sadly, neither Walter nor Emilie lived to see the completion of it,” Lehman said. “They both died a couple of years before it was completed. But many of their friends, colleagues and community were there. We still have the silver shovel on the wall from breaking ground.”
In addition to creating a venue that felt like their living room, the Spiveys were very clear on who they wanted to play in it. Spivey Hall would play host to some of the world’s greatest musicians, both national and international, right here in rural Clayton County.
“The opening of the concert hall had Itzhak Pearlman; world-class artists were there,” Lehman said. “So, it’s been a prestigious venue from the very start.”
However, it was never meant to be a building that gave off a brooding sense of superiority.
Lehman says the Spiveys always wanted it to work side-by-side with the university, its faculty and its students.
“From the very beginning, it was built as a collaborative project as a gift to Clayton State,” Lehman said. “So, it’s never been in anyone else’s hands. Emilie drove around campus with the president at that point and said, ‘That place is where I want this building to be built.’ They said, ‘Well, that can’t happen. There’s no road over there.’ And she said, ‘Well, then build a road.’ So, they did.”
While a physical road was eventually built to house the venue on Clayton State’s campus, the actual building has paved the road for thousands of Lakers since its opening.
Dr. Terrence Johnson, Chair of Clayton State’s Visual and Performing Arts, says that Spivey Hall serves as the performance venue for students majoring in music at Clayton State or performing in ensembles on campus.
“Where other colleges that have music programs have a performance venue, what’s different for us is that Spivey Hall is one of the world’s finest performance halls with a professional staff,” Johnson said. “So, our students and faculty quickly take for granted that we have a professional backstage operation, publicity operation and ticketing operation, [as well as] a spectacularly great acoustic in which to perform. Of course, that serves our music program extremely well.”
Furthermore, Johnson also says the venue, itself – the room in which Clayton State music students perform – “is the biggest expression” of the instruments they play.
“You can create this beautiful sound with your voice, violin or trumpet, and play in a dead acoustic space … no one can appreciate the hard work you’ve put in because the room has absorbed the sound,” Johnson said. “Spivey Hall, it’s not just a matter of reverberation or echo, but a much more complex palate of tone and colors. The greatest musicians in the world have played there, know about it, and remember it fondly.”
And those musicians, in addition to the professors and faculty that students have for classes and recitals, can also serve as teachers while spending their time at the venue.
Johnson says some of the musicians that Clayton State music students have access to are those who perform globally and could potentially charge up to five or six digits to sing in an opera or play a recital at some of the world’s greatest opera houses.
But the venue’s reputation is known worldwide … and they love to keep coming back.
“When I go out and speak to high school students about coming here to major in music or participate in music ensembles, I say to them, ‘It’s possible to go the rest of your life without ever hearing classical music – I realize that,” Johnson said. “But if you’re serious about music and you want to be the best musician you can be, one of the things you want to do is hear the current best musicians and use them as role models. There’s no other college you can choose where you will have a better chance to do that then here.”
But for many at Clayton State, their music education begins well before they’re in college.
Just like the venue, itself, the Spivey Hall Children’s Choir is nationally recognized as one of the greatest young bodies of music both in and out of the country.
For Johnson, the actions of those in the children’s choir leaves a clear impact not just on the community at Clayton State, but also in further communities both state and nationwide.
“You see in their faces that this isn’t about executing music correctly,” Johnson said. “This is about an expression of who they are and who their inner-most person is.”
In addition to his role at Clayton State University, Johnson additionally serves as a national officer in the American Choral Directors’ Association and is in his final term.
The association, he says, holds “giant” national conferences every two years and that the ensuing competition for the opportunity to sing for thousands of choral directors is “fierce.”
Johnson recently was responsible for one of the key events at the most recent conference and invited Martha Shaw, the founder of the children’s choir, to bring the Spivey Hall Children’s Choir to sing. Being a composer, he also wrote them a piece to perform.
Following the performance, he said the choir “just knocked the ball so far over the fence,” calling it “unbelievably beautiful” and “touching.”
“These children, because of Spivey Hall Children’s Choir, can express their deepest thoughts and feelings, their most profound realizations about the world around them and never speak,” Johnson said. “That’s what singing in Spivey Hall Children’s Choir means.”
Just like the children in the choir, Clayton State is looking to grow, as well.
University President, Dr. Georj Lewis, has been hard at work pushing for greater student enrollment efforts as Clayton State looks to advance its student body in the years to come.
Johnson is a firm believer that Spivey Hall can serve as a catalyst to draw in hungry, young talent to the university.
With people from seven states on the mailing list for the venue, Johnson says the university offers great perks for music students, such as an out-of-state state tuition waiver, a fully accredited music program at Spivey Hall, the world-renowned children’s choir, and more.
“We’re not one of the big music programs in the USG,” Johnson said. “We’re what I call a ‘boutique’ music program. We’re fully accredited and have outstanding faculty whose credentials are the equivalent of any music faculty member in the state of Georgia. When we’re recruiting, what we say to them is, ‘While Clayton State may not be that school that just rings your bell, there is no other school in Georgia that has Spivey Hall. And guess what? It’s at the end of the hall and it’s free. All you have to do is go and hear the world’s greatest musicians.’”
Lehman also shares Johnson’s optimism about the globally beloved music hall, saying the spirit of its founders still lives on through the music performed inside.
As the years roll on, she hopes to see even more students find their way to the Spivey’s glorified living room and call it home for themselves … just as Walter and Emilie once did.
“I think Spivey Hall honors our students,” Lehman said. “By making it open, accessible and usable, we say to our students [that] this beautiful space that great musicians around the world love to come to … you are worthy of this space. You are worthy of being on our stage. This space is for you and it is our job to make this part of your learning, your growing and your development as a human being. This space is for you.”