Music Monday: UT professor talks Saturday Night Live performance

Prisha Mehta, General Life & Arts Reporter

When Dr. Mallory McHenry isn’t on campus teaching harp lessons or leading the student harp ensemble, she’s performing across the country with the Jason Max Ferdinand Singers, a professional choral group.

On Feb. 4, McHenry found herself on stage harmonizing with English singer-songwriter Jacob Collier and Coldplay’s Chris Martin in front of thousands of Americans for a Saturday Night Live performance in New York.

The Jason Max Ferdinand Singers performed two songs, including Coldplay’s latest song “Astronaut” and a medley of the band’s songs, including “Human Heart” and “Fix You.” 

“(The performance) just felt surreal,” McHenry said. “Singing ‘Human Hearts’… being able to sing that close and really hear the people next to me. I had a moment when we were on stage and I was like, ‘This is really happening.’ I got a little emotional.” 

McHenry said the opportunity came as a surprise to the group at the end of January while on a retreat learning music in Maryland. 

“Our director got a call from Jacob Collier saying that Chris Martin from Coldplay was going to ask for a choral group to back them up,” McHenry said. “Our conductor broke the news to the group collectively. We were all super excited, and it was nice to have that moment together.”

McHenry said the group only had a few days to learn the music and perfect their performance before the Saturday evening show.

“We got the scores for all the music on Thursday, and then we went in on Friday and rehearsed it at NBC with Coldplay and Jacob Collier,” McHenry said. “Saturday was a full day at NBC leading up until Saturday Night Live that night.”

McHenry said the performance served as both a milestone for the ensemble and an important moment in SNL history. 

“Something that was really special about the performance was that there was a performer that was deaf. It was the first time that anybody had ever performed on SNL in American Sign Language,” McHenry said. “It was one of the first times a choir has been on SNL too.”

Most importantly, as a primarily African American group, McHenry said the group’s SNL performance gave them an opportunity to showcase Black excellence on a national scale. 

“The group is primarily constructed of African American artists,” McHenry said. “It’s important for us to be seen in that capacity. And it’s important for our voices to be heard that way as well.” 

Vincent Pierce, a UT doctoral student and a longtime friend of McHenry’s said he sees her contribution to the Jason Max Ferdinand Singers as invaluable.

“She’s a very multi-talented performer. She’s a highly skilled pianist, she can play the organ, the harp and she sings,” Pierce said. “Whether it’s with the Jason Max Ferdinand Singers or as a harpist, she’s bringing all her talents to the table. She’s showing younger Black musicians what they can accomplish.”

Through her work within and beyond UT, McHenry said she hopes she can continue to inspire other musicians to create their own art. 

“I want people to be able to tell their own stories,” McHenry said. “If they’re inspired by the things that I can bring to them and able to go and create something beautiful for themselves … that’s what matters.”