On directing an Honor Choir

Posted on January 12, 2011


Musically speaking, last week was a big week for me. On Tuesday, I was asked by Maestro Duain Wolfe to lead a sectional for the women of the Colorado Symphony Chorus on the Mozart Requiem while he was out of town, but even better than that was last Friday when I got to cross something off my music career Bucket List. Last Friday, I got to direct the All-Jefferson County Middle School Honor Choir. I have always dreamed of directing an Honor Choir, and by the time the experience was over, I felt a lot like Peter Gibbons must have been feeling after he achieved his “dream of doing nothing” in the movie Office Space. In a sentence,It was everything that I thought it could be.”

When I was contacted about whether or not I’d be interested in doing the Honor Choir, I tried to play it cool when I said yes, but inside I was as giddy as a school girl. I remember like it was yesterday how important my high school honor choir experiences were at the regional and all-state levels in influencing me to choose music as a career, and I felt like if I could “pay forward” to those kids even half of the inspirational and educational experience that my honor choir directors gave me, I will have succeeded.

After my experience in October working under conductor Alexander Polianichko with the Colorado Symphony Chorus, I was determined to bring as much heart as I possibly could to the Honor Choir Experience. Honor Choir is certainly about trying to push the kids as far as you can musically and technically, but in my opinion, it’s also so much bigger than that. It’s about taking kids who already love to sing and trying to convince them to love it even more; about helping kids who are frustrated or disenchanted with their choir experience at school (sometimes for valid reasons, other times for lame, middle-schooler reasons) by giving them a much-needed musical shot in the arm, and about kids who are outcasts at their schools (and sometimes even within their own choirs) getting the opportunity to meet other “outcasts” and breathing a collective sigh of joyful relief together when they realize that they aren’t as alone in the world as they had once feared they might be.

It’s also about challenging talented, well-trained kids to give more emotionally to music than it ever occurred to them to give before. For example, we were working on an arrangement of the famous Robert Burns poem “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” and during rehearsal, I felt as if the kids didn’t really like the piece. They had no connection to it, and it was obvious. In one of our last rehearsals, I had those Colorado kids change the word “Highlands” to “Rockies” each time it came up. That one word changed everything. They imagined moving to Kansas or Iowa and being away from their beloved Rockies, and suddenly, they got what Burns was expressing in the poem, and they channeled that into their performance. Just like that, they fell in love with a piece of music that they never thought they’d like in a million years.

The only thing that frustrated me about the experience was seeing how many incredible kids there were that clearly loved what they were doing, shined on the stage like our “Chorale kids” do and probably would have loved doing something like the CCC, but for whatever reason those kids and their families didn’t know about the Chorale when they were little and could have auditioned. Or maybe they knew about it but had preconceived ideas about what Chorale would be like that were negative, so they chose not to audition. Or maybe they assumed Chorale would be too expensive, not knowing that we award over $70,000 a year in financial aid to our performers based on need. Kids missing out on auditioning for something like the CCC for those kinds of reasons just drives me CRAZY. I know that it’s unrealistic and impossible to expect that we as an organization can make every child in Denver aware of the Chorale and what we do, but working with these awesome kids last week made me wish that I could be like Ron Burgundy and “shout it from on top of a MOUNTAIN” for every kid to hear that our organization is here if you love to sing and perform, and that singing with us or with a similar kind of performing ensemble might be something that could enhance not only their childhood, but possibly their entire life. Such is the power of music.

As Jefferson County Music Curriculum Coordinator Doug Dalton made some final announcements to the audience before our last song, he told them, “You can always tell when a choir really likes their director.” And before he could continue his “thank you” to me for working with the kids, the kids broke decorum on stage and responded with a roaring cheer that caught me by surprise. They kept cheering even after the concert was done, too. I guess I didn’t know what to do while they continued to cheer, so my instincts told me to do something unusual: with the utmost sincerity, I took both my hands, pressed them to my lips and blew them a kiss. I suprised myself by doing that (and probably surprised them too), but you know what? A lot of them blew kisses back. To be sure, some of them were sarcastic, middle school “too-cool” kisses, but anyone with half of a heart could look into the eyes of those kids and see that most of them really and truly meant it (even some boys). It was a beautiful ending to a beautiful day.

As we said our good-byes, some kids had tears in their eyes. One girl told her teacher that she wasn’t ready for it to end. I absolutely felt the same. The whole experience was very special, and I hope for the opportunity to work with another Honor Choir again soon. It’s possible that I’ve never felt more “in my element” as a musician than I did on Friday (Sir Ken Robinson would have been proud). You see, in real life, unless I really know you, I can be a pretty quiet person (and even if I do know you, I still can be kinda quiet sometimes). Heck, when I was in Kindergarten, I got in trouble for talking during class once and my teacher called my mom to tell her that she was excited that I not only did something I wasn’t supposed to but that I was actually talking. But put that same painfully shy kid on a podium as an adult in front of 100 kids that he doesn’t know for a day, and he comes to life in ways that even his closest friends and family have probably never seen before. I guess you could say it’s where he was born to be.

Such is the power of music.

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This Sunday and every day next week, I hope you’ll come back to An Authentic Cadence as I share retroactive journal entries from each day of my trip to Mexico over the holidays to Casa de la Esperanza, a home for orphans and abused children in southern Chihuahua state. That trip has changed me forever, and I want to tell the world why. It would truly mean a lot to me if you would come back to hear what’s been on my heart lately. Why? Because life is about so much more than classical music.

Until Sunday, you stay classy Planet Earth.

Posted in: Music