What do two public schools, a private school and an Episcopal cathedral all have in common? The answer is vibrant vocal programs whose passionate leaders are taking them remarkable places. Dr. Jared Johnson at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Gary Calloway at Lexington High School, Steven Hillard at Hammond School and Dr. Rhoda Pascal at A.C. Flora High School work with children of vastly different ages, backgrounds and talent levels, but each recognizes both the positive impact of music in the life of a child as well as the value of travel to enhance the musical experience.
Dr. Jared Johnson has done his share of traveling with groups of talented young singers; he is the choirmaster at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, which has three youth choirs. Jared came to Trinity in 2003 to grow the youth chorister program at the Cathedral, and it now has approximately 80 choristers, both boys and girls, ranging in age from third grade to 12th grade. The Trinity choristers, many of whom also sing in their various school programs, rehearse in the evenings twice a week and before church on most Sundays, for a total of between four and five hours weekly. Although the main purpose of Trinity’s choirs is to lead the singing at the Cathedral’s own services, the youth choirs travel regularly to broaden their experience and to work in the service of God. Beginning in 2006, the Trinity youth choirs have traveled abroad every third year, and have taken significant domestic trips between those years. The group has been, among other places, to Atlanta, Boston, Washington, D.C. and New York, as well as to England, Italy and Scotland. Normally, the trips abroad are not concert trips, but rather the choirs take up residence at a particular cathedral and fill the role of that cathedral’s choir while its own choir takes a break.
In 2015, the choir went to the tiny medieval city of Wells, England and to Scotland over the summer. While in Wells, the choir sang in daily services for a week in the city’s magnificent 13th century cathedral, while living at the cathedral school. The group worked an average of four hours per day rehearsing and singing services. They took some side trips, however, that turned into some of the most memorable parts of the tour.
On one such foray from the cathedral, the choir took a bus ride to Stonehenge. In that highly spiritual place, they sang a hymn arranged by Mozart with English words from the Episcopal hymnal. When they were finished, a couple from Austria excitedly told them that the tune they had sung was also the Austrian national anthem. Making global connections like this, while sharing the music and inspiring others, is an important and positive byproduct of the choir’s religious purpose.
Another of the choir’s goals is to learn from other cultures by integrating with the community they visit. Jared points to a time when the group was in Assisi, Italy. While there, the choir rehearsed in a fourth century Benedictine monastery and was given a tour by a handful of elderly monks. The group of modern American children and teenagers was so captivated by the beauty and peace of that ancient place, that they opted to give up their free afternoon to stay longer in the monastery. “It was all they wanted to talk about that evening,” says Jared. “There were no people watching or listening to them at the monastery and nothing being bought or sold. Isn’t that the kind of experience you want them to value, to share together?”
Lexington High School’s show choir, Golden Blues, competes in Nashville every year at the Invitation Only Music City Show Shoppe.
Jared’s youth choirs are a bit different from most school groups in that he has some of the same children with him for eight or more years. Spanning ages 9 to 18, the choir becomes a family that loves and supports each other. “Such bonds,” says Jared, “are formed in singing for the church but are formed in a deeper way when the choir travels together.” He adds, “On our tours we do a lot of work; singing is physical, you sing on your feet, but touring with the group brings out the best in them. When the kids are able to represent their church, their city, their state and country in such a positive way, it is truly a powerful thing.”
Lexington High School Choral Director Gary Calloway is in his 44th year of teaching music and his 25th year of teaching at LHS. He also feels strongly that travel adds something essential to his program. “When we travel,” he says, “the students go beyond the musical page and learn life lessons.”
There are 230 students in the choral program at Lexington, and they are divided into several groups, including two Chamber Choirs and a show choir. Both groups meet once a day during a class period. Students must audition to gain a spot in the 45-member, mixed-gender Chamber Choir, a group that travels together every year to participate in a national invitational competition.
Over the years, competitions have taken them to Nashville, St. Louis, Atlanta, Orlando and Washington D.C., among other places, and they have won the title of Grand Champion for 10 of the past 12 years. This year, the group will go to Virginia Beach for the invitational, and they hope to take home yet another trophy. While there, they will stay at an ocean-front hotel, enjoy Busch Gardens theme park and go on a two-hour boat cruise with a DJ. Of course, the competition itself is the most important aspect of the trip.
According to Gary, “It’s a great educational experience for the students because they receive expert evaluation from nationally known adjudicators, and they get to hear groups from other areas of the country.” Competitive not only in their singing ability, the Chamber Choir has also won an Esprit de Corps trophy for their team spirit at this competition.
Gary also heads another ensemble that travels to competitions during the year. His show choir, called Golden Blues, competes in Nashville every year at the invitation-only Music City Show Shoppe. This group is comprised of 27 girls and 27 boys who are selected after an intense audition that includes singing, dancing and an interview. When the 54 members of Golden Blues go to competition, they have with them their chaperones as well as a 10-piece student band. The group wears matching dance costumes during their act, while singing and dancing to music by popular artists such as Celine Dion, Britney Spears and Oasis. Fifteen show choirs from around the United States participate in the Nashville event each year, and the competition is fierce.
The Select Ensemble at Hammond School travels abroad to places such as Germany, France and the Czech Republic among other places exposing them to a community with a greater appreciation and understanding of choral music.
Gary has taken Golden Blues to Nashville every year for a number of years, and they have finished as high as sixth place, so far. Their goal is to place among the top five groups, and they are working hard to do so. They have recently hired a nationally ranked professional choreographer and are meeting for class during the entire school year rather than just a semester. Gary believes that going to competition helps his students strive for excellence and become better musicians. “More than that, though,” he says, “you learn life lessons that you don’t get by just going to class every day.” Proving him right, after the last competition a student wrote, “Blessed to be a part of such a loving group! Can’t wait to do even better next year!”
The director of choirs at Hammond School, Steven Hillard, came to Hammond 15 years ago to begin a choral program in the middle and upper schools. In 2004, he formed Hammond’s 45- to 48-member Select Ensemble, comprised of mixed voices from the ninth through 12th grades who are selected following a highly competitive audition process. Rehearsals for this ensemble are at 7 a.m., before the beginning of regular classes, several times a week during the year. The group performs locally throughout the school year and takes a trip abroad over the winter holiday vacation every other year.
The Select Ensemble’s first choral tour abroad was to Austria in 2005. According to Steven, “Traveling abroad with young singers exposes them to a community with a greater appreciation and understanding of choral music. In Austria, for example, there will be hundreds of people who show up at 9 p.m. for a concert on a Friday night to listen to a choir of which they’ve never heard. It’s quite like Friday night lights to us here in the United States.” Since that first trip, Steven has taken the group to Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy and France, among other places.
“Traveling abroad offers the kids not only the opportunity to showcase their talents, but to also appreciate their gift,” he says. “They truly accomplish such when singing for an audience who culturally appreciates and understands choral music.” During each tour, the group performs publicly several times, usually in cathedrals or concert halls. In 2013 they were honored to sing the New Year’s Day Papal Mass before Pope Benedict at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A highlight to every student is to sing a number of impromptu performances, quite often in the very streets of the cities they tour. Most memorable to students was drawing a crowd of 600 while singing at the foot of the Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic.
Beyond the professional concerts these students perform, some of the Select Ensemble’s most meaningful experiences occur in the least expected locations. The students have visited some of the sites of the most horrific events in history. For example, they have visited the World War II concentration camps at Auschwitz, Poland and Dachau, Germany and have sung during the Flag Raising Ceremony at the United States National Cemetery in Normandy Beach, France. The group prepared specific pieces to sing at each site, intending for the beautiful music to stand in stark contrast to the heinous acts that took place there. “Choral music is emotional. It transcends all that took place in each of those places. It brings a peace and allows us the opportunity to honor those who came before us,” says Steven. “There, we sing, not for a crowd and not for applause, but to leave our gift of song in memoriam.”
Steven sees travel as a unique opportunity not only for musical education but also for the education of the whole student. “Traveling abroad as singers has afforded my kids experiences unlike most their age. Feeling the sands of Normandy and seeing those gravestones, actually standing in those hallowed places, this brings to life what they have read in history books or learn in a traditional classrooms.” About possible future destinations for the Select Ensemble, Steven says, “We will always go to countries with strong choral traditions; we never take a trip just to take a trip. Above all, we want to see the world and share this passionate love we have for singing.”
This spring, A.C. Flora’s Vocal Production students starred in leading roles in The Sound of Music.
Dr. Rhoda Paschal, chairman of A.C. Flora’s Fine Arts Department, joined the staff 14 years ago to start a vocal program. In her first year she had only 18 students, but the Falcon Singers program has grown to 218 strong under her leadership. The Flora vocal program is a non-auditioned, inclusive program where students meet in classes for an hour and a half every other day all year long, to sing. The classes are comprised of students of all talent levels, those who have never sung before and do not read music to those who are quite advanced and might someday major in music or perform on Broadway. Flora puts on two huge vocal concerts each year, with more than 200 students singing together, and they stage a musical each spring. This spring they performed The Sound of Music to full houses in their theater.
Although Rhoda has always placed an emphasis on vocal technique and musical theater in her vocal classes, she realized soon after coming to Flora that most of her students had never seen a Broadway-type production. Believing that the experience would be life-changing for them, she put together a student trip to New York that has since become a tradition. Every other year after the spring musical, Rhoda, accompanied by the theater and dance teachers as chaperones, takes a group of 15 to 40 dedicated juniors and seniors to The Big Apple.
While there, the group stays in a hotel in Times Square and participates in conservatory workshops led by current Broadway actors, singers and dancers. Through these workshops, the students gain acting skills such as stage combat and learn a song and dance combo from an actual musical. Rhoda feels this hands-on experience is especially meaningful to her students.
“They are exposed to the national standards in music, dance and drama, and they experience up-close what it takes to be a professional in those fields,” she says. The group also sees at least two Broadway musicals and does lots of sightseeing. For some, the trip is their first time to New York and for others their first time on an airplane. For all of them though, it is a unique chance to experience the city with their friends and to be inspired musically.
By chance, the Flora group’s first trip to New York was in October 2001, about a month after the 9/11 attacks. Although a few students decided not to go, about 25 went on the trip that year, and they had prepared the song, Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor for a spring concert with words from the Emma Lazarus sonnet, “The New Colossus” that is inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. As they were enjoying a cruise around New York Harbor, they looked back at Manhattan from the boat and could see and smell the smoke rising from the ruined towers, even a month after they fell. A girl from the Flora group began spontaneously singing the song based on Emma Lazarus’ poem, and the entire group joined in as they cruised along. As Rhoda aptly points out, “Music makes your life experience richer, and singing is an inherent part of humanity.”
Each of these vocal groups offers a unique opportunity to its young members through travel. The striking similarity, however, is the extreme energy, dedication and love for the children that each of these phenomenal leaders gives to their group day after day. And it shows. Whether learning through immersing themselves with experts in the craft as Flora’s group does, or striving for excellence through competition as the Lexington choirs do, whether furthering their global education and sharing an appreciation of choral music as Hammond’s Select Ensemble does, or serving great cathedrals to the glory of God as Trinity’s choir does, these talented musicians become something greater than themselves in the process. As they travel, the group gets closer, the music gets better, the audience is inspired and the children grow and mature. Perhaps Jared puts it best when he says, “Kids have a natural instinct for what is honest and important. They want to be sustained by the best things. There’s something magical about this endeavor; it really forms kids to be their best selves.” Now, isn’t that music to your ears?