by Patricia Beach Smith
Posted on October 12
Photo by Getty Images
Camaraderie, community, cooperation and, most of all, a shared love of music of all kinds have made
choral singing the most popular performing art form in America.
According to a recent study conducted by Chorus America, a national association of choral singing groups, more than 28.5 million children and adults sing in an estimated 250,000 choruses in the United States.
“Choral music has a special quality. Where else are you going to have people exploring poetry and expressing it simultaneously? That’s pretty powerful,” says Ralph Hughes, artistic director and conductor of the 47-voice Sacramento Master Singers.
Hughes has been directing the 22-year-old group for 19 years. How he came to love choral music is typical.
“I sang from elementary school on,” he says. “But when I was a junior in high school, someone invited me to sing in the choir there. I was flattered that someone would do so, and it changed my life.” Within a few months of that adolescent singing experience, Hughes knew that he wanted to be involved with music for the rest of his life.
“I had every intention of going into medicine, and it was a big disappointment to my parents that I didn’t. They thought I could never make a living at music,” says Hughes, a music professor at American River College since 1991. Before that, he taught music at Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks.
What is it about singing that is so appealing to people?
“Everybody has a voice,” he explains. “I think some of it is instinctual and goes back to the soothing quality of your parents’ voices.”
A chance to travel and sing is another draw for many local choral musicians. This past summer, singer Donna Helmich performed at the International Church Music Festival in Bern, Switzerland, and also in Lyon and Nice, France, with the all-women’s group Chanteuses.
An Elk Grove pediatric dental surgeon, Helmich is typical of many area singers who sing in ensembles. Throughout the years, she has sung with the Sacramento Choral Society and the Sacramento Master Singers; this season, she’ll be singing with the Chanteuses, as well as with the mixed-voice Camerata California.
“I love the camaraderie of singing in an ensemble with people who are dedicated to great music. That’s why I sing with choruses,” says Helmich, also an accomplished soloist.
There’s “something magical about singing in a group—something about coming together and . . . collaboratively creating something beautiful,” says Julie Adams, who founded the RSVP (Reconciliation Singers Voices of Peace) choir five years ago. “It’s hard to find another experience quite like it. Also, singing in a chorus is accessible to so many more people than solo singing.”
RSVP, which gives concerts to raise money for charitable groups, is made up of 16 singers from the ages of 21 to 58.
“They come from everywhere: Elk Grove to Placerville, Gold River to Placer County,” says Adams. “Half the singers . . . have degrees in music and are music teachers with a high level of experience.” The professions of the other half run the gamut, from postal workers to medical lab directors.
In February, the RSVP singers will perform with the Sacramento Children’s Chorus in a program called Village Songs, which Adams says is “based on the theory that it takes a village to raise our children.” Proceeds from the concert will go to the Children’s Receiving Home of Sacramento.
“We celebrate the good things people are doing in the community and give back by donating 100 percent of what we make singing to charity,” Adams says.
“That’s what we are all about,” she says. “We get to do fabulous music, give our gift of song, and I think that’s why people come from all over to sing with the group. It gives them a sense of purpose as well as making beautiful music.”
The Music Man
As the conductor of six local choirs, Donald Kendrick has the busiest baton in town.
The area’s largest assemblage of choruses is directed by conductor Donald Kendrick, a choral whirlwind with a mission.
As director of choral activities at California State University, Sacramento, Kendrick begins his 21st year there this fall, overseeing the university’s choral program along with the graduate choral conducting degree program that he established at CSUS in 1987.
“I have the University Chorus with its 50 to 60 singers. The chorus is open to students, university faculty and community singers,” he explains.
He also conducts the 50-member Concert Choir and the 18-plus-singer Chamber Choir. All the choirs fluctuate according to enrollment, he says.
The Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra also perform under Kendrick’s well-used baton. He also is artistic director of the 200-strong chorus, now in its 10th season.
“One decade. How things have changed since the beginning,” Kendrick mused. “The quality. It’s amazing how far the chorus has advanced. We are sitting at 200 now, and with the advanced quality of the singers, we are able to do challenging material.”
The 2005–2006 Choral Society & Orchestra season will consist of eight concerts, opening Oct. 22 at the Sacramento Community Center Theater with Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah. The season will continue with the holiday program, Home for the Holidays, Dec. 10 at the Community Center Theater and Dec. 13 at the Mondavi Center in Davis. In the spring, the Choral Society & Orchestra will perform Giacomo Rossini’s Stabat Mater on March 4.
“Rossini took 10 years to write this work, so it’s appropriate for our 10th anniversary, don’t you think?” Kendrick quips. The group will also perform Antonín Dvorák’s Mass in D major Op. 86 on May 6 at the Community Center Theater.
Under Kendrick’s direction, the Choral Society & Orchestra have made several CDs, and the chorus has sung at the famed Carnegie Hall. The group made its first European tour this past summer. It is planning a tour of China in 2006.
The Choral Society has won many awards, both for its singing and its management. The society is a well-tuned machine that engages the singers not only in singing but in managing their fate, selling tickets and staging fundraisers so the group can pay for its orchestra (the chorus is a volunteer group) and stay in the black.
“Last year, we crossed the $1 million mark for the amount of money we have raised and given to our orchestra to support them playing for our concert series. We are the only chorus in the U.S. that maintains its own union orchestra. We haven’t found another that does that, ” Kendrick says.
In his spare time, he is director of music and the organist at Sacred Heart Church in East Sacramento. There, he conducts two choirs: Schola Cantorum, now in its 14th year singing at the church’s 11 a.m. Mass, and Vox Nova, a 3-year-old, 25-member men’s group.
Like almost everyone who sings in choruses, Kendrick got hooked on choral music singing in choirs from an early age.
“I was 7 years old when I was accepted into the boys’ choir at the church up the street: Saint Michael’s and All Angels—and I was not one of them—Church in Calgary, Canada,” Kendrick says. “That was the very beginning of my lifelong love affair with choral music.”
Later, Kendrick studied organ. As a teenager, he played the organ at Saint Michael’s and worked with the choir.
“That was it. I also sang in school and was very lucky to go to Crescent Heights High School, where we had a choir teacher who was an extraordinary man,” Kendrick says. “We gave concerts and traveled, and we also got to sing at the Calgary Stampede with guys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.”
“He was one of the great high school choir teachers who could take kids out of the halls and make them into singers. People would move to that neighborhood so kids could go to that high school because of him,” he recalls.
Kendrick has turned out to be one of those inspiring teachers himself. Partly due to his efforts, choral music is alive and thriving in Sacramento.
“Lots of people are interested in singing here,” says Kendrick, who 13 years ago co-founded the Sacramento Children’s Chorus with Lynn Stevens. “That’s now 100 kids in five choirs, and they’ve performed not only here, but in Los Angeles.” He points to the Amador Children’s Chorus, founded by John Leggett, a grad student of his. “And I now have people in my University Choir, the Choral Society and in the church choirs who were members of the Sacramento Children’s Chorus. It makes me real happy to see them coming up through the ranks.”
Proof that singing, while it doesn’t always lead to a career in music, can help one be successful in life: Thirty years ago, Kendrick formed the Hamilton (Ontario) Children’s Choir. Recently, the chorus flew him to Toronto to help celebrate its anniversary.
“The singers (now 30 years older) would come up to me and say stuff like, ‘Hi. Remember me? I am a member of Parliament now.’ Wow,” Kendrick says.
Wanted: Music Lovers Who Can Carry a Tune
So you want to join a chorus? You have a myriad of choices in the Sacramento region. There are choruses of all types here, including mixed voice, women’s, men’s and children’s, professional and amateur.
Most welcome new blood to round out their complement of singers. Chorus repertoires range from baroque and Broadway to Gregorian chant and gospel—and everything in between. Some do it all. Some are more specific.
Places of worship are a good place to start looking for a chorus to join. Being a member of the faith is not necessarily a requirement, but it helps because you will be singing for religious services.
Town-and-gown choruses—where you sign up and pay for a course on how to sing—are run by Sacramento City College, American River College, Cosumnes River College, Sierra College and California State University, Sacramento.
If you fancy singing in costume, Sacramento Opera, Light Opera Theatre of Sacramento (they perform the works of Gilbert and Sullivan) and Davis Musical Theatre Company also have active choruses.
Performing with any chorus takes commitment. Generally, groups meet once a week, year-round, for one to two hours in the evening or on weekends, plus performances. Those associated with operas and musicals also involve at least a week of nightly rehearsals before their productions open.
The number of performances depends on the chorus, of course, but most give at least one public concert per season.
Prepare to be asked to audition for most choruses. It will be one of the few times you will be asked to sing a solo. One of the great things about a chorus is that you will not be hanging out there alone!
Mention that you are a bass during the first 10 seconds of a conversation with a chorus master, and a car may be at your door shortly to pick you up and take you to the audition. A good bass is difficult to find.
Auditions can be simple, requiring a singer to present something he or she knows, such as a popular tune or an operatic aria. The important thing is to show enthusiasm, a willingness to be a musical team player and, of course, some degree of talent as a singer and music reader.
Choruses need singers in four basic categories: soprano and alto women’s voice ranges, and tenor and bass for men.
Ralph Hughes, director of the Sacramento Master Singers, says he begins with a “phone screening.”
His purpose? “To make sure the person can read music. Other than that, the process is fairly simple,” he says. “We ask them to sing three different melodic excerpts, then some rhythm excerpts. We also ask them to prepare to sing something expressively. The style is not as important to me as whether they can sing ‘Amazing Grace’ expressively.”
Hughes also says he seeks singers who have “enough skills to learn most of the music on their own.”
“We don’t learn things by rote. And I want to know—and this is very important—do they bring to the table the love of choral music that this group has?” Hughes says. “We try to make it clear to them that there are some solo opportunities, but 95 percent of the singing we do is ensemble singing, and so with us they won’t be able to belt out their favorite Verdi aria.”
Leading the Chorus
Conducting choruses is as special an endeavor as singing in them, local choral conductors say.
“I like the camaraderie and sharing of ideas and the energy that goes back and forth between a conductor and a chorus,” says Jack Miller, an organist and choral conductor who nine years ago founded Chanteuses, a 24-voice ensemble for women. “When you are playing the piano or organ, it’s pretty much your own thing, but when you are working with singers, you have to adapt and motivate and convey the picture of the sound you envision for a particular piece.
“That’s what a conductor is all about. You have to figure out a way to approach that vision you have. You are not always successful—well, rarely totally successful—but that’s part of the game: to see how far you can take the creativity.”
Chanteuses came about while baritone Miller and some friends were singing in a chorus at Bear Valley Music Festival.
“We were sitting around at lunch and started talking about forming a group concentrated on music for treble (women’s) voices. We are devoted to singing all kinds of music: from Renaissance to contemporary and even folk music. This fall, we’ll be doing a concert with a band in Elk Grove, and we’ll be singing folk songs from around the world,” says Miller, who also is an organist at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Sacramento.
When conducting singers, you have to approach the music very differently from when you conduct instrumentalists, notes Sacramento Master Singers’ Ralph Hughes.
“You wouldn’t talk to an orchestra or wind ensemble necessarily about the mood of the piece or facial expressions, but instead how to bow or articulate something,” he explains. “Singers are quite different. A choir is so tied to the poetry of the piece that you have to sort of act like an acting coach.”