When hundreds of high school choral singers descend upon Kalamazoo Feb. 1-2 for the 18th annual High School Choral Festival, they will have James Turner to thank.
Turner is the music director of the Kalamazoo Bach Festival and associate professor of music at Kalamazoo College. When he arrived on the scene nearly 20 years ago, he brought a desire to create an educational outreach program for area high school and middle school students. A year after his arrival, the Kalamazoo Bach Festival’s annual High School Choral Festival was up and running, with an A-list clinician to boot.
“The High School Choral Festival had its first event here in 1999, with Dr. Ann Howard Jones, who is still the premier vocal conductor in the United States,” says Linda Van Dis, assistant director of the Kalamazoo Bach Festival.
Before coming to Kalamazoo College, Turner organized a high school choral festival at Marygrove College, in Detroit. It worked well, so he applied the same outreach effort here. The annual High School Choral Festival is part of the Kalamazoo Bach Festival, an event that runs from September through May each year and celebrates the works of Bach, his contemporaries and other 19th- and 20th-century composers.
The High School Choral Festival takes place over the course of two days and gives students an opportunity for education and growth by working with a nationally recognized clinician. Each day, five choirs composed of choral students from 10 area schools have 20 minutes each to perform two songs, and then they work with the clinician. The students receive the music in advance so that they know the notes, allowing rehearsal times to focus on fine-tuning the music.
This year they will perform “I See the Heaven’s Glories Shine,” by Andrea Ramsey, as the Mass Choir piece. All of the choirs remain in the auditorium to learn what the clinician teaches each choir. After lunch, the schools combine for a rehearsal, followed by a Mass Choir performance that is open to the public.
“It’s interesting how they (the clinicians) have different techniques of keeping their (the students’) attention,” Turner says. “Sometimes they get them out of a traditional choral lineup and have them in a giant circle, and the clinician is in the middle of this giant circle moving and maneuvering and looking right into their eyes, saying, ‘Did you understand that?’”
This year’s festival includes choirs from Mattawan, Loy Norrix, Otsego, West Ottawa, Rockford, Portage Central, Kalamazoo Central, Plainwell, Three Rivers and Vicksburg high schools. Sandra Snow, professor of choral conducting and music education at the Michigan State University College of Music, will serve as the clinician.
The annual High School Choral Festival is by invitation only. Every year the Bach Festival invites the Portage and Kalamazoo schools to participate. Due to the event’s popularity, invitations to other area schools are alternated each year. Van Dis considers reaching out to youth one of the Kalamazoo Bach Festival’s most important elements.
“Encouraging vocal music at that level, at that age, helps to develop lifelong singers and lifelong audience members,” she says.
Cori Somers, executive director of the Kalamazoo Bach Festival, says it can also influence a student’s future. “I have so many memories of competitions and things that I did in school and choir and orchestra,” Somers says. “They really shape who you are later on in life and how you view the world.”
In its early days, the High School Choral Festival didn’t have much financial support, says Turner, and participating high school students were asked to bring their own lunches. “That did not go very well,” Turner says, chuckling, noting that many kids forgot that brown paper sack. “It was back in the day when Linda was doing everything, including making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”
Now grants help support the festival by paying for the clinician — and for lunch.
What the students learn from the festival depends on the clinician and the clinician’s music choice, Turner says. Last year Eugene Rogers, associate director of choirs and associate professor of conducting at the University of Michigan School of Music, exposed the students and choral directors — including Turner — to something many of them might not have known much about: gospel music.
“It exposed them to what legitimate gospel music sounds like and showed them the difference between (that and) singing a spiritual,” Turner says. “A lot of people lump spiritual with gospel music.”
Other times, he says, the clinicians focus on “their own choral pedagogy” of solving vocal choral issues and getting down to the mechanics of how to help singers who don’t have a good choral sound, due to singing flat, improve.
The Bach Festival engages in other choral and vocal outreach to youth, including its annual Middle School Choral Residency in March and the Young Vocalists Competition and Concert in July.
Some of the students who have participated in the choral festival have continued singing in college and even beyond, says Van Dis. Three Rivers High School graduate Logan Shields, who performed at the High School Choral Festival in 2006 and 2007, went on to join Chanticleer, a Grammy Award-winning ensemble considered to be the “the world’s reigning male chorus” by The New Yorker. Another festival participant, Portage Northern High School graduate Brianne Spresser, performed with the Bach Festival Choir for four years and in 2005 went on to perform with the St. Olaf Choir, the premier a cappella choir in the United States.
Whether or not these students become lifelong singers or choir attendees, Turner believes the Bach Festival’s educational outreach can have an impact beyond area boundaries.
“I think it’s important for the world, a global importance,” Turner says, “that what we learn from being involved in music is how to work together and collaborate together.”