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Singing for Joy

The Kalamazoo Children’s Chorus is attracting young singers and generating acclaim
Kalmazoo Children’s Chorus member Isobel Steele performs during a recent concert.

On an early evening in late September, the first fallen leaves of the season are blowing across the parking lot of Milwood Methodist Church as more than 200 children ages 8 to 18 shed their book bags, bid their parents goodbye and enter a smattering of rooms within the church.

Outside, squirrels gather ripened nuts for the winter in the warmth of an Indian summer. But inside, voices rise in harmony, singing about icicles and snow, winter dreams and favorite things that are cuddly and warm.

Musicians, especially singers, are often a season ahead of the rest of the world.

The Kalamazoo Children’s Chorus members are oblivious to fall this day; they are thinking winter and holidays as they prepare for their Annual Holiday Concert, one of their largest events of the year. The concert, set for 3 p.m. Dec. 15 at Chenery Auditorium, features five of the chorus’s six children’s choirs in individual and group arrangements, and a grand finale with the combined choirs.

“We have to prepare far in advance for our Holiday Concert,” says Fred Sang, artistic director of the 33-year-old Kalamazoo Children’s Chorus. ”We think we are very fortunate to celebrate the season beginning in September.”

Started in 1980 by Jeanne Fry, the Kalamazoo Children’s Chorus began as a 55-member choir created especially for a Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra opera performance. The experience generated so much interest that the group continued, eventually splitting into two choirs. Now the KCC supports six choirs, including an elite Touring Choir, which travels internationally, and its newly launched, tuition-free Eastside Choir.

Singers audition to be part of the chorus, with each choir requiring its own audition as students advance. The choirs are supported by fees — from $395 to $445 a year per child – depending on the choir. The organization also receives grant funding and generates funds through ticket sales and fundraising efforts.

Thanks in part to its biannual international tour, the KCC has a growing reputation. It was cited as one of the best children’s choruses in the country by Francisco Nunez, a noted composer and director of Young Voices of New York City. It also boasts some illustrious alumni, including operatic contralto Meredith Arwady, of Kalamazoo, Broadway performer Blake Whyte and operatic soprano Chelsea Morris. Many more alumni keep in touch through social media and annual gatherings, and each December alumni are invited to reunite with the chorus on stage to sing in the annual show’s finale.

“We consider the organization to be a family,” Sang says. “Sometimes we have arguments, just like we have in a family, but we share a common bond. Everyone feels safe here. Many of our members do not have the time or opportunity to make music at their schools. This is a place where they can come and share their artistry in a safe, supportive environment.”

High school sophomore Allison Zyzelewski, of Plainwell, who is in her eighth season with the chorus, echoes Sang’s sentiment. “I can’t imagine my life without KCC,” says Zyzelewski, a member of the Touring Choir. “It’s more than just rehearsal every Tuesday. It’s more like a family reunion every week. Mr. and Mrs. Sang are like second parents, and they always support me.”

Sang and his wife, Darlene, form a unique partnership. Sang, a retired Portage Public Schools music teacher and choral conductor, has been the artistic director of the KCC for the past 10 years and a children’s choral director for 35 years.. His wife assumed his former post in Portage — the district didn’t even have to change the name on the door — and she directs the KCC’s Treble Choir.

‘Better than a team’

On Tuesday evenings, the walls at Milwood Methodist practically hum with excitement and energy. In the sanctuary, Darlene Sang conducts the Treble Choir, leading it through the solfege scale with associated hand movements, an exercise designed to make learning intervals easier.

“I love working with the children and opening their world to new music,” she says. “The excitement on their faces when they hear themselves creating harmony for the first time is such a thrill.”

In the basement, Fred Sang conducts the two advanced choirs, Bel Canto and Touring. He says he finds it a joy to work with young singers. “Let me count the ways!” he says. “I love their energy, and I feed off of it. I love that they can be passionate about life in a way that, as we get older, we may lose a little. I love that they are honest and direct, sometimes pretty honest and pretty direct. I love that they are sensitive. If I ask a question, their answers are thoughtful and insightful.”

If students come in sleepy and distracted, it doesn’t take long for Fred Sang to regain their focus. On this Tuesday night, he directs the Touring Choir through familiar paces, but not before chiding them: “You look like you’ve been in a cave all day.”

“We have!” a few voices yell, and everyone laughs.

“Stretch!” he booms, and while they stretch their bodies, he runs through the night’s plan.

“When you sing, your body is your instrument,” Sang says. “In order to make the body most effective, you have to be fully aligned. Good posture is critical to good singing.”

After stretching, choir members turn to the left on cue and begin rubbing each other’s shoulders and chatting. “Switch,” Sang says, and the choir members all turn to the right to rub the shoulders of the person who had been rubbing theirs. “Tenderize!” he commands.

“The tactile thing for the kids is important,” Sang says. “They don’t go to school together. They don’t hang out together a lot, but they become very good friends because they share such a deep joy in making music.”

And despite the temptation to compare them to a team preparing to take the field, Sang cautions against making athletic comparisons.

“We’re not a team,” he says. “We’re better than a team. On a team, if someone is not having a good day, they get replaced. But in an ensemble, we play together all the time. If someone is having a bad day, we have to be able to work together anyway. You have to have stamina. From downbeat to cutoff, you are on all the time. To perform like that, you can’t be a team player. You have to be an ensemble player.”

Singing is a multi-disciplinary practice. It involves not only music, but history, literature and foreign languages. As the choir practices There Will Be Rest, a poem by 18th-century poet Sara Teasdale set to music by Victor Johnson, Sang encourages the choir to “go to the edge,” that meeting place between the emotions and the intellect.

“Singing something historical is very different than reading about it in a textbook,” he says. “You can feel it.”

The Touring Choir is KCC’s top-level choir. With biannual international tours, the singers are taught to be ambassadors. “When we go somewhere in our uniforms, we represent our community, our organization, our state and our country,” Sang says. “How we behave is critical to our reception, almost more so than our singing.

“What happens on tour is just remarkable. They get on the bus to leave, waving a little at their parents, a little sad. When they come back, they are different children. They learn to be self-reliant.”

On its tour to Italy this past summer, the choir experienced many memorable moments. After a long day on their feet, the choir members arrived in Luca, the birthplace of Puccini. “The place was packed,” Sang recalls. “We talked about what we needed to do and how they needed to be more animated. And it was electric. The audience response was incredible. The kids fed off that. They will never forget that experience.

“Those experiences you can’t really have at home. It’s that understanding that you can be who you are and be what you are without apologizing to anybody.”

Branching out

It’s those kinds of experiences – and the knowledge that not every child can afford to have them – that have led the KCC to establish a new, tuition-free Eastside Choir this year. Supported by grants from the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo and the Dorothy U. Dalton Foundation, the choir is directed by Julie Davis, choir director at Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts.

“We wanted children who might not be able to afford KCC to have an artistic and musical experience in their community,” Sang explains. “We wanted them to be able to perform in their neighborhood. I firmly believe that when you make music together, you have a bond that builds bridges and tears down walls.”

Sang says the KCC also plans to develop a tuition-free Northside Choir and begin work on a vision for the KCC that includes an endowment to meet the growing needs of the organization. “This organization is on the brink of launching an international choir,” he says. “The number of choirs and the scope of the organization is expanding, and so are the director’s responsibilities. In the near future there will be a need for a full-time artistic director and a full-time outreach director.” Referring to the local Promise college scholarship program, Sang says he also would like to see a “Kalamazoo Children’s Chorus Promise” to help defray costs for overseas trips.

If Sang could have a dime for every time someone made a joke about his name and profession, he could probably start his own endowment. Unfortunately, the universe doesn’t pass out money for old jokes. It can, however, be generous to those who work hard and nurture talent. Sang is optimistic, as any choir director has to be.

“A conductor has a responsibility to inspire. You teach all the technique that you need to teach, all the mechanics of notes, rhythms, dynamics. You give them something that they can be passionate about, and then you get out of their way.”

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“A conductor has a responsibility to inspire. You teach all the technique that you need to teach, all the mechanics of notes, rhythms, dynamics. You give them something that they can be passionate about, and then you get out of their way.”
—Fred Sang