Choro in Schola’s Choral FX: Modeling musical mastery

Value of high school music outreach program transcends music


“More face, more expression, more passion,” Bruce Browne tells the assembled singers of Choro in Schola. They’re at the only full rehearsal of the program they’re going to sing later this October night at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, a few feet away from this practice room. Their audience will consist of young singers from area high schools, who’ll also perform this night, and other choral music fans and family members.

“Exaggerate that note to sound ‘witchier,’” Browne says about a passage from Jaako Mantyjarvi’s “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble,” from Macbeth. “Be more outlandish,” he continues. “You’re witches!”

70 students from 11 different high schools participated in Choro in Schola’s Choral FX program this fall.

Those students have been working all day with these singers and with the renowned choral director Browne and his successor as director of PSU choral programs, Ethan Sperry. One thing they’re learning: how to bring more passion, more emotion to their singing. But they have to do that with clarity, with togetherness, with attention to dozens of details pertaining to dynamics, ensemble, and the rest — yet somehow not losing that passion that takes the music out of the score books and into the audience’s hearts.

“Sopranos, one note keeps going MIA in the second line of the second system on the second page.” They sing it, hear the problem, fix it in a minute.

The CiS singers Browne is working with are used to that focus on detail. Many have worked with him in other choirs or as PSU students when Browne (now a frequent Oregon ArtsWatch contributor) ran the programs there in the 1980s, ‘90s, and early 2000s. They don’t have much time, so as they run through each piece on the program, Browne quickly points out little problems that most choirs would never even notice, or couldn’t fix quickly if they did.

“Tune that chord without the basses.” The sopranos, tenors and altos all sing it until it’s solid. “Now add the basses.” It firms up.

A little softer here, a little louder there. More conversational. Less legato. More passionate. When the sopranos encounter a little problem with some tricky rhythms, he counts it out. The next time, they nail it.

Delight is in the details: musical transformation happens not in a single insight, but in dozens of small decisions like these, hearing problems, and knowing how to fix them. It’s what makes the difference between a merely dutiful performance and a show that really moves an audience.

“Altos, last two notes please.” They sing. There’s a clear disagreement on pitch, and tentativeness. The altos run that section a couple times more and it’s secure. Browne brings in the rest of the choir, and it sounds spot on.

Of course, these singers are all experienced choir performers and teachers, so they can fix the few problems Browne identifies with efficiency and speed. By the end of the half hour rehearsal, it all sounds solid. And passionate.

This is the level the young singers in the next room are trying to reach someday. But the lessons they’re learning, both in this concert and in CiS’s continuing programs in Portland-area schools, transcend singing, choir, even music.

Founded by Browne in 2012, the nonprofit organization pairs some of the area’s most talented high school choristers with the professional singers of Choro in Schola, many of whom sing in top Portland area choirs. High schools engage CiS singers to give residencies where they work with and sing for the young singers, imparting the lessons and listening it takes to make musical magic. Read more about CiS’s background and regular in-school programs in Jana Griffin’s ArtsWatch story.

CiS’s most ambitious project to date, this new Choral FX joint workshop allows students to hear how professionals sing and rehearse, thereby raising their own expectations and standards. They also hear the internationally acclaimed Portland State Chamber Choir rehearse and perform at the highest level of collegiate choir.

Bruce Browne with Choro in Schola singers.

Bruce Browne with Choro in Schola singers at Choral FX.

After this special all-day workshop, the CiS singers will perform a half hour set, then join with the students in four songs, two each conducted by Browne and Sperry.

Fulfilling a Need

It’s the kind of education that’s harder to find in Oregon schools since the era of budget cutting began with Measure 5, and dramatically worsened after the Bush recession of 2007. With limited resources, many schools prioritized classes that boosted mandatory test scores.

Some schools lack choir programs, some even lost music teaching entirely, and even many of those that retained them have been forced to rely on part-timers. What classes did remain often were way too big for this kind of detailed, back-and-forth learning, the kind of feedback that allows students not just to learn a lesson once, but also to internalize it so they don’t make the same slip the next time they encounter similar issues.

“That gap exists in some districts more than others,” says CiS’s Erika Lockwood, from Rex Putnam High School. Her district, North Clackamas, has maintained its programs so steadfastly that she moved her own children there. But she’s seen classes grow larger, and students’ schedules increasingly packed with more and more required classes, making it harder for them to schedule courses deemed non essential for jobs or college prep. Like music.

“We’ve lost so much through the recession,” says Sam Barlow High School’s Amber Schroeder, another CiS singer and music teacher. “But some of our districts are not giving up. [In Choro in Schola], we’re feeling like it’s our job to bridge that gap.”

Inspiring Students, Empowering Teachers

That kind of musical modeling is a key to Choro in Schola. “The kids need it so badly,” says CiS’s Angela Hjerstedt, who teaches at Rock Creek Middle School. “A lot of them only hear pop music, show tunes, karaoke style singing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Dr. Browne is trying to show how much more is possible with choral singing,” by bringing them the more challenging and ultimately more satisfying music of classical and contemporary choral music composers.

When the students hear it, they respond. “I’m in this classroom with 70 students, and they’re hearing Mozart and Bach and they’re eating it up,” says Schroeder. “Those pieces are still alive. We’re trying to bridge that gap for schools that have lost that. Now our students are aware of those opportunities, and they know what a great choral sound is. It’s important that students get the heartbeat of what professional choir singing is supposed to sound like.”

The CiS mentors provide more than technical expertise and coaching. “We do this so the kids are able to see it and say, ‘I could do this someday.’ I think Choro in Schola provides a vision for how you can continue this in adulthood.”

PSU choral director Ethan Sperry works with students at Choral FX.

PSU choral director Ethan Sperry works with students at Choral FX.

It worked for soprano Kayla Lankford, a student at Gresham’s Sam Barlow High School who was especially impressed by attending the PSU Chamber Choir’s rehearsal. “It was a really cool experience,” she says. “I haven’t been to any program where I got to experience what I did. Watching the choir at the beginning was very motivating to see them rehearsing. Just to see how they struggle and work through difficulties in rehearsal just like I do in my high school choir. Everyone who went seems more confident now and it rubs off around us to everyone in the choir.”

Lankford and fellow Sam Barlow student Isaac Chapelle were especially inspired by one song the PSU Chamber Choir sang, Aho, composed by former PSUCC member Ara Lee during a time of grief. “It was motivating to see that a student wrote something that amazing,” Lankford says. “It had a great story to it and you could feel the story throughout the song.”

The program has inspired not only the students, but also CiS’s teacher/singers.

“I’ve learned that we can keep raising the bar,” Hjerstedt says. “For example, a lot of schools shy away from teaching songs in other languages. This program has helped me realize they can do it. Even though I teach middle school students, I do Renaissance music, and bring music in several languages into the program. That’s one way [CiS] has inspired me.”

She hopes the value continues after the program ends. The high school teachers participating in the program “will be inspired to help kick their programs up a notch,” says Hjerstedt. “The high level repertoire, the professional level of rehearsal… it raises their vision. Those high schoolers stood and sang for three hours straight! They can do that.”

Reaching the Audience

About 20 Choro in Schola singers take the stage for the culminating concert, but in the opening number by French Renaissance composer Clement Janequin, they sound like about four, so tight is their blend. And yes, as Browne had insisted in rehearsal, throughout the program, their faces and voices displayed appropriate emotion and passion.

Choro in Schola singers (l-r) Amber Schroeder, Ben Espana, and Anne McKee Reed bring expressive faces as well as voices.

Choro in Schola singers bring expressive faces as well as voices.

The program is packed with short, punchy pieces punctuated by comments from Sperry and Browne aimed at making the unfamiliar music (the only composer’s name likely to be recognized was Brahms) come alive for their young audience. They chuckle when Browne calls a piece by Carl Orff “the oldest soap opera in the world.” Sperry introduces another called “Weep, O Mine Eyes” as “like the movie Inside Out,” in which a young girl deals with conflicting feelings that seem like warring creatures in her emotional control room. When you feel something sad, he explains, you can sing about it, and hearing other people from different times and places sing about those feelings makes you realize that you’re not alone.

The program demonstrates the color and range of choral music, and the students in the audience are transfixed. At the start of the Macbeth piece, the audience’s heads swivel as witchy voices emerge from the aisles behind them. The students’ eyes light up in surprise as masked Choro in Schola members sing their way down the aisles to the stage. In a setting of a Lorca poem called The Scream by contemporary Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, the listeners are startled by piercing but not shrill notes. After these complex, startling works, Vic Nees’s simple, pretty Sur le Pont d’Avignon lightens the tone.

The CiS singers get each mood change just right. And in the second set of the half hour program, the students who join the professionals onstage maintain the same high standards. The students in the audience take notice.

“As the night went on, I could see the lights go on in the students’ eyes,” Hjerstedt recalls. “I loved watching them look around with mouths hanging open. They were making faces of awe.”

Lasting Value

It was a fine performance, but the real value of Choro in Schola’s educational effect lies in what happened out there in the audience, and what’s already happening since the performance and workshop concluded.

“I brought all my section leaders to the workshop,” Lockwood reports, “and they’re already nodding their heads and giving others in their section tips they learned.” For example, Sperry told the students that when they sing loud, instead of thinking “Sing loud!” and forcing the sound, think of filling the room with sound. Instead of thinking “sing soft,” think of singing to someone nearby.

“My kids were impressed watching the [PSU] chamber choir and watching the adults in Choro in Schola,” Lockwood says. “That kind of exposure doesn’t happen very often. They were really interested in the literature they were singing. They realized possibilities they were capable of they didn’t know were there. Hearing this multicultural, medieval, modern music opens their minds, and helps them realize that all this music is connected.”

Bruce Browne talks to the audience at Choral FX.

Bruce Browne talks to the audience at Choral FX.

The workshop and performance connected with high school student Chappelle. “One of my favorite parts was when Choro in Schola made their entrance on ‘Double, Double,’” he remembers. “It opens up my mind to quite a few possibilities.”

The value to the students goes way beyond just learning how to sing better. Participating in choir helps them become better audience members, develops appreciation for the arts, and personal qualities that will enrich their lives if they never sing another note after graduation.

“They don’t have to become a professional singer or get degree in opera. There are so many benefits to confident singing,” Schroeder explains. “When students start working on their voices, they develop a sense of pride in their work ethic. It’s great for kids with anxiety, with speech impediments, all of them. The end result is that they’re confident in more areas than just the voice. They go on to be great interviewers, leaders in their jobs. I see over and over again that they go out into society and become better contributors. They’re poised. Their posture says, ‘I can walk out into the world and face it.’”

For more information on Choro in Schola’s work in Oregon schools, see the organization’s website.

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