Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

Giving thanks for the music

Oregon’s youth choirs raise their voices in this year’s Music In Our Schools Month theme, “Music is all of us.”

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Jefferson Choir with BRAVO Youth Orchestra, October 2022. Photo courtesy of Joshua Sommerville.
Jefferson Choir with BRAVO Youth Orchestra, October 2022. Photo courtesy of Joshua Sommerville.

Music Educator Phill Hurley is retiring this year after 37 years of teaching in David Douglas School District. When asked who set him on a path of his lifelong love of music, he named his ninth grade music teacher in Caldwell, Idaho, Mrs. Schmidt. “She let me and the only two other boys in the choir sing a trio in competition.” 

Do you have a past or current music teacher that you’d like to thank? Well, for the love of music, do it now. Why? (Drum roll please.) Music In Our Schools Month® is being celebrated right now, just as it has been in every March since 1973.

Okay, that’s not quite true. MIOS didn’t add the final “M” until 1985 when its parent organization, Music Educators National Conference, expanded it from one day to a full month. No, it isn’t MENC any more; in 2011 the name was changed to National Association for Music Education (NAfME). But, there is some nostalgia for the initials MENC among those who began teaching music over a half century ago. Becoming a member of MENC was for some–this writer included–akin to an actor getting their SAG (SAG-AFTRA) card. An honor, a responsibility, a thrill.

If we go all the way back 50 years, however, the genesis of the MIOS celebration was a call for advocacy by the New York State of Education Department of Music Education and their sibling organization of Music Administrators. Then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller proclaimed a day of observance, and one big honking concert event occurred on March 14 in New York City. The single-state, single-day event became a MENC national celebration in 1975 and a month-long celebration ten years later. (Read a comprehensive MIOSM history here). This year, on March 28, we are all invited to participate in a big honking zoom event at 7 pm, EST, 4 Pacific.

What happened in New York in the 1970s to promote this level of advocacy? What often prompts folks to take notice or action? Loss. Music in the schools was in danger of going away. Fiscal cuts resulted in a serious decline in arts education, with “dedicated arts rooms being converted into classrooms and near disappearance of training programs of higher education arts instructors.” (“History of NYC Arts Education”, Arthur Miller Foundation).

People became aware that something of value was lost. It wasn’t just the fact that there was loss, it was an awareness of the value of the loss. As our school music world recovers from the pandemic, we are again aware of loss.

Now in 2023 choirs are back on, in rehearsal and on stage, and participation seems to be getting back to normal. It isn’t quite normal, of course, but we are accepting a new “normal.” School choir membership is recovering slowly and audiences are trickling back. Recovery is on the way–but the losses of the pandemic years have had a profound effect on the choral music world.

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Seattle Opera The Life and Times of MalcolmX McCaw Hall Seattle Washington

But there is something pretty wonderful happening out there. Have you noticed it? Hurley has. So has Amber Schroeder (Sam Barlow Choral Director and Pacific Youth Choir Associate Director), who spoke with OAW about one pathway to recovery: “We realized how important it was to reach out to each other.” This realization could be why we’ve seen a renewed interest from the community choirs in reaching out to our school music programs.

We could give it a name – collaboration, partnership, mentorship. But what’s happening is more of a joyful community groundswell for togetherness in music. Wait, what’s the theme of this year’s MIOSM: “Music Is All of US.” Wow! Did NAfME hit the center of the pitch on that one. Music is ALL of us.

Here’s some of what we are seeing. Adult choirs in our community are creating new and revving up existing initiatives to engage with school choirs and help enliven and bolster their programs. Just since last fall:

–  Reprise Choir enjoyed the participation of La Center, WA high school and middle school choirs in their March concert;

–  In Medio Choir’s recent “Sing, My Child” concert inaugurated a yearly invitational event in which four area choirs will perform with In Medio;

–  Choro In Schola, in its 11th season of performing and providing choral learning experiences in the Vancouver and Portland Metro schools, also resumed the exciting “Choral FX Festival”, in collaboration with Portland State’s choral program, in October;

–  Portland Symphonic Choir welcomed Franklin and South Ridge High School choirs to their holiday concerts; 

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Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

–  Eugene Concert Choir’s ECCO (Eugene Concert Choir Outreach) program continues to take the choir’s programming directly to classrooms; ECCO offers a children’s program in their series each year;

–  Pride of Portland, funded and assisted by local Sweet Adelines and Barbershop Harmony Society, just piloted a new outreach program with a visit to Century High School in Hillsboro;

–  Willamette Master Chorus continues their yearly live concert partnerships with schools throughout the Willamette Valley;

–  Vancouver Master Chorale included Battle Ground High School in their Halloween-themed Fall concert;

–  Choral Arts Ensemble once again shared stage time with Linn-Benton Community College in their Sydney Guillaume concert;

–  Pacific University invited Catlin Gabel choir to participate in their “Black History Month” concert (the snowed-out concert is rescheduled for April 14).

Kudos to the choral organizations who are sharing their space and their art. If you are aware of other offerings like these, please share them in the comment box below so we can applaud them as well.

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Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

A city of singing youth

Did you know that some of our long-standing community choirs were the parent organizations of Portland’s thriving community youth choirs? In 1989, Portland’s first public choir for girls, Portland Symphonic Girlchoir, was launched by Portland Symphonic Choir in partial response to the passage of the Measure 5 tax initiative which threatened public school music. Five years later PSC garnered support and wrote grants to fund the Portland Boychoir. Both organizations became independent and continue to this day. And this year there is exciting news about both choirs.

PSGC’s founding co-conductor and Executive Director Roberta Q. Jackson is one of the longest-serving founding choir directors in Oregon; her first PSGC downbeat was 34 years ago. She shares conducting responsibilities with co-conductor and manager Debra D. Burgess. A very special honor has come to them and to the Girlchoir next year: Jackson and Burgess have been invited to be guest conductors at Carnegie Hall. In June 2024, they’ll lead an invitational choir of SSA singers in repertoire to include works that the PSGC has commissioned and championed in their yearly “Music in the Making” event. Their next event is with composer Andrea Ramsey in mid-April; watch OAW for more about that concert. Read more about the history and impact of the PSGC here.

Many hundreds of singers have toured and participated in award-winning performances with PSGC across over decades. You might recognize one of the choir alums who has built a successful career in music – Naomi LaViolette, local composer, vocalist, and accompanist of Oregon Repertory Singers. 

A couple more thank-yous: Jackson remembers her high school choral teacher, Doug Harding, allowing her to conduct the choir and his encouragement as she went off to pursue her career. Burgess credits Barb Poulshock at Pacific Lutheran University for recognizing her vocal ability and passion for music. 

Exciting news from Portland Boychoir: their year-long search for a new conductor is over. New Artistic Director Joshua Sommerville is already working with the singers on their April concert repertoire. Momentum was powerful prior to the pandemic shutdown, with PBC offering multiple ensemble opportunities for treble and changing-voiced singers.

Portland Boychoir (front row) in Denver, singing with a local boy choir.
Portland Boychoir (front row) in Denver, singing with a local boy choir.

Immediate past Artistic Director Angela Hjertstedt utilized remote technology to meet the challenges of the pandemic and the choir ended their 2022 season with a successful tour to Denver to participate in the “Sing a Mile High” choir festival. Sommerville joins the choir with enthusiasm and an already remarkable connection to the wider Portland community since his move to Portland just this past fall. Read Sommerville’s bio on the Boychoir website.

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Metropolitan Youth Symphony Music Concert Rooted Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Indeed, community connections are what Sommerville has come to Portland to help nurture. In addition to the Boychoir, Sommerville is the new Director of Performing Arts at BRAVO Youth Orchestras in Portland. Oregon Arts editor Brett Campbell predicted in his April, 2021 profile of BRAVO: “As BRAVO recovers from the pandemic, it’s poised to bring its successful integration of music education and social change to more Oregon students.” Enter Joshua Sommerville.

Joshua Sommerville. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Joshua Sommerville. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Building upon BRAVO Youth Orchestra’s successful existing model, a pilot summer choir was launched at Portland’s Faubion Elementary last summer. Ten children were expected to attend, 32 children showed up. In a recent conversation with OAW, Sommerville laughed at some of the unexpected but kid-perfect things that happened…so perfect that he was hired. By September the first after-school BRAVO choir program was in progress at Jefferson. The youth ensemble’s October debut at a community event in Portland brought people to their feet.

Now the children at Sabin and Rosa Parks Elementary Schools are participating in their own BRAVO neighborhood choirs. You’ll have a chance to meet those young singers in an April community concert (which will also feature the Portland Boychoir) but you might have to look around for Sommerville. He places great trust in Asia Austin (Teaching Artist) and Jacquline Hayes (PSU Intern) to lead the children in concert. “I’m with everyone in this process to lead and guide but once the clock strikes 7 pm, it’s all in their hands,” said Sommerville. He wants young BRAVO artists to shine.

The Boychoir isn’t the only iconic Portland youth choral program to get a new Artistic Director. Pacific Youth Choir is pleased to welcome Chris Maunu to that position beginning in early summer. Founding and now Emeritus Conductor Mia Hall Miller’s retirement last year triggered a national search to fill the artistic role in a program that has blossomed over twenty years into multiple choirs for youth of all voices and ability levels. The Interim Director has been John Baker, one of those beloved public school music teachers who in “retirement” is one of the Portland metro region’s choral champions. 

The PYC relies on the talents of several local educators to lead the young singers from the Portland Metro and Vancouver region. How very exciting is the return of PYC’s “Neighborhood Choirs” program, supported by a grant from Chorus America. Keep close watch on this program as it expands to offer a choral music experience to children in underserved communities. And look forward to seeing new AD Chris Maunu on the podium next fall.

For 42 years the Oregon Children’s Choir has been providing experiences for young singers in the Lane County region. Founded by University of Oregon Professor Randall Moore, the choir has six choirs serving grades 1-12 and performs four home concerts a year. They have toured extensively and partnered with the Eugene Concert Choir and the Eugene Orchestra.

In Medford, the Rogue Valley Children’s Chorus grades 3-5, Cantare Chorus (6-8) and the Youth Ensemble (9-12) are the youth choirs of the Rogue Valley Chorale, now finishing their 50th season, the first with their new conductor Jerron Jorgensen.

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Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

In 1994 the Oregon Repertory Singers joined in to help meet the challenges of school music cutbacks by creating the Oregon Repertory Singers Youth Choir. This SATB choir program has maintained its connection with ORS and is now under the leadership of Artistic Director Aubrey Patterson. ORSYC received a tremendous boost last spring, when composer Eric Whitacre worked with the youth and adults of ORS. The choir program has expanded to include programs in the West and East Metro regions (with Elementary director Koren Russ) and most recently the North program, in Vancouver (with Elementary Director Amberlynn Lane). Enrollment is now open for ORSYC’s “Summer Sing” day camps for children in grades 1-5. 

What do all of these youth choir programs have in common? A desire to make choral music available to all children in our community. Many of the singers in these youth choirs also sing in their school choirs. Some have had no access to school choirs. These choirs also become safe and nurturing artistic families.

None of these wonderful organizations, however, are replacement for school choral music programs. We must never be willing to let our schools believe that these community organizations allow them to relinquish their responsibility. Certainly, school/community partnerships are valuable. Every child in every community is entitled to equitable access to a quality music program in their own school. 

What can you do to advocate and show appreciation for K-12 music in your community? Here are some fun suggestions framed specifically for a choral program, but they can be tailored to any music program.

If you are a student, you can:

Tell your fellow choir members that they are awesome and cool; get some of your non-singing friends to come in and tell the choir they are awesome; invite your principal to come into choir and tell your music teacher and the choir that they are awesome; write a thank you note to your awesome music teacher; make a banner that says “choir is awesome”; make up a song with a silly or thoughtful verse, teach it to your friends and sing it, however poorly, it to your awesome music teacher.

Another way to say thank you: Teacher Amber Schroeder, mentioned earlier, credits her East Orient band, choir and music educator Gene Burton for her desire to teach music. At the end of her eighth grade year, she told him that she would call him on his birthday every year to thank him. She does.

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Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

And also: Cappella Romana AD Alexander Lingas is thankful to John Bennett, teacher at St. Helen’s Hall (now OES) for nurturing his musicianship; Christian Clark, AD of Meistersingers in Bend says his Texas high school choir director Rae Moses instilled in him a deep love of choral music; Danielle Warner, Director of Choral Activities at George Fox, recalls the “ton” of repertoire Mr. McGuire taught her high school choir; Solveig Holmquist, AD of Festival Chorale in Salem, thanks Robert Belieu for letting her conduct the high school band rehearsals in Sheridan, OR.

What else can students and/or families do?

Write a note (without using the word awesome) to your District Superintendent describing all of the wonderful things about your school’s choral music program or teacher or students.

Make a joyful noise when wonderful choral music events happen at your school; make a less joyful noise – fortissimo – if you hear that a school choral program at any level might be cut. 

If you sing in a community choir, take a few moments to identify, high-five or hug the music educators who sing in your choir. Oh, wait, that might take hours.

You can register for the culminating MIOSM Advocacy Celebration Event on March 28, 4 pm Pacific Time. 

Hey, you know what, here’s another idea. Let’s make our local celebration of music education a whole year. Just us, right here; let’s decide that we are going to make 2024 a “music in our schools YEAR!” 

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Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

We hereby decree, with no given authority other than our knowledge about the value of school music for all and our passion for the musical arts, that 2024 will be the best music year ever for our children and our community. 

Because, NAfME’s right…music is all of us. 

Connections

Instrumental, too

Please take a moment to also notice and applaud all of the school bands and orchestras and chamber ensembles and educators. Partnerships with community and university ensembles continue to enrich our instrumental students. Oregon Symphony artists regularly visit and perform in our schools. After-school programs like BRAVO (as mentioned above) and Portland Jazz Youth Orchestra (profiled in OAW in March, 2022). Applaud the continuing marvelous music-making of the Eugene-Springfield Youth Symphony, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and the oldest youth orchestra in the nation, Portland Youth Philharmonic.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Daryl Browne is a music educator, alto, flutist and writer who lives in Beaverton, Oregon.

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