Joshua Hartman’s eyes riveted on his director as he sang a medieval carol during a recent practice of the Foothill Children’s Chorus, based in Grass Valley.
He formed his lips into a large oval as he and the other boys in the alto section sustained a full sound, then they jumped to a series of quick notes, then they soared to fullness again.
Their serene faces masked their effort to conquer the complex structure of what sounded like a simple tune the chorus will perform in December and January. Hartman later called the result “a beautiful thing.”
The Nevada Union High School freshman has been in the chorus since its start in 2007. Though Hartman also sings in the high school choir, the 14-year-old returns to mentor middle-school choristers during weekly rehearsals at the base of operations at Peace Lutheran Church, near downtown.
“The chorus has taught me a lot of things in life I never would have learned,” Hartman said. “Before I started singing, I thought, eh, music is music. You listen to it. After I started singing, I thought, wow… it can change the world.”
Chorus Musical Director Catherine Dowling is looking for new recruits for the after-school program that teaches history, culture, art and foreign language as children learn to read music and sing. This fall has seen enrollment in the chorus slide – another side-effect of a still-poor economy and declining numbers of youth in western Nevada County.
Dowling is taking appointments now for auditions in January, preparing for a spring concert. (See box.) She has reason to hope for a rebound.
Dowling’s high standards – and her choristers’ enthusiasm for rising to the challenge – has landed a second invitation in two years for Foothill Children’s Chorus to sing with Music in the Mountains during that premier organization’s Holiday Pops Concert. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 and at 2 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Amaral Family Festival Center, Nevada County Fairgrounds.
The chorus will offer its full repertoire, including a medieval musical Christmas play, at 7 p.m. Dec. 15 and at 3 p.m. on Twelfth Night, Jan. 6, at Peace Lutheran Church, 828 W. Main St., near downtown Grass Valley.
Foothill Children’s Chorus is modeled on children’s choruses in San Francisco and Los Angeles, part of a movement started in Canada about 35 years ago to prepare children’s voices to accompany symphonic performances, Dowling said. Children responded so well to singing classical music that those choruses were continued independently.
Musical education at its finest level is the mission of Foothill Children’s Chorus.
“This is not just children’s music. This is real art … We hand on (the best of Western) culture to them,” said Dowling. It’s also a safe and orderly environment for children to experience beauty, she added.
Attention to detail teaches the children skills in other areas of their lives that they will carry into adulthood, said Rosann Mackey, Josh’s grandmother.
“Wherever they go, their voices are an instrument they can take with them,” added Mackey, who also is the chorus’ business manager.
Despite its richness, the chorus provides an economical musical education. Children learn to read a broad selection of music from around the world, hear about the cultures and times that produced that music, have a team-building experience, and gain the poise and confidence of performing
Chorus mom Aimee Retzler figures her two sons are receiving a musical education “for about $8 an hour,” she said.
For the community
Nevada County resident Cliff Thorson loved to sing, but his wife, Olga, “couldn’t carry a tune in a basket,” Olga Thorson laughed.
When Cliff died in 2004, he left money for the music program at Peace Lutheran Church, including the choir, Olga said.
Church member and violinist Ann Gaines heard of the generous bequest. It was far more than what the choir needed for its music, and the sum sparked her idea of something larger that would benefit the entire community, said Gaines.
She occasionally had accompanied Dowling’s choral program at Seven Hills Middle School, and had been impressed with Dowling’s “dedication and expertise,” Gaines added.
“I felt there was a hole in (classical) musical education for that age group in the community” outside of school-based instrumental programs, Gaines said.
She put a bug in the ear of Peace choir director Myrna Heppe. A former teacher in Nevada City, Heppe had taught Dowling’s son. And like Gaines and Dowling, Heppe believes in the power of music to enrich and shape a child’s life forever. All three women also had watched, with dismay, the slow decline of choral programs as schools cut back year after year.
“I called Cathy and said, ‘Would you be interested in a children’s chorus?’ And she said, ‘Oh, I’ve been dreaming of this!’” recalled Heppe, who now is vice-president of the chorus board.
“I thought, ‘At last, I have found people who believe in this as much as I do,’” Dowling said of that conversation.
“I thought it was magnificent,” Olga Thorson added.
‘Big, fat sound’
Dowling’s practice sessions – on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the church, with different levels meeting each day – begin right on time and sometimes a few minutes early.
“Every minute counts,” Dowling told her students at a recent practice session.
Standing in front of a semi-circle of 11 children in the higher-level group, Dowling lifted up her arms and brought them together in rhythm with accompanist Linda DeMartini on the piano. Dowling rose up onto her toes and lunged slightly to one side as she directed.
Suddenly, the slender figure stopped.
“Let’s go back to that C-sharp. Other people may not notice that you’re not all quite hitting it, but we want the sound to be right on the mark,” Dowling noted, then turned to one of the girls without missing a beat. “Take out your gum, please. Top of the measure. It has to be right. Ready, go.”
Children’s voices filled the plain room as if it were a European cathedral. Sweet, round sounds in three parts braided together and flowed apart again, serene and deeply moving at the same time.
“I want a big, fat sound,” Dowling called out. She stopped again to instruct them in properly placing their tongues against their teeth to get the just the right articulation. “Keep your eyes on me or on your music. OK, let’s go.”
The children responded with words in German, singing “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star,” by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Other works are in Latin, Hebrew, Japanese, French, Spanish and Czech. Sacred chants, folk songs and sea shanties all find their way into the chorus’ audible braid.
“It takes a tight ship for (Dowling) to have that sound,” Retzler said.
Looking to grow
Music forms a strong current in the Lutheran heritage – Bach was Lutheran and composed for his church – and so does giving back to the community, Peace’s Rev. Richard Johnson said.
“When we received the (Cliff Thorson) bequest, there was a strong feeling in the congregation that… we wanted to give that gift to these kids, and through these kids, to the community,” Johnson said.
About $10,000 of Thorson’s bequest went into starting Foothill Children’s Chorus, said Johnson, who also is president of the chorus’ board.
Now, expenses are paid through tuition from chorus members, ranging from $500 to $700 per year, according to the child’s level; payment plans and scholarships are available. (Weekly private music lessons easily can start at $900 yearly.) Parents also organize fundraisers and sometimes seek sponsorships, Johnsons said.
The church continues to support the chorus by offering office space, a place to practice, administrative support for things such as payroll for the three paid employees, and coverage under its insurance – all at no cost to the chorus, Johnson said.
If the chorus had to pay for all that, expenses would run “about $50,000 a year,” he estimated.
“And like other musical groups, ticket sales don’t cover anywhere near that.”
More than 100 children have gone through the program, but enrollment now is down to about 22. Ideally, about 60 children in third through ninth grade would be placed at the chorus’ three levels, Dowling said.
Charter schools and home-schoolers are taking advantage of the secular program, along with children from public schools, Johnson said.
“Besides getting a good vocal instrument, (choristers) learn this rich history behind the pieces that they sing,” Heppe added. “It’s not just, come and sing for an hour or two.”
The experience “has changed my life,” Hartman said of his five years in the chorus.
Last year, Hartman’s grandmother took him to Washington, D.C., and they visited the National Cathedral. Just a few tourists were walking around.
Josh was filled with both fear and excitement as he took a daring step. He sang “Ave Maria” in the cavernous space.
“I was surprised I could do that without my whole choir being behind me,” Hartman said.
“It’s kind of like soccer: Everybody backs everybody up, and if you fall down, they help you up.”
Singing alone, Hartman had a new sense of himself.
“I thought, wow, music is a great thing.”
Grass Valley resident and freelance writer Trina Kleist can be reached at email@example.com or (530) 575-6132.