City Singers Children’s Choirs
Seeing The World Through The Lens Of Music
by Charles McGuigan
Basil Smith considers music an essential ingredient of life, as necessary as water and air for the well-being of spirit, body and mind. As vice-president of the board of City Singers Children’s Choirs, he is an advocate for passing on the love of music from one generation to the next because he understands that without that love a culture may perish.
We’re sitting at Stir Crazy in the rear of the coffee shop along with Leslie Dripps and Mara Smith who serve as artistic directors for the two choirs that make up City Singers. We sit on a couch and in overstuffed chairs as Basil talks about something that happened many years ago. It struck a deep chord that resonates within him to this day.
“When we talk about music I go back to one of the great influences of my life—Arthur Hugh MacKenzie,” he says. “I remember it very clearly, he was teaching us ‘The Seekers’ by John Masefield and said to us that even animals are pacified by music.”
He pauses and looks me directly in the eyes. “That Charles,” says Basil. “That has sort of been my mantra all along. We are just pacified by hearing music and I’ve never forgotten that and that’s driven my love for music. There is not a day that I’m not doing something with music. It’s part of my life. It has to be and I sort of hope that when I go the last thing I hear is a piece of music.”
There is music in his head now playing out in memory and he is listening to it. “The most marvelous piece of music I have ever heard in my life is Mendelssohn’s sixth sonata,” Basil tells me. “Listen to it sometime, Charles, you’ll enjoy it.” Later that morning I do just that: I listen and enjoy, and Basil may be right.
City Singers choirs trace their roots back to the mid-nineties and a group called the Neighborhood School for the Arts. A few years later Neighborhood School for the Arts folded, but the City Singers continued on. Since the choirs’ birth nearly twenty years ago they have always practiced and performed at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church.
“I tell you,” says Basil. “The one constant in all we do is the Ginter Park Presbyterian Church. They’ve been stalwarts in this effort. As a matter of fact, they are the ones who gave us the seed money to start this program in the 1990s; they gave us about ten thousand dollars.”
Leslie Dripps, who sits next to Basil, studied music and music education at James Madison University, worked for Richmond City and Hanover County public schools, then began volunteering as an assistant director with City Singers under David McCormack, the director of the group at the time. Her charges at City Singers are the older kids—sixth through twelfth grade—and every one of them learns more than just singing. They learn to interact with one another in an age when electronic media in one form or other has made islands of many.
“People want their children to learn how to engage with beauty and identify beauty and create beauty and singing is something that provides all of those things for young people,” says Leslie. “But there’s more to it than that. In this day and age we need it now more than ever because with the dawn of radio and television we have gone from being active participants in music to mere audience members. People are beginning to realize the poverty of not being the creator of this beautiful art. Choir allows children to become the artists themselves and to interact with one another and the group. At a time entertainment was not passive; it was active. Choir is active.”
Leslie believes that at times teachers erroneously make music secondary to other disciplines, when the exact opposite is the truth. “A trend in education that we have been seeing for the last ten years or so has been trying to relate music to other core subjects, as they call them, which actually as a music educator I disagree with very strongly and the reason is that music has intrinsic value,” she says. “It doesn’t need to be related to mathematics; it doesn’t need to be related to language arts; it is all of those things and more.”
Once music is seen as nothing more than a support for language arts or mathematics or history, funding for music sometimes dries up during budgetary constraints. “When we start defining it like that then suddenly the money for music becomes extra,” says Leslie. “It’s no longer the core of the curriculum. It becomes something that supports everything else which is really, really wrong-headed. Consider that the greatest mathematical debates from the fourth century through the seventeenth century centered around music.”
Each year City Singers performs two concerts at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church—one in the winter and the other in the spring. This year’s wintertide concert called Song for the Animals will be performed 4 pm Saturday, January 25 and the spring concert, Songs of Myth and Legend will be presented 4 pm Saturday, May 17.
The students work tirelessly at their craft meeting every Tuesday night at the church for practice and during the late summer they participate in a week long music camp. The annual fee for a full season of instruction is $415, though Basil is quick to point out, “Nobody gets turned away. We subsidized and we offer scholarships and a lot of the children have a chance to pay in installments. No one is excluded.”
Mara Smith teaches the younger children at City Singers, is artistic director of the Neighborhood Singers choir. She received a bachelor’s in music and French at William and Mary and is about to graduate from the music education program at VCU. Like Leslie, Mara is absolutely passionate about music. “Music as I’ve come to discover is the only thing I can stand to do all day, every day and I can’t possibly imagine doing anything else all day every day,” she says. “Whether I’m practicing myself or thinking of a lesson plan or just brainstorming about things that I want to do with my students or engaged with the students themselves I find it’s the only way I know how to spend time.” Mara plays piano and dabbles in guitar and drums. “The more ready we are to approach music with different mediums and different instruments the more likely we are to attract as many students as we can,” she says. “I just think if we can get really young people singing as soon as possible they’re going to be so much better off than if they hadn’t had that experience. That’s how I approach what I do as far as my singers go.”
She tells me that her students learn much in the way of vocabulary through their choir lessons. “They encounter things in texts that they may not know and they use their minds figuring out what things mean in the context of the music because sometimes music paints the picture so well,” says Mara. “As much as I can I try to incorporate vocabulary. I think it’s terribly important for kids to have really strong vocabulary so they can use their voices and know what to say.”
Leslie is nodding in agreement all the while. “It’s not about creating divas,” she says. “It’s not about creating pop stars who are going to go off and make a million and a half dollars. We want our students to be confident and competent in their voices. Once you have that skill you can go on and do anything that you set your mind to.”
And music, according to Mara, enables someone to see the world in utterly different ways. “Music is a lens that you can use to focus on all different kinds of things,” she says. “You can delve into different subjects, different parts of the world, different types of people, different experiences.”
Several days later on an evening that is sodden and raw and cold, the parking lot behind Ginter Park Presbyterian Church is full to capacity. Headlights slice through a beating rain that comes down in sheets as children leave the warmth of their parents’ cars and beneath the protection of umbrellas make their way down into the basement of the church.
Inside it is warm and once my ears recover from the numbing assault of the drumming rain I can hear the stomping of feet in a measured cadence and then human voices—young ones—raised in song and harmonizing.
I sit on a folding chair in the back of a room where twenty-two young people sit in similar chairs. At the front of the room a woman plays a grand piano and Leslie Dripps stands before a music stand and her hands are in constant motion pointing to different parts of the choir.
During a break I talk with a handful of the kids.
Campbell Griffin, a sixth grader, has been attending choir classes here for three years. “I like how I get to learn to sing and learn different strategies of singing,” she says. “We learn when to breathe and when not to breathe.”
Jacob Myers and Nathan Mabiar tell me that they enjoy all of the music they learn. “I pretty much like every type of music,” says Jacob.
And then Emma Marie Dulog joins me. She is a poised eighth grader who has been studying voice under Leslie Dripps for more than six years and tells me things about music and language that no scholar or book could ever impart.
“I’ve played several instruments throughout the years, but there’s no other instrument like the human voice,” she says. “And to make the instrument work you use your whole body. Music starts in your chest and comes up through your vocal chords and Ms. Dripps teaches us how to use our whole body. She tells us that you need to move your body and you need to exercise. Her favorite expression is, ‘How you look is how you sound. So if you slouch and don’t sit tall that’s how our voice sounds. But if you sit up tall and use your whole body your voice sounds beautiful.’ That’s a great skill for life later on.”
Along with her voice, Emma also plays piano and concert harp and has played with a harp ensemble before audiences at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. “Our harp teacher tells us we need to make our instrument sound like a human voice,” says Emma. “You have phrases when you sing and in music you have the same kind of phrases on the instrument you play.” When the harp or the piano is played just right you can actually hear a human voice emerge in song, she says. In poetry, particularly the lyric sort, Emma can hear the music. “You can hear a song in your head as you read,” she says. “You can hear the phrasing. With certain consonants you can hear the beat of a drum.”
Emma considers the eternal nature of music, humanity’s stamp that outlasts everything else. “There are very few things that have lasted as long as music,” she says. “Entire cities are torn down and only a few not very useful artifacts remain. But music is something that has stayed with us from the very beginning. And we still have this music and we keep getting better at it.”
A while later when I leave the church and head for my car the rain has lightened up a bit and stiff wind blows through the parking lot. Inside the car I remember the words Basil spoken to me a half hour before as the students in Leslie Dripps class sang rounds of an ancient African song. His sonorous voice was low in deference to these student singers.
“You teach a child to sing and they’re never the same person after that,” Basil said. “Never.”
“Why is that?”
“I think, Charles, there is a sort of refinement that comes to children when they learn to sing,” he said. “Some of it is intangible, but there’s a sort of refinement, a sense of wellness that comes to a child once he or she has learned to sing.”
“And you take that with you forever?”
“For the rest of your life,” said Basil Smith.