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Who Lights the Spark?

children choir

If I had to come up with the most important aspect of my work as a conductor you might not immediately guess, it would be the time and energy I invest in our youth. Each season, I set aside time in my schedule to work with students, coaching their school choirs, leading festivals as a clinician, adjudicating events and contests, and investing my talents in our youth.

My lifelong love of music was nurtured by the many great teachers I had along every step of my journey. While I have been fortunate to have many well-known mentors in my life from Robert Shaw and Erich Kunzel to Bach specialist Helmuth Rilling, it is often the names you wouldn’t know, like Graeme Cowen, Bob Mucha, and Greg Lyne who were responsible for watershed moments in my career. Likely, I wouldn’t have met any of them if it weren’t for middle school vocal instructor Harlan Gillespie and my high school band teacher Alan Mattison. They noticed something special in me, and because of them, a whole new world was opened up to me. Years later, it’s now my turn to help create that spark that can become a life-long pursuit of music in our students.

Key Chorale of Sarasota has dubbed our entire educational outreach program “Tomorrow’s Voices Today.” The name came from a very successful high school choral festival we began three years ago of same title. “Tomorrow’s Voices Today” really says it all; that the voices, these students we invest and share our passion with today, are also our voices of tomorrow. They are the ones that will follow my generation and continue to pay it forward to the next.


Having visited so many schools over the years has given me a unique perspective about the future of choral music. There are many strong programs throughout the country, led by talented and tireless music teachers. Because of their commitment, choral music is truly vibrant and growing. A 2009 survey by Chorus America showed over 10 million children are involved in a choir. Combined with adults, there are more than 32 million Americans singing everything from Bach and Handel, to Papoulis, Pärt, and Alice Parker. It is exciting to see so many people participate in this incredibly rewarding endeavor.

For Key Chorale’s annual high school choral festival, I work with three schools each season, giving me the opportunity to see each student twice before they graduate. I select four pieces for the combined festival choir of 200+ voices, which are challenging and represent a wide range of styles. Prior to all the choirs coming together, I work with each choir and their directors independently. In these sessions I focus on proper vocal techniques, musicianship, connecting with the lyrics, and most importantly, encourage them to perform at the highest levels they can and have them hear and feel the difference.

When the choirs come together for the very first time, it is a thrilling sound. Seeing singers, whose age ranges from students to seniors joining together as one and working to create something beautiful and meaningful is very powerful. Seeing the mentoring that goes on from seasoned veteran to student and vice versa underlines the ennobling experience singing together can be. Truly the sum is always greater than the individual parts and we need each other to create that magical sound we call choir.

One of my favorite festivals is called OrlandoFest. What I like most about this festival, is in addition to performing, competing, and getting written feedback from the judges, we have the opportunity to coach each of the ensembles for 15 minutes. While it doesn’t seem like much time, you would be amazed at how much you can get across and how quickly a concept or two can transform an entire program in a handful of minutes.

Over three weekends this season with OrlandoFest, I have heard everything from a show-stopping 120+ middle school choir from Commerce, Georgia to high school choirs, men’s choruses, jazz ensembles, madrigals and show choirs from the “Windy City” to East Sandwich, Massachusetts – each of them new members of this unique singing brother and sisterhood.

I look forward to my days working with some of tomorrow’s voices. They no doubt challenge and frustrate me at times, but most importantly they inspire me with their eagerness to improve, rewarding me with the joy that comes in taking each step with them!

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