Joy of singing: Durham Children’s Choir marks 10th anniversary

May. 15, 2014 @ 09:45 AM

After putting her choir through those paces familiar to anyone who has ever sung in a group – scales, vocalizations, diction exercises – Scott Hill works on musicianship with members of the Durham Children’s Choir. Rehearsing a piece titled “Jabberwocky” by composer David Brunner, Hill tells her students to sing a passage “forte, but not screeching.”

This particular piece also has some choreography (also called “choralography”), that Edie Sanders helps to coach at this rehearsal. When the students reach a difficult rhythmic passage, Hill stresses that the lyric and movement must be “on the same beat.”
For 10 years, Hill has been teaching students in third through ninth grades the choral music of composers ranging from Franz Schubert, Irving Berlin, to contemporary composers like Tom Shelton and Will Todd, both of whom have written original works for the Durham Children’s Choir.
Hill founded the choir 10 years ago and has been its director. At a 10th anniversary concert Sunday, Hill will hand off that leadership to Dena Byers, associate director, and conduct her last concert for the choir.
Hill retired after teaching choral music for 30 years in the Durham Public Schools, and then founded the Durham Children’s Choir. “When I retired I was really exhausted from teaching five classes a day and having about 250 kids a day, but I didn’t want to quit working with children and teaching children,” Hill said. While Durham has a well-established boys’ choir, there was not a choir for children, and Hill “wanted to have a place where all children can come and sing. I love teaching them the joy of singing.”
Since its founding, the choir has sung concerts in Durham’s sister cities of Toyama, Japan, and Durham, England, and sung with guest artists like Bobby McFerrin and the Kronos Quartet.
The choir’s repertoire over the decade has grown to 250 pieces. At Sunday’s concert, the choir will perform popular and classical works, and a new composition that Tom Shelton, of Westminster Choir College in New Jersey, has composed for the choir titled “Luminescence.” Hill wanted to have a commissioned piece for the anniversary concert and Shelton “was our unanimous choice,” she said. He had previously written a composition marking her retirement from teaching. When he agreed to write the composition, Shelton said he would like to set words written by a choir member. Naomi Wagner wrote a poem and sent it to Shelton, who was so impressed that he asked Wagner to add to the poem.
The choir does a run-through of the piece at rehearsal. “Luminescence” has challenging changes in tempo and meters, but the choir caught on quickly to Shelton’s composition. “Children feel meter changes a lot better than we do,” Byers said. “That’s the joy of working with children,” Hill said of the piece. “You teach something with passion and beauty and joy, and they accept it and make it their own rather rapidly.”
Ukiah Barnes, 14, who has sung in the choir for two years, welcomes a more difficult piece. “Everything is a challenge,” she said. “I’m a person who likes to challenge myself, which is what I like about this choir.” Singing in the choir also gives students musical opportunities they might not otherwise have, said Eliza Stewart, 13, such as singing at Duke Chapel and working with chapel music director Rodney Wynkoop, she said.
Emily Turkington and Christopher Camitta, both 15 and about to age out of the choir, said the group has given them a sense of community. Turkington said she likely will continue to be an assistant to the new choir director.
During her career as a teacher, Hill has seen former students continue in music careers. She has a former student who graduated from New England Conservatory, and one in a touring show of “Porgy and Bess.” And she hopes that students who are not in music are passing on the love of music to their children.
Hill directs a choir at The Forest at Duke retirement community, and recently began a choir at Croasdaile Village retirement community, and will continue directing those groups. “The human voice is the first instrument you make music with,” Hill said. “With the voice your own body is your instrument, and there’s unbelievable joy in that.” 

Go and Do

WHAT: Durham Children’s Choir 10th anniversary concert
WHEN: Sunday, 3 p.m.
WHERE: Baldwin Auditorium, Duke University East Campus
ADMISSION: Free (suggested donation of $10 to support the choir)