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Local voices unite for the love of music

Posted on Thursday, February 13, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Stephanie Phillips' choir at Northumberland Elementary School

Stephanie Phillips’ choir at Northumberland Elementary School

Between American Idol, The X Factor and The Voice, there is a collective passion among people for enjoying singers and wanting to sing themselves.
And for residents of Northumberland County and the Northern Neck, there are plenty singing opportunities to be had.
From area choirs to the schools,  people of all ages are able to flex their vocal muscles as well as enjoy singing performances that feature a wide range of music from classical pieces to current hits and powerful, uplifting songs.
And with new directors and instructors in place, local choirs are aiming to take their programs to the next level in featuring a greater number and range of singers, as well as fostering long-lasting interest in chorus.

Northumberland Middle School and Northumberland High School

For Northumberland Public Schools graduate and choral music instructor Latasha Lee, the students have already shown tremendous growth in both their singing abilities and self-confidence in just her first year as the director of Northumberland’s middle and high school choirs.
When the class first began, the students were timid to sing anything, Lee said.
But in less than six months, they have already progressed to where “they think they can do anything now.”
She related the revelation of Megan Jaunarajs, a high school senior who was taking choir for the first time and didn’t know what to expect.
“One day I was auditioning them for a duet…and she raised her hand and said she would like to try it,” said Lee. “And I was so blown away by her voice!”
Jaunarajs received a standing ovation for her singing at their Christmas concert, and now, Lee said, all she talks about in class is a career in music.
“She said, ‘Mrs. Lee, I want you to be my manager when I move to California,’” Lee recalled with a laugh. “She told me, ‘Mrs. Lee, I’ve gotten positive feedback from my friends.’ She was so proud of herself.”

In addition to the staff members, Lee said the parents have been extremely supportive, especially after the Christmas Concert.
“They came to me and said they were so glad I was here and they could see that the kids were actually enjoying being in the choir,” said Lee.
With her arrival, students have been able to pick some of the songs for their performances, including Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” for their upcoming Spring Concert, and even hold sing-offs in class.
But Lee also features music of her own choosing in order to introduce students to music they may not normally hear, from Duke Ellington’s jazzy cover of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” to the spiritual “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.”
And the students are being more receptive in learning new things, Lee noted. In fact, her students have surprised her with what they sing in class.
“The kids bring me songs that I’ve never heard before that are so touching and inspirational, and I always ask them ‘Where did you hear this song?’ and it’s always from church!” Lee said. “One little girl had me in tears because the song she sang was so beautiful, and I actually used one of the pieces [Carry Your Candle] in the Christmas Concert.”
Beyond this year, Lee is considering plans to add an afterschool choir to her program for those who want to join chorus but can’t because of their class schedules.
Lee also ultimately aspires to  form a show choir or “Glee Club” at Northumberland schools after noticing strong interest in such a possibility from students both inside and outside of the choir.

Northumberland Elementary School

As students in the middle and high schools strengthen their passion for choir, many children at Northumberland Elementary are beginning their musical journey with teacher Stephanie Phillips.
“Introducing my students to new songs, instruments and musical aspects is exactly why I entered this profession,” said Phillips. “I love exposing them to new things and watching them light up when they learn something new or get to play an instrument for the first time.”
In addition to teaching K-5 general music, Phillips directs a 40-student 5th grade choir in the fall as they prepare for their winter holiday concert and a fourth grade choir that puts on a spring program.
“In my choir we work very hard on not just preparing for a performance, but growing as musicians,” said Phillips. “We learn more in depth musical terms and concepts that extend beyond what may be taught in my regular classroom.”
Students also learn how to work with others and develop practice skills that can be applied to both music as well as the regular classroom, Phillips said.
As for future plans, Phillips expressed interest in expanding her choir program to add performances at other venues and maybe even adding a drama aspect to chorus or forming a whole new group.
“I really want students to be comfortable with being in front of an audience, because that really helps prepare for public speaking as well, which is a wonderful skillset to have,” said Phillips.

Since coming to Northumberland Elementary, Phillips has learned that putting on a great concert is important to not only herself, but the students as well.

“This past winter, I lost several of my rehearsals due to weather and hadn’t seen them in over a week and we were not even able to have a dress rehearsal,” said Phillips. “Yet the night of the concert they did wonderful and sang so beautifully that no one would have ever guessed they had lost so much rehearsal time.

“It’s truly an awesome thing to watch these kids grow and care so deeply about something, especially music,” she added.

Phillips’ choirs are “bursting at the seams with personalities” and that there is always a lighthearted moment or funny story coming out of her rehersals, whether it’s because of something comical that she or one of her children had done.

“We have a lot of fun, but there is a lot of hard work thrown into the mix, which is why I think my groups grow in number each year,” said Phillips. “It’s an expressive outlet where they can grow as musicians and individuals while letting out a little energy through music.”

Like Lee, Phillips was also witness to an uplifting moment in her class just recently.

“A fellow teacher’s first grade daughter comes to me for general music and I’ve been told on several occasions how much this child has grown to love music and singing and how she has really come out of her shell,” said Phillips. “A few weeks ago, I was teaching them how to notate music and what certain sounds mean and such and later that afternoon, not only did she teacher her mother what she had learned, but she decided to teacher her four year old brother as well and she was as in depth as I was with her ‘students’ as I was with her.

“The next day, she came in proudly and told me that she was teaching her mommy and brother music just like I taught her,” said Phillips. “It’s the little things like receiving hugs and thank you notes from the students and seeing the excitement on their face as they tell me ‘I get to come to you today, I’m so excited, I can’t wait!'”

Chesapeake Chorale

Since 1996, the non-profit, volunteer-run Chesapeake Chorale has been working to keep area music programs alive and thriving, having given $140,000 in equipment and money over the years to schools in Northumberland, Lancaster, Middlesex, Mathews and Gloucester counties.
“The letters that we get from the music teachers are unbelievable,” said Chesapeake Chorale Board member Hennie McGonegal. “This money lets them go on field trips, it goes towards instruments, uniforms [and] competition events.”
McGonegal and Artistic Director Dr. Cheryl Brown Davis said the Chorale, which holds one annual concert at Christmas, is thinking about encouraging younger students to come out and sing in concert.
Davis and McGonegal stressed that the Chorale is open to all singers from all counties and that no auditions are required.
The Chesapeake Chorale features a wide range of vocal ability and experience and explores several musical genres in their song selections, from familiar pieces to selections that Davis and McGonegal said are intended to be inspired and artistic.
“We use popular Christmas music that everyone would hear on the radio. We try to recreate the sounds of everything from ‘White Christmas’ to [Bill and Gloria Gaither’s] ’Listen to the Angels Singing,’ said Davis. “We use American spirituals, the traditional choral repertoire of Austrian, German, French and Hungarian [selections] and carols that you would hear and have heard all your life.”
“People come to the concerts the first weekend in December and [they say] ‘I am ready for Christmas!’” said McGonegal.
For this coming year, the Chorale will be holding their rehearsals for the 2014 Christmas Concert at Kilmarnock United Methodist Church Monday evenings, Sept. 8 through Nov. 17.
Despite the move, however, McGonegal and Davis said Harmony Grove Baptist Church had been very supportive in lending the Chorale their facilities for 18 years.
S. Douglas Harris, who has played with the Richmond Symphony, and Winter McCrobie, the former band director at Northumberland Public Schools, continue to accompany concerts for the Chesapeake Chorale.
Davis in turn recognized former Chorale Director Matt Rosendahl, for his role in elevating the organization to the musical and artistic level at which it stands now.
“We want to make the musical level continue to rise and get some more folks in who may have left for one reason or the other…and get some new people who have moved into the area,” said Davis.
To learn more about the Chespeake Chorale, visit