In August of 2015 I had the truly enjoyable opportunity to tell readers of Athens Now about the Heritage Children’s Chorale, and to speak at length with their founder, Mary Stephenson. Mary is also the choir director at First United Methodist Church in Athens, and she is both a highly trained musician herself, and I can say as well from personal observation, she is an excellent chorale director.
When Mary contacted me regarding writing another advertorial for the Christmas concerts to be held in Athens and Pulaski, TN, she invited me to attend a practice. The plan was for me to see just what was “cookin’ with the Chorale,” and hear them for myself. I came zooming into the foyer to head upstairs to the choir room, and the inexplicably marvelous sound of children’s voices washed down the steps and drenched me in delight.
“Oh, wow,” I said to myself, as I quickly climbed the stairs. “They are really good.” I snuck in, sat in the back, and allowed myself to be mesmerized by a number of favorite holiday pieces, including the Youth version of Handel’s Messiah. I found myself singing quietly along with them, and no one seemed to mind. They were focused on their director, and it was an encouraging thing to experience.
What was impressive to me was the quality of voice lessons the children were getting as they were practicing. Mary draws out and develops the very best in them, and with firmness, humor and repetition, teaches them vocal production at a level that is not often seen in a smaller town setting.
Most folks are familiar with the song, “Sleigh Ride,” but can probably only comfortably sing, “Come on, it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you.” The rest of the lyrics are fast, complicated, and not at all easy, but these kids can do it.
Many of the members of HCC stay with the Chorale for ten years, from the ages of 8 to 18, and it’s easy to see why. The level of camaraderie and commitment is high, the older ones help the younger ones, and it is indeed a community whose bonds last beyond the age of 18.
Nearly 30 years ago, Mary became concerned with the lack of choral training available to “regular kids in the neighborhood.” Chorus was dropped from schools, singing as a community in general was waning, and she wanted to pay forward the opportunity she had been given as a child growing up in New York City. The Chorale was born, has branches in Athens and Pulaski, and the vision burns brightly to this day.
“We have had parents come and hear their children sing solos, and previously had no idea their child could not only sing, but could sing well,” she told me. “They genuinely have been shocked,” she added. She went on to tell me that she very much wanted people to understand that “These are just average kids. They do sports, belong to other organizations, but when they are here, they work hard, and it pays off.”
Lining the walls of the choir room are advertising posters of almost 3 decades of past performances. There are also motivational posters, and I particularly liked two of them. One said, “Learn to sing, and once you’ve learned, sing.” The other was entitled “Passion,” and in part, says, “Passion motivates us to risk, trust, and attempt great things for the right reasons.”
The Heritage Children’s Chorale has built trust between the children, parents, and Mary, and the attempt at doing “great things for the right reasons” speaks for itself.
I asked Mary, “Why, when during the holidays there are any number of concerts available to be attended, should someone attend the HCC Christmas Concert?” She had several answers:
“There is nothing more inspiring and life-giving than watching children. People are swept away by the beautiful faces and voices of children, especially at Christmas time.”
She thought a little more, and said:
“We are constantly hearing about problems with kids, either on the news, or in the movies, or in our schools or neighborhoods. Anytime you have the chance to see young people standing up, 45 of them, and doing something good, it gives a great boost of hope. Good things are being done by kids. It is simply a matter of great things and goodness.”
If you could use a “great boost of hope” this holiday season, then I highly recommend you attend one or both of their concerts. The Pulaski, TN concert will be held at 7 pm on Thursday, December 10th at the First Presbyterian Church, 202 Second Street. The Athens concert will be held at the First United Methodist Church on Monday, December 14th at 7 pm. The address is 208 West Hobbs Street. Admission is free, and there will be a love offering taken. I hope you will join me for a boost of hope, and a reminder of the great things and goodness that can come from doing things for the right reasons.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner