Nearly 30 years ago, Mary Stephenson, founder of the Heritage Children’s Choir of the South, saw a great need in our area, and poured her energy into meeting it. What was the need? Preserving the presence of choral music in the Tennessee Valley. Why is it so important? It has long been thought that music makes kids smarter, but that’s only the beginning of the benefits. However, before we talk about the perks of having your kids participate in the Chorale, let’s talk a bit about “Heritage’s history.”
The Heritage Children’s Chorale of the South is a professional children’s chorus made up of young people ranging in age from eight to eighteen. The Chorale was established in Pulaski in 1988, by Mary Stephenson, who continues today as the director, and through the support and sponsorship of First National Bank of Pulaski. In 1997, an additional chapter was established in Alabama. Mary has also been the director of music at First United Methodist Church for 22 years. Her accompanist is Canna Ricketts, who is a teacher at Athens High School. Together Mary, Canna, the kids, the volunteers, and the parents make the Chorale what it is: an extraordinary musical opportunity for kids at a more than reasonable price. Auditions are very low key, no prepared selection is required, and they are open to both girls and boys.
Mary teaches the kids that their whole body is “an instrument you carry with you,” and I share her belief that being able to sing decently is an extremely important and attainable skill for all children. With as many choices for activities for kids these days, music lessons and voice lessons are often being neglected. With each Chorale practice being only 90 minutes, once a week, it is perfectly possible to pursue other interests without kids getting burned out. What is boggling to my mind is that the fee per year to be a part of the Chorale is only $150.00. To get vocal training and experience of this quality from a versatile, seasoned professional for such a low price is unheard of. These days, the going price for private voice lessons is $50 per lesson, and that doesn’t begin to provide the camaraderie, purpose, and “transferable skills” that can be found in being a part of something that is greater than one’s self, and produces such beauty for all.
One of those “transferable skills” that kids develop as part of being a part of the Chorale could be loosely described as “performance skills.” Performance skills are things such as showing up when you have something else you’d rather do, being polite and professional when you’d rather not, learning how to stand, project your voice and be poised while you’re at it, learn about musical nuance, and most of all enjoying the fruit of your labors because you did your best. Through trial and error, Mary has developed what she affectionately calls “The Mary Stephenson Blitz Method of Music Education,” which is an immersion style of teaching music that has paid off greatly. The Chorale has performed throughout the South, at Disney World, in Nashville, has been a part of the recordings of famous artists, and has even been invited to perform all over Europe.
Over the years, some of Mary’s “kids” stayed with her and the Chorale for 10 years, and the friendships made by the members last longer. She has this to say about what participants can expect to experience: “Children in the choir receive voice lessons each week, are provided performance opportunities to share their talent, experience the chance to work with various musical professionals, participate in tour engagements, and make lasting friendships.”
I have personally heard these kids practice as well as perform, and as someone who has been involved in music all my life, I can say they are very good. Mary and I share the belief that humans were designed to be musical, and I appreciate the fact that she is willing to work so hard to draw forth the talents she knows are in there. What sets this Chorale apart is that the pressures and “diva presence” that is often present in other groups just isn’t there. “They work hard, that’s true, but they enjoy it,” said Mary.
Right now Mary is toying with what will be in the musical line-up for Christmas. She said, “Every year I try to think about doing a new, delightful take on Christmas. The kids have to enjoy it if they are going to work hard and still love to sing, so we do a mix of sacred and secular. I am toying with the idea of “Christmas Around The World.”
She closed our time with a simple invitation and request to both parents and kids: “Give me an hour and a half per week.” I can say with conviction that you and your child will be glad that you did.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner