A Choir That Strikes Accord
December 15, 2020
- Southwestern University
A recent study commissioned by Chorus America found that “choruses are powerhouses of connection and tolerance,” with 73% saying singing with a group makes them feel less lonely and 63% believing singing has made them more accepting of people different from them. Choral groups have proven to be an invaluable creative outlet for people of all backgrounds to build their voices and communities together, and Southwestern is lucky to have a choir that welcomes anyone on campus who loves to sing.
The Southwestern University (SU) Singers is a choir made up of students, faculty, staff, and some Georgetown community members from all different backgrounds. Separate from the Southwestern University Chorale, which is a selective choir that calls for a certain level of proficiency to join, SU Singers is inclusive of everyone from music majors to those still learning to read music. It is directed by Assistant Professor of Music Beth Everett, who took over leadership of the choirs after Professor Emeritus Kenny Sheppard stepped down in 2018. In the past two years, Everett has built the program up from around 25 members to 60 as of last spring.
The choir’s repertoire ranges from Beethoven to Bernstein, incorporating a diverse mix of classical works, Broadway showtunes, spirituals, and gospel tunes. They have performed powerful ballads from new musicals such as Dear Evan Hansen, as well as stunning mass ordinaries (i.e., sacred compositions) in conjunction with the Southwestern Chorale and orchestra. Everett says her aim with SU Singers’ music selection is “to keep it a balance of things that challenge, things that entertain the audience, and things that will benefit [the choir] in different ways.”
SU Singers does not require an audition to join, but its members are dedicated to improving their skills and producing excellent concerts each year. Students must register for the course, and faculty, staff, and community members join the rehearsals held two days a week to prepare for a public performance at the end of each semester. Fall concerts are often held in the Bishops Lounge outside of the Commons, where passersby can stop and enjoy the performance before heading to lunch or their next class. Everett believes the audience’s enthusiasm for last year’s fall concert was a driving factor for boosted enrollment in the spring. “We had so many people who came to that and said, ‘I’m joining next semester,’” she shares. “And they did.”
As inspiring as it is to watch an SU Singers concert, it is even more fun to be a part of it. I joined the choir last fall, after attending a couple concerts and hearing their lovely rehearsals ringing through the halls from my office in the Fine Arts Building. I have always found joy in singing, and the commitment to making music with a group of colleagues and students has been a highlight of my work week in the past year. Knowing that I am not alone in my appreciation for this community, I asked other members to share why they also love being a part of SU Singers.
Christian Erben ’21, theatre major
Everyone in the choir is at a different level and phase of their journey in choral music. For some, this is the first time they have ever been in a choir and a community like this, and for others, they have been doing choir for years. It doesn’t matter where you are; [Dr. Everett] makes the group inclusive and open to all. She does such a good job of making it an inclusive and judgement-free environment and also makes it so fun and stress free. It’s my favorite class I have! Everyone feels comfortable with each other, and I feel safe to sing out and make mistakes. When I do make mistakes, I never feel judged, but I always feel I learn from them. [Dr. Everett] sincerely wants every person in the class to understand the notes and terms and works hard to make sure everyone fully grasps those concepts. She is patient with everyone, from new musicians to seasoned ones, and makes this class a positive experience for all. We feel like a family.
Christy Schaller, director of biology and chemistry laboratory support
It has been so much fun to be a part of SU Singers with Dr. Everett, students, and other coworkers. Uplifting and joyful are two words that come to mind!
Sarah Barton ’20, psychology major
I loved working with both Dr. Sheppard and Dr. Everett, but I especially loved these last two years. Getting to sing with SU Singers along with other students and faculty was so much fun and helped me relieve any stress that I had. My favorite concert was the fall 2019 concert. It was so much fun dancing to our songs. SU Singers means so much to me and I hope that future students and faculty will find that same joy.
Erin Taylor, visiting assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry
I have been in a lot of choirs, and very few create a community of acceptance and love as SU Singers. Dr. Everett and the students of Southwestern are so supportive of each other, especially when people audition for solos.
Sierra Burton ’23, psychology major
I am a psychology major and have been in SU Singers for only one semester. Even still, I gained a lot of confidence being in this organization. I’ve always loved to sing but didn’t start being adamant [about] look[ing] for opportunities to do so until I joined. I let my thoughts of messing up get in the way of doing something I love to do. It was uncomfortable at first, being in an environment where I did not know anyone, and I also had no background in [singing]. Before going into choir, I played the saxophone, so singing with others was a new realm to me. Although I focus on a different type of singing, SU Singers has allowed me to push my voice to its limits and has also helped me learn different breathing and vocal techniques. Having a community to sing with so that even if you have a bad day, you know you’re not alone and they are there to support you is an amazing feeling. Signing up for SU singers in the spring of 2020 was one of the best decisions I made this year.
Angela Labenski, campus operator
Music has been a part of my life since I can remember: orchestra, band, church choir, school choir, show choir, and always at home. I graduated high school in 1988 thinking that would be the last time I would be instructed [in] and perform choir music. I never dreamed of the possibility because I did not know of the opportunity. I never imagined the opportunity would be offered from [the] highly regarded music program at Southwestern University. Music has helped me through some of the toughest situations I have been faced with. And even now, it hasn’t let me down. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to be a part of Southwestern University Singers.
David Utterback, part-time instructor of music and SU Singers accompanist
SU Singers was created at a time when it became apparent that there was more interest in a choral singing experience at Southwestern than could be accommodated by the Southwestern University Chorale. Originally an ensemble composed of Southwestern students, over the years, it became a more inclusive organization. It has been wonderful to see the addition of faculty, staff, and community members to the choir. A piano teacher of mine at the University of Texas used to say that she felt that it would be beneficial for the [UT] Music School to find ways to make themselves more a part of the community. This is what SU Singers has accomplished in Georgetown. I love that the ensemble gives a broad range of people a chance to come together and actively explore their passion for music. It’s wonderful this can take place in a diverse “real-world” environment as opposed to a world composed exclusively of undergraduate students.
I have been involved in choral music in the Austin area for years, and under normal circumstances, I am involved with at least four choirs on a weekly basis. It’s hard to pick, but SU Singers has always been my favorite choir because of the dedication, enthusiasm, and caring for each other and the music that I see at every rehearsal and performance.
Although COVID-19 restrictions have prevented faculty and staff from participating in the choir and have eliminated vocal performance for the time being, Everett devised a clever way to transition projects for students enrolled in the course. The group has been meeting regularly in the Lois Perkins Chapel to practice playing handbells, strengthening their sight-reading skills while making music together in a different way. “It’s going really well,” Everett says. “Everyone seems to be having fun, and the big advantage is that it’s something we can do together.” As I keep my voice warmed up for now by singing alone in my car, I can’t wait for the day SU Singers’ harmonies can ring through the halls again.