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Marcia Patton instructed seventh-grader Sara Loghry her to put her hands in the air as she stood in front of her fellow Casper Children’s Chorale singers during an April 30 rehearsal.

“When you bring your hands down,” said Patton, the chorale’s director, “they’ll do whatever you want them to do.”

The other singers laughed when Patton introduced her to the group. Loghry was filling in for students who’d been chosen to guest conduct the choir during a school tour the following week. The choir sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” faster and slower by turns in response to Loghry’s hands.

Chorale members often think it’s a silly song to perform, Patton said in an interview later. But the performance is more complex than they realize. They sing a capella with three-part harmony, and the guest conductors can move them up and down by half steps while the singers change keys, tempos and dynamics, she explained.

“They don’t fully understand the skills that they’ve learned that allowed them to do that song the way we do it,” Patton said.

The chorale for four decades has performed in Casper, throughout Wyoming and surrounding states, and at music festivals across the country, where the group has consistently won top awards. The Casper Children’s Chorale also has received a Wyoming Governor’s Arts Award, according to its website.

The last major performance for the 40th year of the Casper Children’s Chorale is the Mother’s Day concert May 12.

The Mother’s Day Concert features Ken Hoppman, who in the early 1980s accompanied the Casper Children’s Chorale on piano and wrote a “23rd Psalm” piece for the group as a Natrona County High School student. He’ll accompany the chorale as it performs the piece for the first time since.

Patton chooses the 80 members in fourth through eighth grades by audition every year. It’s an age group Patton loves working with.

“They don’t know what they can’t do. The sky’s the limit with them,” Patton said. “If I can demonstrate it or explain it, they can do it.”

Communication and commitment

Patton started the Casper Children’s Chorale in the fall of 1979. Before she moved to Casper, she helped start the children’s chorus in Cheyenne.

“I had just seen by what had happened in that choir in a short two years,” Patton said, “that there were children who really needed an opportunity to sing with other interested singers who really wanted to study voice and wanted to learn good music and have fun doing it.”

She took many of the lessons she’d learned starting the Cheyenne group with her mentor, Duain Wolfe, who at the time also directed the Colorado Children’s Chorale and is now with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, she said.

Rehearsals must move quickly and incorporate a lot of physical movement, for example.

“You’ve got to keep them moving, and you’ve got to keep reinforcing the fact that the voice is not just from the neck up — that the voice is a whole body,” she said. “So we do lots of movement. It’s not because we’re trying to be a show choir, but it’s because we’re trying to internalize the rhythm and just involve the whole body in everything we do.”

In last Tuesday’s rehearsal, she demonstrated how she wanted them to bend down low toward the ground and then stand and raise their arms as they suddenly sing louder during “Cantamos! (We Sing!).” They used their bodies to illustrate and reinforce the dynamic contrast from very soft to loud, she said.

Lively expressions have always been a part of the chorale’s performances.

“They have to communicate,” Patton said. “Communicate and express.”

Before another song at last week’s rehearsal, she instructed a group of boys to move to the other side of the room and explained how some sections would adjust their places.

At the word “move,” the children hustled into position.

Anyone in the chorale knows no rehearsal time is wasted, local musician Chad Lore said. He sang in the chorale from its first year until he aged out. Now, two of his children are the chorale, his oldest is an alum, and the youngest sings in a group Patton founded for grades second through fifth called Bel Canto, he said.

Lore calls Patton the “definition of tough love.”

The kids learn quickly to show up on time and prepared, as well as to pay attention, he said.

“But then when you get the appreciation from her, it’s like nothing else,” he said.

The payoff is apparent in their sound and when they compete at festivals, he said. He traveled with the chorale in its second year to Portland, Oregon, where they won the top award at the festival, he said.

Choir directors around the country know the Casper Children’s Chorale, Lore said, yet many in Casper aren’t aware of the choir and its skills and accomplishments, which he likens to local school sports teams if they were to win a championship every year.

He chaperoned last month for the chorale on this year’s trip to San Antonio, where the Casper Children’s Chorale won the highest honor, the Outstanding Choral Trophy and several other awards at a World Strides Music Festival.

“She knows how to get the best out of those kids,” he said. “I mean, these kids they will fly on the plane and then ride a bus and just be exhausted and then do a concert that would just make you cry, make the judges cry and make chaperones cry, make everybody cry.”

Singing across generations

The Casper Children’s Chorale spans generations for many families. Eighth-grader Caroline Weiss’ mother, Jessica Weiss, sang in the chorale. This is the last year in the chorale for Caroline, who along with the other eighth graders will talk with the audience about their experiences during the Mother’s Day concert.

Jessica Weiss and other past members will join on stage to sing “In His Eyes,” a song every chorale members knows, Caroline said.

Caroline Weiss said the chorale has taught her to read music and sing all kinds of different music. She plans a career in neurosurgery and plans to keep singing her whole life with the skills she’s learned in chorale.

Weiss’ mother had the same opportunities to travel and learn by being part of a dedicated group that gives really good performances.

“And definitely becoming a better person,” Jessica Weiss said, “but just being a good part of a group, learning how to be a good team member.”

Chorale alumni include Lila McConigley who’s a professional singer in London and Stephanie Scarcella, now a professional singer in Boston. Alumni can be found in all walks of life and include local business owners, politicians and teachers.

Jennifer Cowell-DePaolo sang in the chorale in the mid-1980s and has been a chorale mom for nine years. The younger of her two, Evan DePaolo, won the Maestro Award for a solo in San Antonio this year, according to information from the chorale.

Cowell-DePaolo, a violinist who teaches strings and orchestra at Casper College, has been a board member for the chorale and now she’s an employee of the organization as a pianist for Bel Canto.

The children in the chorale have fun and learn skills including music literacy, team building and how to communicate in music through their bodies and words, she said. They learn the sum of the parts is much larger than the individual, which helps them learn compassion and empathy as well, she said.

“All of this stuff just creates more whole human beings,” Cowell-DePaolo said. “And I feel strongly in all of those philosophies. We’re teaching much more than just singing.

Traditions and learning

The chorale performs an annual holiday concert and a Mother’s Day concert as well as a church tour and school tour every spring.

Children learn skills ranging from presenting sacred music in the setting for which it was written to representing the chorale and their state across the country, Patton said. The music performed spans an array of styles, languages and eras, from classical to contemporary works commissioned for the chorale.

Rehearsals begins with a unison A note and 10 minutes of work focused on tuning their ears, along with matching the sounds of vowels in the words Patton said. That’s followed by the five-minute cookie break, a tradition Patton carried over from her mentor, she said. It’s partly out of necessity because the children arrive after school.

“But secondly, we are pretty focused during rehearsal and a child could go through an entire year of children’s chorale and never meet anybody else,” she said. “So cookie break is really a social break.”

One longtime tradition is “Pumpkin and a Song,” a fall fundraiser where the kids sell pumpkins and deliver them with a song to homes, workplaces and assisted living centers. They’re always hesitant at first when she asks them to introduce themselves.

“We talk a lot about how you greet someone and how you thank someone, “Patton said, “and it’s an opportunity not just to sing and make a couple bucks on selling a pumpkin but to really have that first talk with the kids about this is how you interact with people. And that that’s a big part of what we do in children’s chorale.”

Several chorale members at rehearsal last Tuesday said that the pumpkin caroling and singing in front of people helped them overcome shyness.

“My first day of the first year I lip-synced because I was not confident in my voice at all,” sixth-grader Miranda Yakel said. “But over time, you build confidence, and I think all of us in the choir now have that confidence to sing really well.”

The chorale alternates every two years touring around Wyoming and sometimes surrounding states and has successfully auditioned to perform at many state and national music conventions.

“When the choral is on a bus traveling in the state or in the region, you’re never on the bus longer than about two hours before you’re out singing,” Cowell-DePaolo said.

Every other year, the group travels to compete around the country, Patton said. They’ve performed from New York City to Vancouver, British Columbia.

“The heart of that is not to compete, but the heart of that is to be able to go out and hear other good choirs,” Patton said. “Because you’re never going to grow unless you hear what the possibility is, what’s out there. And there are some very, very fine choirs that are out there.”

Their goal is to sing well enough to earn the top scores from the adjudicators at major festivals, but the chorale all but one year has taken home the overall outstanding choir trophy among other junior high and high school choirs, she said.

The chorale’s last number in San Antonio was “Going up Yonder,” “a slow, very lush spiritual,” Patton said.

“And when we got done with the last chord, it kept ringing down the walls,” she said. “The notes stuck to the walls of the church and no one applauded until all the reverberation stopped. “

Then the audience broke into applause.

Along with 40 years of traditions, the chorale’s standards and musical repertoire continue to expand.

“I am always growing; I am always changing,” Patton said. “You know, my mantra is that I’m in my present state of ignorance. And as a result, the choir is always growing.”

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Star-Tribune reporter Elysia Conner covers arts, culture and the Casper community.

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