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For the average Hillsdale student, the weekend of Jan. 9 – 11 was a time for col­lecting oneself: Saying the rounds of goodbyes to friends and loved ones, making last-minute trips to Wal-Mart or the bank, inter­mit­tently packing and repacking, and gen­erally savoring the last few moments of tran­quility before the arrival of that howling storm of respon­si­bility, Spring Semester.

The 28 members of the Hillsdale College Chamber Choir didn’t have time for that stuff. There was already too much work to get done.

On the morning of January 11, these 28 stu­dents (seven for each part: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) arrived on Hillsdale’s largely-deserted campus to throw them­selves into three days of intensive choral work. Between Monday and Wednesday, the Chamber Choir, which ordi­narily meets twice a week, ground out five full rehearsals.

“We spent like 20 hours singing, kind of wearing out our voices a little bit,” said freshman Mark Naida, a new­comer to the Chamber Choir this semester.

The reason for the rush? This weekend, they’re per­forming at Trinity Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids as part of Trinity’s Cel­e­bration of Music Concert Series. An added twist: this semester, Chamber Choir has five brand new members, some of whom, such as Naida, have no prior expe­rience in a choir of this caliber.

“We haven’t really done some­thing this big, like what tra­di­tional choirs do where you actually go on tour,” said senior Maran McLeod. “We’re usually more of a campus choir, but it’s great to get out there and do that too. It’s super exciting.”

The retreat wasn’t all work. Adding new members to an a cap­pella choir isn’t a simple matter of renum­bering folders and taking mea­sure­ments for tuxedos. Each human voice is unique, and the process of blending 28 voices into a single unit of sound is a sur­pris­ingly complex task. For a choir to truly tran­scend, the singers must click as a unit, both musi­cally and personally.

So, in addition to rehearsal, the retreat also fea­tured dinner pre­pared by choir director (and pur­ported master chef) James Holleman and an evening of bowling at Hillsdale Lanes.

“It’s really helped us come together when we hang out together, have meals together,” Holleman said. “It’s that fel­lowship bonding kind of idea, and I think it makes the group stronger.”

The cho­risters didn’t need much jus­ti­fi­cation. They just liked having some down time – although many of them are con­sid­erably less refined bowlers than vocalists. (There are some excep­tions: Junior Matt Sauer, who sings bass, has been bowling all his life, and is murderous.)

“I’ve bowled like once before, ever, so it was inter­esting,” senior Addison Stumpf said. “It was a lot of fun, though, espe­cially after the really intensive rehearsals, to be with these same people and actually do some­thing that isn’t singing. It was nice.”

“Bowling was pretty awesome,” McLeod agreed. “I stunk at it, but I think we all equally stunk.”

Back on the stage, on the other hand, this semester’s choir has a glit­tering tra­dition of excel­lence to uphold. Holleman first estab­lished the Chamber Choir as an audi­tioned subset of the College Choir in the spring of 1998 with a choral arrangement of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”

“Spring of ’98 we did one piece with a small group of people from the choir who wanted to do a little bit more, and then fall of ’98 we held audi­tions and created the group, so it got started pretty quickly,” Holleman said.

The group’s list of respon­si­bil­ities quickly grew, with per­for­mances at con­vo­cation, com­mencement, and other college events soon becoming annual fix­tures. Off-campus per­for­mances in places such as Florida, Illinois, Col­orado, and the Dis­trict of Columbia soon followed.

Advanced members of the College Choir, which is not audi­tioned and is open to all suf­fi­ciently tuneful stu­dents, typ­i­cally join the chamber choir not just for a more intensive musical chal­lenge, but also because of the com­munity the choir nurtures.

“Not only was the level of work appealing, but also just the people in it were really won­derful and wel­coming,” McLeod said. “I think the cama­raderie has actually grown over my years in it, which isn’t always the case in an audi­tioned group: it can be very com­pet­itive. But I think we have a unique type of group on Hillsdale’s campus, which is great.”

“The talent in the room is just immense from everyone: the music majors, the people who are just doing it because they like to sing,” Naida said. “All that just makes every­thing so much easier.”

The Chamber Choir still most often per­forms alongside the College Choir, of which they are a subset, at college-spon­sored con­certs, where they add a dimension of variety to the per­for­mances. While the chamber choir per­forms almost exclu­sively a cap­pella, the College Choir often fea­tures instru­mental accompaniment.

“Our typical routine is for the chamber choir to do a set of a cap­pella pieces and then for the large choir to perform,” Holleman said. “So it makes for a varied sound for a concert.”

Right now, as the choir gears up for their first per­for­mance of the semester, the cho­risters are very aware of how little time they’ve had to prepare. They’re taking it in stride, however.

“It’s not perfect yet, obvi­ously, but we’ve made a lot of progress on some really dif­ficult music,” Stumpf said. “Having hit the ground running like that is really positive.”

It’s been a busy week, but the Chamber Choir is ready to rock.