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.