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Empowering Young Voices: For 20 years, students in the Nittany Valley Children’s Choir have learned ‘healthy singing’ – and lessons well beyond music

by on December 01, 2017 11:03 AM

Celebrating 20 years, the Nittany Valley Children’s Choir has touched more than a thousand lives, producing young musicians with world-class musical abilities, and welcoming families of all faiths and socioeconomic backgrounds into its folds.

In fact, this is one of the primary reasons behind local music educator Lou Ann Shafer’s founding of the choir.

“There was a need in our community,” she says. “At that time, there were lots of church choirs, but I wanted to start a choir that could invite children from all over Centre County.”

After starting with just 25 students, the NVCC quickly amassed a following, and now, there are approximately 100 participants stretched across three separate groups — the White Choir, for ages 4-7; the Blue Choir, ages 7-18, and Concordia, an audition-only choir without an age limit. Throughout the growth, the NVCC retains its mission to keep costs for participation low and accessible for all income brackets, with one of the lowest participation costs seen among children’s choirs not only in Pennsylvania, but across the United States.

“The hallmarks of our program are two pillars — a focus on healthy singing and an excellent repertoire,” Shafer says. “It’s been what’s really helped our program to grow, [and] the kids like our program. One they’re in it, they tend to stay in it, so their skills build tremendously over time. [Because of this], we were able to add an advanced level of choir, and have received national recognition for that. I think all of those things together have helped us to grow and sustain our program.”

The NVCC’s national recognition comes in a variety of forms, but one of the top honors is the Concordia Singers’ performances at three National American Choral Directors Association Conferences, in 2007, 2011, and 2015.

“Being selected to sing at this conference is sort of like being chosen for the Olympics,” says Shafer. “It’s very, very stiff competition — children’s choirs from all over the United States submit applications and audition tapes. Our little small choir was selected for that honor three times, so that’s very, very significant.”

Shafer gives kudos to her students.

“It’s a combination of all our hard work. The singers are extremely dedicated and they work very, very diligently and I do, too. We’re striving for excellence and in my mind, when I am directing them, their potential is limitless because they can accomplish so much. … We’ve really been blessed with excellent singers.”

Her students, and their parents, return the compliment. Talk to any of the NVCC alums, and you’ll hear a running theme: the entire Shafer family is unlike any other.

“Hands down, Mrs. Shafer was the one who molded me into the singer I am today, and I developed a passion for music from her instruction,” says Kara Eckert, who started out in the Blue Choir in second grade, transferring into the Concordia group as a high school freshman. Now a student at Susquehanna University, Eckert received a vocal performance scholarship and sings in the university’s choir.

“While I'm no longer an active participant, I sit in on rehearsals when I'm home on break from college, she says. “I miss being with the group that made my Saturday mornings so enjoyable. Being back in the familiar churches and singing our classic warmups, I'm reminded of all the great practices I had growing up.

Eckert credits her NVCC experience with teaching her to blend, develop an ear for pitch and tone, and become detail-oriented where it mattered most. She was also introduced to a variety of music and learned to sing in a multitude of languages.

Beyond this, though, Eckert, as do many NVCC alums, says she learned traits above and beyond musical skills under Shafer’s tutelage. “With Concordia, I performed at various events and conferences throughout the United States. Between traveling and waiting to perform, I developed a good amount of patience. Additionally, practices could last multiple hours and, in certain occasions, we rehearsed multiple times a day. With such a demanding schedule, we all had to be diligent and had to discipline ourselves to give our best effort during the entire practice.”

Mariana Corichi, who performed in Concordia from ages 12 to 18, and now sings in the Princeton Chamber Choir, notes a similar experience.

“Concordia definitely forced me to learn discipline during, and outside of, rehearsal,” she says. “Concordia makes excellent music because Mrs. Shafer holds the choir to practically professional standards, so the singers have no room to slack off or rely on others. I learned the importance of self-sufficiency, which in this instance involved properly memorizing and executing my part, knowing that if I did not give my best effort or actually messed up, I let down my entire section. Concordia is a team — everyone learns to sing with and for each other, and only then can we make great music.”

As a parent, it’s nothing short of thrilling to watch a child grow within NVCC, at least that’s been a large part of Beth Clark’s experience. A mother of seven, all of her children have performed with the choir at some point. Currently three of her children participate — Lena (17), Esther (10), and Lydia (8).

“Mrs. Shafer has an ability to command the children’s attention without being in any way forceful. … I feel like all the children who are there, they want to be there,” Clark says. “They are eager and they come prepared and willing and ready to learn and sing together. She is very, very talented and she is doing exactly what she was made to do. It’s inspiring to watch her lead the choir.”

Clark has been in a unique position to watch how her children, each musical in their own right, have responded differently to their experience with NVCC.

“For Lena, it has turned into something she’s extremely passionate about and really enjoys; she has been with the program since she started when she was 8. Then the others, it just gave them an opportunity to do something greater than themselves, even if they didn’t enjoy it as much as Lena did. Esther is 10, and just this year, she auditioned for Concordia and was given a spot in the choir. … She is probably the youngest member of that choir and it stretches her, because they have a two-hour practice every Saturday on top of the other practice for the Blue Choir. Her attention span [and musical abilities are] being challenged. She’s learning how to read music better and learning how to sing harmony better, and she’s doing great.”

For Clark, it’s an opportunity no parent should pass up, if there’s an interest. “I feel like the quality of the program would match that of any large-city children’s choir, or beat it. This opportunity for our children to sing under Lou Ann Shafer and her husband, Tim, who plays the piano, to have them lead these children, is an opportunity that shouldn’t be passed, if there is a child interested in singing with a choir. They’re just a top-notch, high-quality program.”

Clark’s daughter Lena echoes the sentiment, calling joining NVCC one of the best decisions she and her parents ever made. Lena is a member of several different choirs, including at State High, where she is currently a senior. As it’s her last year in Concordia before she graduates, she’s finding the experience bittersweet, even as she juggles a different choir practice every day of the week.

For Lena, one of the most valuable skills she’s learned in NVCC has been leadership. “[My] most important developments that have come because of NVCC have been in the leadership realm. Mrs. Shafer is very good about giving older members of the choir a little bit more … responsibility. [It] helps you grow as a leader, as you advance through the ranks of NVCC.”

It’s obvious that, for Shafer, growing her students’ skills in both music and otherwise is an essential part of her labor of love.

“We have several students who have started at age 4 and who continue through age 18,” she says. “It’s really neat. I don’t know of many choir directors or music teachers who get to have their kids for that long. It’s really a gratifying experience to see a child come to me at age 4, and not be able to sing very well and then to blossom into a fine, fine singer at the age of 18. It’s very gratifying.”

Learning to sing, then, seems to translate fluidly to learning other skills, as she explains when describing how the group goes about learning a commissioned work.

“Singing a commissioned work is very special. No one else has ever sung it before,” Shafer says. “We get to learn it, we get to take it apart, we get to try to understand the poetry. Poetry is another big aspect of what we do. Of course, we’re singing words, so I try to choose excellent, beautiful, challenging poetry for the students to sing, which we can peel apart in layers, trying to understand how to sing the music in a way that conveys the meaning of the poetry, and that’s a very intricate and complicated process.”

The NVCC is working on one such commissioned work in celebration of its 20th anniversary, but that’s hardly the only exciting thing on the group’s horizon.

All three choirs have been practicing each week in preparation for the upcoming holiday concert, and Concordia is preparing to perform at the Eastern Division American Choral Directors Association Conference, in Pittsburgh in April. The singers will premiere a selection from that performance at the holiday concert as well.

The Holiday Sing Concert is Friday, December15, at 7 p.m. at Gray’s Woods Catholic Church.

For parents considering enrolling their children into the NVCC, Clark says such concerts are a perfect opportunity to get a taste for what one can expect. “The concerts speak to the level of musicality and anyone interested in [joining], should come.”


The NVCC is taking new members in January; learn more at Holly Riddle is a freelance writer in State College.


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