As I write these words, our community, state, nation and the world are shutting its doors because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing is the new, yet now familiar term. Our youth are being asked to distance themselves from everything that we adults have been encouraging them to be a part of. It is a time of uncertainty, unrest and honestly, fear, a time where we need music more than ever before.
“Music is a social art. Singing in a choir may be the most social form of musical expression” (Walter Bitner, Choral Director Magazine, March 17, 2020: Off The Podium). It is emotional. It is uplifting. It is healing, and our singers are being stripped of all of this. We encourage our children to join choir because it is a group activity where they will find a safe place, be a part of a community, meet others that also like to sing and fill the need to bond together in an artistic way. All of those reasons to join a choir seem to be taken away right now. The entire choral world is encouraging our members to stay connected, keep singing, and share their songs with those around them. We all look forward to the day we can see each other and share our song in person. That will be a great day!
Massed Choirs, Winter Concert in Christ Chapel; Gustavus Adolphus College
Photo Credit: Shaina Sieh
Leah B. Ries
For 26 years, the Mankato Children’s Chorus (MCC) has been working on its mission to “build a musical community one voice at a time.” In order to fulfill this mission, MCC is a non-audition choir dedicated to providing an opportunity for interested youth to experience the joy of singing while developing healthy vocal techniques. Through rehearsal and performance of quality choral music, singers develop artistic expressiveness, self-confidence, a cooperative spirit, and the joy of working toward and achieving goals with other singers.
MCC began with the idea of sixth grade music teacher Marin Jacobson. She recognized that elementary and middle school students had a limited opportunity for a choral experience through the area schools. Collaborating with colleague Bette Wortman, the two music teachers formed the first MCC choir of 24 singers in grades three through eight with Marin directing and Bette at the piano. Two years later when Marin and her husband moved out of state, the MCC board hired Julie Aune who stepped in and led the choir for the next 14 years. In 2000, Leah Ries joined Julie and created the two young training choirs. Today, 26 years later and under the artistic direction of Leah Ries, MCC now has five choirs beginning in first grade through high school with more than 100 singers across all choirs.
The five choirs are currently directed by three directors, Kristin Baty, Jonathan Shevy and Leah Ries, also teachers in the Mankato Area Public Schools. Two accompanists, Erin Anderson and Kathy Hopf assist the choirs in rehearsals and performances.
Kristin Baty with Training Choir at Barnes & Noble
Training Choir (Kristin Baty) is mainly composed of 1st and 2nd grade students. The Training Choir rehearses forty-five minutes each week and uses a Kodály based curriculum which teaches an appropriate developmental and sequential method of music reading and writing skills while working with the proper use of the child’s singing voice. Songs, games and folk dances are all a part of the training choir rehearsal.
Intermediate Choir (Kristin Baty) rehearses forty-five minutes each week and is composed of mostly third graders and some returning second grade students. This choir continues the sequential music reading and writing instruction that began in the Training Choir and prepares students to read choral music in future choirs.
Youth Choir (Jonathan Shevy) is composed of fourth and fifth grade students. Rehearsing once a week for forty-five minutes, this choir builds on the foundation of the Kodaly training from younger choirs, introducing choral reading, two part singing and beginning harmonies. In past seasons, the choir has been honored to participate in the Honors Choir of Southeastern Minnesota Youth Choir Festival in Rochester, where the choir has worked with conductors and composers including Dr. Rollo Dilworth and Daniel Kallman.
Concert Choir (Leah Ries) is composed of sixth through eighth grade students with unchanged voices. This choir sings three part treble music and rehearses one hour each week. The Concert Choir was selected to perform at the 1998 Minnesota Music Educators Conference, Nobel Conferences at Gustavus in 2001 and 2004 and the Minnesota ACDA Fall Convention, 2011. The Concert Choir has been the guest children’s chorus with the Mankato Symphony Orchestra on several concerts including performing the Stephen Paulus oratorio, “To Be Certain of the Dawn.”
Melodia (Leah Ries and Jonathan Shevy) At the persistence of choir members that were entering high school and not wanting to leave MCC, Julie Aune created this as a small high school women’s ensemble in 2000. Shortly after, a men’s ensemble was created. The high school group continues to rehearse as separate TB and SSA choirs and also combine for an SATB choir. Melodia rehearses for one and a half hours each week. Melodia has participated in state and national festivals, the 2007 Minnesota Music Educators Conference, The 2011 Minnesota ACDA Fall Convention and many collaborations with area arts organizations.
For the past three years Melodia has joined with Mankato East, Mankato West and Loyola High School Choirs to present a benefit concert, Draw The Circle Wide. This concert is free to the public and brings more than 200 voices in four choirs singing together as one, uniting our community in song and support as a free will donation is collected in support of the REACH Teen Drop-In Center in Mankato.
Every four years the two oldest choirs go on tour. They have taken part in the Festival of the States in Washington D.C., toured in the city of Boston and Chicago, and participated in the Windy City Festival in Chicago under the direction of Z. Randall Stroope.
Ambassador Choir at Moondog’s baseball game
In 2016, the Ambassador Choir was established to meet the need of performing more frequently or on short notice in the community. This choir is open to any MCC member and includes first graders through seniors in high school. The Ambassador Choir is a wonderful extension of the mission of MCC, bringing all of our youth together in a way to experience and share the joy of singing with each other and through our community. This choir has enjoyed caroling in December, singing at community activities, and performing the National Anthem at local sporting events.
The MCC season begins in September with what directors call “organized chaos.” Returning and new choir members come together for the first rehearsal night where they learn the process of checking in with their choir coordinators, learning where to wait for their director who comes to greet them and lead them to their rehearsal space. Here they begin to “build that musical community” through fun activities and songs that help directors and singers get to know each other.
Directors leading activities at Super Saturday
Director: Kristin Baty
Artistic Director: Leah Ries
Director: Jonathan Shevy
On the first Saturday immediately following the first rehearsal, all five choirs participate in Super Saturday which brings new, returning, young and older members together in activities, rehearsals, meals and performances. Two annual concerts in December and May are held to allow all choirs to perform individual choir and massed choir pieces. These concerts are presented in the beautiful space of Christ Chapel on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN. Throughout the year performances include community events at Barnes & Noble in River Hills Mall, The Winter Festival at the Verizon Wireless Civic Center, “Community Sing” events at local retirement and assisted living homes for those that cannot attend concerts and the choir’s very own “Little Cake and Concert” event where each choir sings a “little bit” of their upcoming concert music while guests enjoy a “little piece” of cake.
The operation of MCC takes the coordination of many parents and volunteers including a very supportive board of directors that have a vision of bringing the opportunity of singing to any youth that is interested. Scholarships and financial assistance are an important part of the mission of MCC. Grants from local and state organizations give much needed assistance. All of the singers, directors, volunteers, parents, board members, and grant committees play an important role in making Mankato Children’s Chorus a vibrant community of young singers who are learning the joy of music and community.
Beyond MCC, the choral world is full of amazing, creative and caring people that have found ways to keep their singers connected and even singing together through the difficult times we have encountered. Online platforms enabled many choirs, including MCC to share recordings of past performances and schedule “Sing In Sync,” and distance learning events to encourage, support, and provide comfort for choir members. It is great to be a part of this amazing musical community. We missed being together during the time of social distancing and whether it’s in times of struggle or times of celebration, we always look forward to the time when we can join together in song! Don’t Stop Believing!
Leah Ries has been artistic director of the Mankato Children’s Chorus since 2008. She began the Kodály based Training and Intermediate Choirs when she joined MCC in 2000, providing an early choir opportunity for children in their first three years of elementary school. She currently directs the Concert Choir, Melodia SSA and SATB choirs. Mrs. Ries has been a music educator for 33 years in Oklahoma and Minnesota teaching elementary, middle school and Jr. High general and choral music. She has been an adjudicator at solo and ensemble contests, presented Kodály workshops and been a guest director for children’s music festivals in Minnesota and South Dakota.
After completing a Bachelor of Music Education from Oklahoma Christian University of Science and Art in Oklahoma City, Mrs. Ries completed a Kodály Certification program with an emphasis in choral conducting at the University of Oklahoma. She currently is an elementary music specialist in Mankato, MN.