I often make the comment that I have spent all of my choral career on Highway 2. I went to school in Grand Forks, ND, got my degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth, and I currently teach at Grand Rapids High School. I have put more miles into my teenage/university/young adulthood vehicles on this piece of Northern Minnesotan road than any other stretch of land on these continental United States (to clarify, I’ve only ever driven in the continental United States).
Needless to say, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at that barley bending road passing through Crookston, Fosston, Bagely, (around) Bemidji, and all the quaint places along the way. In my younger years I lamented living so far away from anything “interesting.” On the surface level, the northland did not have much going for it artistically in my eyes (except for The Big Fish outside of Bena. The Giebners love The Big Fish). This perception came from myself, my family, and likely many others seeing these places as “pit stops,” rather than seeing them for what they truly are: hidden gems of artistic excellence. To us passer-bys, we do not give these places the benefit of a doubt. But for those who live in these communities, there is a long standing tradition of excellence.
For example, the Reif Performing Arts Center located in Itasca County. This thriving space (that was remodeled and updated 10 years ago) hosts hundreds of events annually. VocalEssence, Gaelynn Lea Tressler, Dessa, the Steele Family, and touring Broadway productions (to name a few) have made Reif stage their home. Impressive, right? Now raise your hand if you have actually heard of the Reif Center. My guess is that not many of you have heard of it before now (if you did raise your hand, you win!). Don’t feel too bad. I hadn’t heard of it either before I interviewed for my current position in Grand Rapids. After I realized this existed, I started kicking myself. How many monotonous trips on the good ol’ Highway 2 would have been broken up if I would have stopped and given this pitstop-town a chance? Previously, I only stopped in Grand Rapids for gas at Holiday and then a Whopper with no pickles at the neighboring Burger King.
What’s the point of this rambling admission of self discovery? Do. Not. Discount. Small. Towns. Learn from my mistakes! Go to Google right now and search for a random small town in your area. Go ahead. I’ll wait…..Got one? Good! Now type, “choir”, “fine arts”, “performing arts”, “band”, etc. next to it. For example, I typed “Virginia, MN choir” and Range of Voices, Rock Ridge Choir, Peace United Methodist Church, and 19.5 million other results appeared! Now, do all 19,500,000 of those search results have to do with choir in Virginia, MN? Unfortunately, no. But make this simple Google search happen and I guarantee you will be surprised by how many nuggets of quality performing artists are tucked away in these “pit stop towns”.
With this shocking revelation, you now may be asking: How do these “small” towns have such thriving performing arts scenes? Do not worry, dear reader, for I have spent many hours researching this very question, combing through hundreds of sources, sending thousands of annoying texts, and leaving a lot of awkward voicemails. The answer to the gnawing question is…is…THE COMMUNITY MEMBERS!……….you don’t seem pleased with that answer. Okay, and to be honest I was not pleased with that answer either. From the perspective of a choral enthusiast, the most important people in the choir process are the singers, directors, and other musicians, right? “Oh, the audience is important too!” you say as an afterthought, trying to disprove my “very well researched” claim. And you are right. The audience is usually an afterthought. The most profound experiences many of us have in the choral process comes from learning the literature and performing it. I know many of us are focused on the transformative power of choral music inside of our rehearsal space and between the singers and conductors, but have we truly taken the time to appreciate the transformative power of choral music is to those who come to our concerts as patrons, family members, or curious observers?
For example, take my conversation with Myrna Peterson. Myrna is truly the patron saint of choral concert-goers in Grand Rapids. She goes to every school choir concert, community choir concert, and is an avid appreciator of our congregation’s mixed choir. She started singing in choirs at a young age and eventually sang with the Luther Choir for four years under Weston Noble. After college, Myrna sang avidly in church and community choirs until an auto accident in 1995 left her with an incomplete fracture of her C3 and C4 and a quadriplegic. Nearly 30 years later, Myrna has now increased her lung capacity enough to sing a few notes comfortably in her speaking range and is adamant about singing in a choir again one day. As an avid audience member the past 30 years, I asked her why she kept going after all of this time? She said “it fills my soul.”
My friends, I am not asking us to reinvent the wheel here. I am not saying it even needs to be substantially addressed at this moment in time. But what I do think is this: have we been filling the souls of everyone who participates in choir? Not just the musicians? The reason these smaller communities outside of the cities, or larger areas, have such thriving fine arts scenes is because of dedicated patrons who feel filled by the music you and your singers are making. Are concerts the only way we can fill our patron’s cups to where we think choral music a necessary part of life? Have you considered offering you and your singer’s talents to community events? Nursing homes? Area organizations? What about the music you are programming? Do not forget, like I have many times, that the singers in our groups ARE the greater community as well.
My Grandma Ruby always said that our talents are a gift that should be shared and used in service for others. Maybe you live in a “pit-stop” town now and feel as though the arts are underappreciated in your area and that your patrons may never appreciate our well loved area of choral singing. My argument is this: they probably love choir music, they just don’t know it yet.