By Garrett Lathe
Top Photo: YCCM performing Requiem for the Living in 2017

The Youth Chorale of Central Minnesota is a community youth choir that draws singers each week from 43 different schools. In its eighteen year history, over 650 singers have performed traditional choral music, major works, and nearly 20 commissioned works for local audiences and for state and national conventions. To accomplish these goals, YCCM rehearses for only two hours per week on the beautiful campus of St. John’s University.

Naturally, the quality of programming in YCCM is not feasible with only two hours per week. YCCM requires high school singers to participate in their high school choral program, with rare exceptions for homeschool and PSEO students. The accomplishments, health, and culture of YCCM is a result of the incredible things happening in the 43 different music rooms that make up the schools in YCCM.

Singers in YCCM come from predominantly rural areas from 5 surrounding counties in a 200 mile circle, with only a handful of “AA” schools. In these larger schools, their choral programs are larger than the entire 9-12 populations of smaller schools. With “creating life-long singers” a part of its mission, over 87% of YCCM singers continue to sing beyond their high school experiences in college and community choirs.

While the foundation of the success of YCCM is collaboration with school choirs and community ensembles, there are a few key elements that have kept the organization on a path of sustainability:

Stay in our lane

High school singers are busy. And we want the busy ones in YCCM. We are committed to maintaining two hour rehearsals per week on Sunday evenings, with very few non-Sunday events. This allows us to include that singer who is a three-sport athlete and all-state singer. To that end, with only rare exceptions, we always end on time.

We also prioritize singers’ high school experiences above YCCM. In the proverbial object lesson of putting the rocks in the container first, we are the sand that fits around the most important things in their life. This includes high school ensemble performances, musicals, and even postseason athletic events taking precedence over YCCM events.

YCCM values high school programs above all else. Some programs struggle for existence with staff transitions, building leadership, recruiting, and pandemic recovery. Other programs thrive and flourish. Regardless of the size or health of area high school programs, every program in YCCM is a “star program,” and we encourage singers to build those relationships first and make a positive impact on their school and community.

Engaging and relevant music

With the caliber of singers coming through YCCM, we would be capable of some really great complex music if we had the time. But, rather than program music based on their ability, we select music that fits within the time budget we have between concerts and will stretch them within that scope. Personally, when preparing music, I make a budget prediction of how many minutes of rehearsal it will take per minute of the music we rehearse, based on its difficulty. A straightforward piece like Keen/Althouse’s Homeward Bound may take only 5 minutes of rehearsal per minute of performance, vs. Kverno’s Ave Maris Stella may take up to 25 minutes of rehearsal per minute of performance (5:15 running time x 25 minutes = 2 hours and 10 minutes of rehearsal). This allows me to budget the difficulty of music based on how much rehearsal time there is between concerts.

Central Minnesota Idol performance, YCCM’s annual fundraiser

Our larger area high school programs, some of which rehearse over seven hours per week, are capable of music that could never be accomplished within YCCM’s limited rehearsal schedule. On the other hand, singers have the opportunity to sing more challenging literature than is feasible in their smaller hometown program, where class sizes are smaller than YCCM choirs.

Commissioning pieces has fallen into that time budget/difficulty scope. When fleshing out projects with composers, one of the goals is to accomplish high quality music within the time frame of 2 hours per week for rehearsals. This has resulted in a large amount of literature available to advanced SATB and SSA high school ensembles. Many of YCCM’s commissions have been on All-State programs and reading session lists.

Projects that are not feasible in most schools

With a unique position as a community choir for youth, we have the opportunity to create projects and collaborations that are not easily feasible for most school programs. This includes things like collaborating with Interact Center for the Arts, a radical inclusion organization focused on creating art that challenges society’s views of disability, yearly interactions with composers, and collaborative concerts with multi-generational ensembles.

With only three of our representing districts housing orchestral programs, we also create a major work with full orchestra every other year. This is a highlight for many of our singers as they reflect on their time with YCCM. This year we will have the incredible privilege of collaborating with Chanticleer, with our singers singing alongside them on their signature piece, Biebl’s Ave Maria on October 27.

Fair Share Commitment

The Youth Chorale of Central Minnesota does not turn anyone away who is selected through the audition process, regardless of their ability or inability to pay. Beyond that, we do not run any kind of intrusive scholarship program to determine families in need. Instead, we present families with the real costs of running the program, and ask them to give, on average, a certain amount. Those that are able to give more are asked to do so. Those who cannot give the suggested amount are welcome to give what they can. The only thing we ask is that they give one of our staff members a reason for a reduced pledge. Whether it be unemployment, health concerns, or whatever influencing factors create a need for a reduced pledge, we communicate general circumstances to our donors and funders, who year after year support our efforts to be inclusive of all singers without barriers. Each year we exceed what we set out as our pledge budget.

Fostering Connections

Every year we promote the importance of life-long musicianship in the context of relationships. While singers may join YCCM solely for musical reasons, no one stays for just musical reasons. It is the relationships we forge in that context that keep us connected. With each piece we rehearse, we are building temporary things in hopes of permanent change. While the music is often the catalyst for change, it is the connections and relationships we make while rehearsing and performing that make the change last long after the cutoff.

Singers creating connections during ice breakers at their fall retreat

Seeking growth and opportunity

As an organization, YCCM has always been committed to seeking out best practice, growth, and opportunities. This past season YCCM assumed operations of a sister organization, the Cantabile Girls’ Choir, which was formerly a part of the St. Cloud State University Music Department. This increases YCCM programming down through 4th grade, and reduces a lot of redundancy in administrative endeavors, recruiting, and programming. While YCCM has had a part time Executive Director for over a decade, it hired its first full time director this summer. During the pandemic, we also established a consortium of youth community choirs representing 18 programs. We are always looking to improve our best practices in programming, administration, board development and governance, and of course fund development.

YCCM singers, including new singers from the Cantabile program

Singing for a lifetime

YCCM was founded out of a spirit of collaboration and is based on the work of the St. John’s Boys’ Choir and the Cantabile Girls’ Choir. Our performances often involve these ensembles as well as the Great River Chorale and Minnesota Center Chorale. This broad cross section of singers in Central Minnesota has helped build and sustain the success of YCCM. We look forward to future challenges and we continue to grow each season.

About Garrett Lathe

Garrett Lathe, founding Artistic Director of the Youth Chorale of Central Minnesota, has directed ensembles to critical acclaim for local, regional, and national audiences, including an invitation to sing at the National Conference of the American Choral Directors Association, ACDA of Minnesota’s State Conference, and the Minnesota Music Educators Association state clinic. Mr. Lathe earned his Bachelor Degree in Music Education from Bemidji State University under the mentorship of Dr. Paul Brandvik. He has completed coursework for a Masters in Music in Choral Conducting at St. Cloud State University. Mr. Lathe has been a music educator for over 20 years at the Middle and High School levels, and is currently serving as Choir Director of Sauk Rapids-Rice Middle School, where  he conducts a program of 280 singers in three choirs. He is a frequent adjudicator and clinician around Minnesota and is an active member of the American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota, serving on their Editorial Board. He is active in community theater both as an actor and music director. Mr. Lathe’s wife, Holly, and four children are all active in community theater and music organizations and reside in Sartell.