Children’s Choir Readies for Holiday Concerts

by Ruth Jones, Staunton News Leader

The Shenandoah Valley Children's Choir rehearses in Martin Chapel
The Shenandoah Valley Children’s Choir rehearses in Martin Chapel for an upcoming public program.
Photo by Jim Bishop

Five years ago, Logan Combee had never heard of the Shenandoah Valley Children’s Choir.

All he knew was that his music teacher at Grace Christian School really wanted him to audition for the group.

“It was kind of a surprise to me,” he said.

He was in the school choir but didn’t have plans on going any further with singing.

Today, the 17-year-old choir alum looks back at that experience as one of the best things that ever happened to him.

‘Height of excellence’

“It was an amazing experience. I had never been in anything that required such a height of excellence and required so much of you,” he said. “It was never easy. It really forced me to set higher standards for myself, not only in that music aspect, but also in every other aspect of life.”

He remains one of the choir’s biggest fans and realizes that like him more than five years ago, most Valley residents don’t realize that the choir exists.

However, the group has been around the country and even to Italy to perform. Tonight two of their eight groups will be bringing its voices together for a fall concert, performing classical, folk and secular songs with a couple of soloists added to the mix. In December 150 voices will come together along with the Washington Symphonic Brass, a professional group, for two Christmas concerts.

“We did a CD with them three years ago (and) we’re hoping to do another CD with them this concert,” White said.

And look out for the choir’s 10th CD. They just completed a Christmas CD, “Silent Night,” featuring three performing choirs and guest harpist Anastasia Jellison of Richmond.

“They’re going to be amazed that a children’s choir can sing in languages and sing in parts,” said founder and artistic director Julia White. “The sound is beautiful.”

Phenomenal Growth

Founded in 1992, the choir began with just 38 voices and one choir. Today, it’s expanded to 230 children and eight groups and a staff of five. The choir is part of Eastern Mennonite University’s music department and celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. The members come from private, public and homeschooled backgrounds from kindergarten through 12th grade from the Valley and beyond, including central Virginia and West Virginia.

The choir, which encompasses three auditioned choirs and five non-auditioned choirs, has traveled nationally and internationally, taking performances to Hawaii, Italy, New York, North Carolina, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. In May of 2007, the choir will sing for the second time at the Carnegie Hall Children’s Choir Festival.

For 17-year-old Betsy Barrett of Staunton, going to Hawaii was one of her most memorable experiences with the choir to date. They learned to sing in the island’s native language.

“That was really neat because of the cultural experience we got, too,” she said. “We combined with several other choirs too and we got to perform and sight see.”

White prides herself on offering her students a music education program and performance-based group. It’s not entertainment, she said.

Known for its strict code of excellence, the children gain respect wherever they perform.

17 Languages in Four Years

“Every repertoire we have, we have at least several songs we sing in different languages,” Barrett said.

She estimates singing in 17 different languages in her four years on the choir.

While the traveling performances are exciting, White is hoping to bring awareness of the choir to her own backyard as well.

“People in our area have no idea this is here,” White said.

Barrett said she often hears the same thing after a performance: “They say, ‘I had no idea,'” she said. “They get to experience a level of enjoyment and excellence in music. I’ve seen many people cry, including our choir director.”

Combee guesses that most people think, “It’s a children’s choir. How good can they be?

“Just hear us sing,” he said. “That’ll convince you. I still kind of get shivers when I hear our CDs.”