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Area schools prepare for holiday concerts

Director Heather Groves-Edwards practices with the choir at Slippery Rock Area High School on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Mikayla Torrence/Butler Eagle

They may be called choral or choir directors, but putting on a school holiday concert requires the talents of a booking agent, air traffic controller and Broadway impresario. There are songs to select, schedules to juggle, staging to be arranged, and practice, practice, practice for the hundreds of students involved.

Mike Sypien, the choral director at Knoch Middle School and Knoch High School, will be staging two concerts this year involving 60 high school choir members and 90 students in the middle school chorus.

Darcie Bishop, the choir director at Moniteau Jr./Sr. High School, will be working with 150 student singers for the school’s holiday concert this year.

At Slippery Rock High School, choir director Heather Groves-Edwards oversees the sixth-grade chorus, the seventh-and-eighth-grade chorus, the high school concert and a traveling group of chamber singers. The groups are made up of 170 students. Groves-Edwards, just as Sypien and Bishop, has no assistants.

In addition to putting singers through their vocal paces, Groves-Edwards also works with the high school jazz band that plays with the concert choir and the high school concert band that plays with the chamber singers, an audition group of 29 members who were chosen during spring auditions.

“They have a little more experience. There’s a little more push. There are higher expectations,” Groves-Edwards said.

While the seventh-and-eighth-grade concert, the sixth-grade concert and the high school concert are all in the Slippery Rock High School auditorium, the 29 members of the chamber singers perform at area churches and at the Abie Abraham Veterans Affairs Health Care Center, 353 N. Duffy Road.

Coordinating hundreds of students is just the first hurdle the choir directors face.

“It’s getting to be a very busy schedule. The kids are busy. There are basketball players to work with in the month. There are demands on everybody’s time. It’s a logistical challenge,” said Groves-Edwards.

Song selection

Selecting the songs for the students to sing presents more factors to be considered.

“New songs are selected every year based on the abilities of the students involved,” said Sypien. “Sometimes I can anticipate what the students will be able to handle ahead of time, but most of the time, it takes really getting used to each class's strengths and weaknesses to determine what they are able to sing, which songs will help us to teach the required standards of our curriculum, and what will also create an entertaining concert for the audience.”

“We have a wide selection of songs each year,” Bishop said. “I select a song repertoire after I gauge the age and experience of each choir. It’s important to teach the students song selections that are relevant, educational and enjoyable.”

Groves-Edwards tries to fit the song to her current range of singers.

“I select a variety of sings. I take into account the historical context, the meter and the language. Will the students enjoy it? Will it be a good song for the audience to enjoy?” Groves-Edwards said. “I would say for the chamber singers, 99% I’ve known since the sixth grade. I have a good basis to know their voices. I pick songs that reinforce their talents.”

Getting the best out of students

With schedules squared away and songs selected the choir directors now must hone their singers to get the best performances from them.

Moniteau’s Bishop said her singers rehearse during choir class in every school for months prior to the concert.

Knoch’s Sypien said there are 60 students in the high school choir and 90 students in the middle school chorus this year.

“Most of the students are enrolled in a chorus class that meets five days a week during the school year. Some high school students also participate in the extracurricular Men's Ensemble, Barbershop Quartet, and Beautyshop Quartet,” he said.

“Aside from rehearsing in class, the only time all of the students get together is for the dress rehearsal the day before the concert,” Sypien said

At Slippery Rock High School, the middle school practices three days a week during the school day. The high school students practice five days a week during the school day a week before the concert and do a dress rehearsal for blocking purposes the day of the concert.

Glitches can pop up before the concert.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a problem, but the biggest question each year is how the groups sound when they are combined together the day before the concert. It usually only makes them sound better, but it can sometimes throw some students off a bit,” Sypien said.

Bishop said, “There are no problems staging the concerts. I have wonderful administrators and co-workers that help make the program successful. We have a very good turnout for the concert. Our auditorium is mostly full each year.”

“We have a good turnout. It’s a wonderful way to kick off the concert season,” said Groves-Edwards of the holiday concerts.

Sypien hopes his students’ concert experience will last long after the tree is taken down and the Christmas lights are packed up.

“Students learn important life skills like how to follow directions, leadership skills, independence, confidence and how to work with others,” he said of the holiday concert experience. “I hope that they will also be confident lifelong music learners who won't shy away from opportunities to make music beyond high school.”

The Moniteau Jr./Sr. High School chorus practices for their 2023 winter choral concert. Submitted photo
Director Heather Groves-Edwards practices with the choir at Slippery Rock Area High School on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Mikayla Torrence/Butler Eagle
Director Heather Groves-Edwards practices with the choir at Slippery Rock Area High School on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Mikayla Torrence/Butler Eagle
Director Heather Groves-Edwards practices with the choir at Slippery Rock Area High School on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Mikayla Torrence/Butler Eagle
Director Heather Groves-Edwards practices with the choir at Slippery Rock Area High School on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Mikayla Torrence/Butler Eagle
Director Heather Groves-Edwards practices with the choir at Slippery Rock Area High School on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Mikayla Torrence/Butler Eagle

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