The Columbia Youth Choirs’ performance on May 7 is its last of the year. The seven-choir ensemble has practiced weekly since January, but planning for the concert started years ago when the organization began. Now, Columbia Youth Choirs directors, administrative staff, students and the local community combine to create a performance that’s more than the sum of its parts.
“The music world is very small and we’re all very connected, so I knew what was happening in the community, and wanted a way to help fix it.”
When public school funding doesn’t meet budget requirements, cuts are the easiest solution. Fine arts programs are often the first to be slashed, leaving teachers without jobs and students with few musical outlets.
This was the case in 2013-2014, when Missouri public schools were underfunded by $656 million, averaging roughly $700 per student.
“There were some significant cuts happening in the public school system locally at the Columbia level. They were completely eliminating choirs at the middle school,” said music teacher Emily Edgington Andrews.
Fighting such a daunting issue has to start at the local level no matter how small, according to Andrews.
“The music world is very small and we’re all very connected, so I knew what was happening in the community, and wanted a way to help fix it,” she said.
For over three decades, Columbia Chorale, now part of the larger Choral Arts Alliance of Missouri (CAAM), operated solely as an adult choir. In 2013, Columbia Chorale hired Emily Edgington Andrews as their Artistic Director; the new position gave Andrews the perfect opportunity to help children where schools no longer could.
Four years ago, Columbia Youth Choirs (CYC) began weekly programs for grades three through eight, divided into three ensembles. Every year since, the organization has expanded. Today, CYC offers programs for second through 12th graders and hopes to add kindergarten and first grade in the near future. Andrews’ goal from the beginning was to offer choirs for all age groups with as few barriers to entry as possible.
“It doesn’t matter what zip code you have, what nationality, religion; if you like to sing, we’ll find a spot for you,” Andrews said.
But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Non-affiliated programs like CYC have to secure funding on their own, making Andrews’ goal more difficult. The bulk of CYC’s funding comes from grants approved by the city of Columbia and the Missouri Arts Council, as well as individual donations.
“One of the big issues is that the traditional sources of funding like government funding aren’t as plentiful as they were, say, 10 years ago,” said Kimberly Dent, board president of CAAM.
Financial restrictions will always be a reality for CYC, but the organization is optimistic it can support future projects including a choir for children with disabilities.
“It’s a project near and dear to Emily’s heart,” Dent said. “We would love to be able to make sure it’s something accessible to anyone, regardless of their abilities or background.”
For now, amidst its fourth season, CYC prepares for its final concert.
“I truly believe everybody can learn how to sing.”
Each season for Columbia Youth Choirs begins with recruitment. The organization advertises with homeschooling organizations and local schools to attract new members.
After the season officially begins in August, rehearsals are held every Sunday afternoon at Columbia Independent School. With only one day a week to rehearse, all seven choirs must stay focused on creating the best show possible.
For “2017: A Space Odyssey”, the group’s final concert of the season, this sense of urgency began in January.
Boys Choir I and II director James Melton admits 45 minutes a week is not enough time for everything he would like to accomplish.
“I struggle with it,” Melton said. “You have to sacrifice some literacy and fundamental type stuff to really focus on developing the voice and getting [the singers] comfortable in a range.”
While the lack of time is certainly not preferable, Melton remains dedicated to improving his singers and preparing them for the concert. Above all else, the lesson Melton tries to get across to his students is the universal talent of singing. He believes CYC reinforces this idea, as six of its seven choirs do not require an audition to join.
“I truly believe everybody can learn how to sing. It does take some effort. When people say ‘I can’t sing’, it’s about ‘do you want to?’ It’s not about whether you can’t,” Melton said.
“Once you get here, it’s just happiness.”
CYC directors and staff pride themselves on the community they have built for their students through singing.
When asked what makes CYC special, CAAM board president Kimberly Dent said CYC is “a place where anyone can come and find friendships, bond with other people, and share a love of choral music, not only amongst our members, but with the community at large.”
James Melton echoes this sentiment.
“Singing isn’t just about school days. It’s about the community... The only way that we have an impact on society is if we come together as groups and continue making art. This is what this organization offers,” Melton said.
Miriam Gleeson, 14, lives nearly an hour away in Mexico, Missouri. Every minute of the drive is worth it for Miriam.
“Every Sunday, my little brother, sister, and I drive up here and we just love singing... Once you get here, it’s just happiness,” she said.
Miriam thinks CYC is special because of the friendships she has made through singing.
“My favorite part [of CYC]... is, every time you come here, if somebody is sad, there’s always at least three people there [saying] ‘Are you okay? What can I do to help you?’... Everybody just works well together. Even if you’re mad at somebody, you’re still happy with them because you get to sing together,” she said.
For other students, performing live breaks through stage fright and builds self-confidence.
“When I first started performing, I would always get really, really nervous, and I would be shaking up there. But now, after all these years, it has helped me not be so nervous when performing. I love performing, it’s my favorite thing to do,” Carly Ochoa, 16, said.
CYC teaches its students about teamwork, public performing, and of course, proper singing technique. Without an organization like CYC, these students would miss out on learning these skills. This is why Emily Edgington Andrews found it so important to start CYC in the first place.
With new skills developed over the course of the year, CYC’s students will need all of them for the season’s final concert.
“[CYC] is the light of my life.”
The time for “2017: A Space Odyssey” finally arrived on Sunday, May 7.
The concert was held at Battle High School, and May 7 was the first time the students had rehearsed at the venue.
The choirs had three hours to rehearse before the doors opened to the public, and each minute was spent perfecting the sound and look of the concert. With so little time and so much to do, Emily Edgington Andrews described the afternoon as “really chaotic”.
Nonetheless, what came next is best described by Andrews herself.
“When the lights go down, and they get up on the stage, they sort of come into their own. It really is so beautiful to see all of the different ensembles perform,” she said.
“2017: A Space Odyssey” marks the end of the fourth season for CYC, which means students will have to wait until August to return to their choirs.
Darian Parker, 17, can only sing in the organization for one more year. He wishes he had joined CYC earlier, and urges others to do the same.
“I just say to those around Columbia, if you’re looking for a great choir to be a part of, this is it. You can go from a young age to an old age, and it keeps getting better every level you go, so check it out,” he said.
Harold Johnson, 15, who sings with Parker in Boys’ Choir II and the vocal jazz ensemble, is a high school freshman and looks forward to his future years in CYC.
“I absolutely enjoy singing with CYC. It’s so much fun. It is the light of my life,” he said.
With this year of CYC finished, Emily Edgington Andrews is already planning for the organization’s next season.
“I’m going to look at the grade levels and split things up a little differently. Just to reassess our program. I have a new idea for a men’s ensemble that will include high school men with college guys. Just freshen things up and try something new,” she said.
But for now, Andrews is proud of how the organization and her students have grown.
One of the Battle High School Battalion choir members performs “Stand Together” on May 7, 2017 with the other ensembles of the CYC. Jazz Rucker, the Battle High School choir director, and Andrews have worked together in the past.
“What’s so special about CYC is we get to see our students progress from an early age up through… their senior year. So seeing their development, both musically and as individuals, becoming little people to young adults, is really special. When I sat back today in the concert and just watched their pride, when they stood up and sang and did their best… [or] when the boys finished singing, the high-fives that they gave each other, that was just really cool. Because the point of CYC is the relationship building, and becoming wonderful people and positive contributors to our society. I think what we’re doing is giving them the confidence in knowing how to work together, even if sometimes it’s hard or stressful. It’s just really neat to see how we’ve grown and how the individuals have grown as little people,” she said.
At the heart of CYC is a willingness for meeting the needs of the community when others can’t. Ambitions for growth will always balance with funding, but Andrews’ passion remains strong as ever.
She hopes to see her vision grow to its full potential, one performance at a time.
Watch a clip from the concert here.