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The UU Children's Choir performing

Tweens gather in Dallas for UU Children's Choir

43 children attend music camp during UU musicians' conference.
By Donald E. Skinner
8.12.13

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If you have ever seen the Unitarian Universalist Children's Choir it's probably because you attended a General Assembly in 2000, 2003, 2006, or 2010.

Through the leadership of members of the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network (UUMN), a children's choir was formed at each of those GAs, coming together for rehearsals, social time, and a performance. All four of those events were powerful experiences not only for the children involved, but for the adults who worked with them, including many UU musicians.

But something was missing each time. There was never enough time at GA, with everything else that happens there, for the children and the adults to connect with each other and to learn and do the kinds of music that were possible. In addition, attending GA is expensive.

That's why the UUMN came up with a new vision this year for presenting and supporting the children's choir. Late in July, the UUMN met in Dallas for its annual five-day conference. This year it invited more than 50 children between ages 10 and 12 to join it, and 43 participated in the 2013 UU Children's Choir as part of the conference.*

During the week the children rehearsed, learned about music, and went on local outings. They also filled bookbags for homeless children who are heading back to school. UUMN members had their own workshops during the week, but they included time with the children in their schedule, leading sessions on songwriting, theater improvisation, drumming, and creative motion.

Jan Chamberlin, music director at Eliot Unitarian Chapel in Kirkwood, Mo., and program director of the choir, said this new method of creating and working with the choir as part of a UUMN conference worked out well. "It was fabulous for everyone involved. There were lots of interactions between kids and adults. The kids had experiences that are not possible at GA."

Chamberlin said it is likely that this will become the UUMN's preferred method for working with the children's choir. And while she didn't rule out the possibility of a children's choir being formed again in conjunction with a GA, it seems less likely for the moment, she said.

Sarah Dan Jones, president of the UUMN, concurred. She noted that the UUMN has traditionally been responsible for all aspects of the choir, from fundraising to selecting children to participate, and that it simply makes sense to hold it in connection with UUMN conferences. Another reason is that more adult musicians attend the conference than attend GA, allowing them to work with the children while attending the UUMN event. "When faced with the choice of how to use their professional development money, most congregational musicians will choose the UUMN conference," said Jones.

Chamberlin said the UUMN is committed to working with young musicians. "We believe children who have this kind of experience will forever use it as a bar from which they measure all of their future music experiences." She said that the children, who were selected from audition CDs and written applications, worked with their congregational music directors or music teachers for two months prior to the camp to learn the music. She added, "This camp provides a rare opportunity for UU children to sing UU-appropriate music in a large ensemble with the thrill of musical excellence," said Chamberlin.

The choir was directed by Cynthia Nott, artistic director of the Children's Chorus of Greater Dallas.

The children presented a 30-minute concert on the last night of the conference, at First Unitarian Church of Dallas, where some of the camp sessions were held. They sang one of the pieces again at two First Unitarian worship services on Sunday as well as singing a piece with the UUMN Conference Choir.* They also prepared a round which they sang at a Saturday morning intergenerational worship for the conference participants.

One of those selected for the choir was David Walker, 11, of First Parish UU, Canton, Mass. "This was absolutely amazing," he said after the camp. "It's like nothing else that ever happened to me before. I got to stay in a college dorm, I had a roommate, and my singing improved so much. I can't believe I got picked. I'm writing in a notebook everything I learned so that I don't forget it." Walker said his church has no children's choir, but that he sings at its coffeehouse and at school and with his dad, who accompanies him on guitar.

Anika Schramm, 12, of Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colo., was at camp with four of her friends from church. "I liked being with other people who liked singing and the fact that we were all UUs. I learned some new techniques and I really liked our conductor. We sang in a way I'd never experienced before." JUC does have a children's choir, and Anika is part of it.

Kim Paquette's daughter Abby attended from the UU Congregation in Milford, N.H. "It was the first time she felt connected to her faith in a big way outside of our congregation," Kim Paquette said. "I don't think she had any idea how meaningful this would be. I also like the multigenerational aspect. The UUMN is at the forefront in experimenting with inclusivity."

Chamberlin said part of the purpose of the camp was to give young UU musicians an opportunity to make exceptional music with other UUs. "Many of our congregations are too small to have a children's choir or don't fund music programs well enough. Normally a UU child would have to participate in a community choir to get this level of experience. But that wouldn't let them feel a part of their faith like this camp does."

She said the camp also allows the children to meet and work with adult UU musicians whose names they will also find in the songbooks they use in their congregations. The cost of the camp is around $500. Scholarships are available.

The Rev. Jason Shelton, a composer and associate minister for music at First UU Church, Nashville, Tenn., led songwriting workshops for some of the children. In one of the workshops, starting with a single word, "music," the participants created a song. The words came fast as the young musicians fed off each other's enthusiasm. They learned about respecting the ideas of others, how to use a rhyming dictionary, and that not every line had to rhyme. They put the song together with a hip-hop beat, accompanied by a drum and a piano, ending up with "Music across the world, echoing high and low . . . music is in my soul. Nothing else matters . . ."

"You never know what's going to happen when you let your creativity flow," Shelton told them as the workshop ended. "What we did here was amazingly creative. And really fun." There were high-fives all around.

Shelton said his goal was to show the young musicians "what a creative person does. How to just go for it without a filter and see what comes out. For me the experience of songwriting is very much a spiritual practice. I wanted to show the kids they could participate in that. They really ran with it."

Laura Sandage, choir director at the UU Church of Davis, Calif., led a workshop in "comic sound effects." Arming her young charges with all manner of percussion instruments, they chimed, whistled, and honked as they came up with ways to illustrate a skit.

"With percussion instruments it's not just the thing itself that makes noise, it's how you stroke it," Sandage told the campers. "Each person has to make their sound at the right time. Just like making music, you have to pay attention to what other people are doing. Just like singing, your sound supports the whole effort and makes it work."

Annease Hastings is music director for Bull Run UUs in Manassas, Va. Eighteen children from her congregation have participated in the various UU children's choirs. "They come home just loving it, saying it's the first place where they didn't have to explain their beliefs, a place where they're completely accepted," she said. "I do think it's helping grow the next generation of UUs. They come back to our congregational choirs and they are stronger leaders than before."


Photograph (above): The UU Children’s Choir performed during the UU Musicians Network conference in Dallas in July (© Lisa Walls). See sidebar for links to related resources.

Correction 8.13.13: An earlier version of this article and the story's subhead included an inaccurate count of the number of children who participated in the choir. Although more than 50 registered, only 43 attended. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph. An earlier version of this story misidentified the adult choir that performed with the children's choir during a Sunday worship service at First Unitarian Church. It was the UU Musicians Network Conference Choir, not the First Unitarian Church choir. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph. An earlier version of this story attributed the photograph to the wrong person.

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