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Facing The Music

Xander Curry singing on stage at the Singletary Center on Tuesday, Jan 11, 2022 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Olivia Ford.

Stepping foot in the Otis A. Singletary Center for the Arts at the University of Kentucky, one knows that there isn't a place on campus quite like it. If entering the building in the middle of the day, one can hear the echoes of the choir students' singing bounce off the brick walls or maybe even the tuning of the band and orchestra students' instruments as they get ready for another day of rehearsal. Plenty of students choose to spend their downtime and study time in the building to soak in its ambience, which could be considered a welcomed breath of fresh air after a long day of classes and work.

But most importantly, the Singletary Center is the beloved home of UK's choral groups, which are made up of talented college students — and even some professors — who come together to share their love for music with one another and to collaborate in its creation. One of these students, 19-year-old Harrison Hancock, is amazed by how the department brings the community's singers together.

"One thing they just get so right — something that is extremely important to me — is the idea of community," he said. "They absolutely do that."

While many may recognize UK as being best known for the prowess of its athletic programs, one aspect of the school that doesn't often get quite as much attention is the various choral ensembles that exist on campus and are housed in the Singletary Center. But getting to experience their recitals, concerts and other performances through the school year is also a notable representation of UK's talented and accomplished student body.

The UK choral program is made up of four choral and three acapella ensembles. The choral ensembles — Men's Choir, Women's Choir, Chorale and Choristers — perform a diverse range of music with instrumental accompaniments, whereas the acapella ensembles consist of the acoUstiKats, Blue Note, and Paws and Listen.

Hancock said that Chorale is widely considered among the choral program at UK to be the top chamber ensemble out of them all. Led by Director of Choral Activities Jeff Johnson, the co-ed choir is usually made up of juniors and seniors (with the occasional lucky sophomore) who must first audition to secure a spot.

Although it may seem intimidating enough for non-musical-majoring students at UK to feel discouraged in trying to join Chorale, one thing that current members want to emphasize is that any and all students who are passionate about singing and want to put in the work are welcome to pursue it, regardless of what they're studying.

"Just because you don't necessarily want to do music for the rest of your life doesn't mean that you can't like music and can't participate in music making," said Hancock, a sophomore vocal performance major who's a member of both Men's Choir and Chorale. "We had Collage back in December, and that is like 300 to 400 singers on stage, and I would guarantee half of them are not music majors."

Members of the UK Women's Choir warm up in the rehearsal room at the Singletary Center on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Olivia Ford

On Jan. 13, the members of Chorale elected a new president for the student leadership team, 20-year-old natural resources and environmental sciences major Matt McBee. For McBee, being a Choral member who is not majoring in a music-related study has been exciting but also humbling.

"I definitely have to work really hard because I don't get a whole lot of outside experience," he said. "But I'm also very in control of my schedule, which has just been very nice. I can kind of do the ensembles I want to do, spend my time where I want to spend it, but it's definitely been a lot of work."

McBee's goal as president for the next couple of semesters is to strengthen the sense of community and belonging that he believes Chorale has created among its members, especially for non-music majors like him.

"You always go into a big ensemble like this thinking there's going to be a stigma, that you're not going to meet anybody because everybody else has this major in common, but that's not it at all," he said. "You'd be surprised how little music majors actually talk about music. Every single ensemble on this campus is so easy to break into."

Many members of UK's choral ensembles have been pushing for more diverse representation in their groups, not just among its members but also in the music they perform. Former Chorale Co-Presidents Xander Curry and Mason O'Brien's mission was to branch out regarding the songs they perform by shining a spotlight on composers who are underrepresented in the choral sphere.

"We're doing more pieces by composers who are people of color who maybe haven't been heard before, and I think that it's really beneficial to utilize UK as a choral platform to give a light to voices that have been underrepresented," said Curry, a senior vocal performance major.

The choral ensembles are an ever-evolving group of performers, and while they often like to honor the traditional aspects of choir performances by going back to classical pieces of work by well-known composers, they also want the songs they sing to reflect the diversity of the world today.

"I think that that message of programming in a way that gives light to a more diverse piece of music sung by a more diverse student body is what will make Chorale a better environment for everyone to be in," Curry said.

UK's Women's Choir is similar in that they primarily focus on works written by female composers and people of color, something that is made a priority by the ensemble's director, Lori Hetzel.

"Our theme for the last two years has been silenced communities, so one of our main purposes is to try to include as many different cultural backgrounds and composers that are not of the dead, white man, Western variety," Women's Choir Co-President Caitlin Flemm said.

The Women's Choir has had the opportunity to work directly with two female composers, Elaine Hagenberg and Diane "Dee" White-Clayton, who have composed two original pieces of work that the choir debuted to the world during the American Choral Directors Association — also known as ACDA — Southern Conference this year that took place Feb. 23-26 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Both the Men's and Women's Choir at UK were selected to partake in the conference after passing the blind auditions. This was a huge accomplishment for the two ensembles as this is only the second time in history that both the men's and women's choirs of the same institution have been able to attend the Southern Conference in the same year.

The Women's Choir is incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity not only to have performed at ACDA this year but also to have been able to work with two accomplished composers to help prepare, strengthen and empower them as an ensemble.

UK Women's Choir co-presidents Caitlin Flemm and Jessica Rogers practice before their rehearsal outside of the Singletary Center on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Olivia Ford.

"UK's choir is so phenomenal for offering that kind of opportunity," Women's Choir Co-President Jessica Rogers said. "I don't know of any schools that get that opportunity like how we do."

The process for preparing for the ACDA Southern Conference was exciting and stressful for both the men and women of the groups. Katie Copeland, who is one of the "wardrobe queens" for the Women's Choir, said that the group was putting in extra work during rehearsal time to make sure they were well-prepared for February.

"It's an exciting energy because we know we're really working up to something that's really big, at least in the choral world," Copeland said.

Hancock hoped that the conference would be not just and incredible experience in general, but a learning opportunity for him and his fellow choirmates to grow as performers.

"It's a huge deal," he said. "Being able to travel to Raleigh and get those experiences are lifelong memories."

The UK choral groups want their talents to be even more widely known and to have an even greater impact, and many ensemble members hope that their accomplishments will solidify their legacy as one of the strongest choir schools in the United States. They believe that their experiences studying at UK and participating in ensembles is preparing them effectively for the futures that they hope to lead post-graduation.

"I plan to be a professional opera singer one day. That's my hope and dream. But also after that, I want to be able to teach at a college where I can have a choral group to lead as well," said O'Brien, current member of Chorale, Men's Choir and acoUstiKats. "I think that that's very much so in my future, so in all of our rehearsals, you just soak up so much knowledge from everyone in the room — not just the director but the TAs and other students as well. I think we all learn from each other."

The choir students at UK also encourage anyone who is interested in pursuing their musical talents a little more during their time at college to take the plunge and to join or audition for any of the ensembles on campus.

"Even if you're like, 'Oh, I just sing in the car sometimes, I don't know if that's enough,' just come in and try it, and you will be supported and uplifted and encouraged, and you'll get to maybe meet your best friends," Rogers said.

Harrison Hancock practices his singing on stage at the Singletary Center on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Olivia Ford.

The idea of found family is highly emphasized by many of the current choral students. That feeling of familiarity and closeness to fellow choirmates is something that the ensembles have worked hard to cultivate and hope to maintain for years to come.

"Your voice adds to a group," Chorale's McBee said. "You are nothing without the peers you stand beside and produce music with, and I think that's gonna help me a lot in terms of working in group settings later in my life."

Hancock shared a similar sentiment and added that there is something that everyone can gain by collaborating.

"It's a garden of success," he said. "Everyone is cultivating their own garden, but then you have community gardeners that come around and help you grow your garden. So we're all lifting each other up, and that's an environment that in the arts is sometimes hard to find because people sometimes can be divas, people can be selfish. It's all very, very familiar, and we are a family."


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