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By Sarah Hilpmann (Kreider), BCCC alumna and BYC Choristers Director

It is undeniable that December is a month filled with music. Whether we’re walking around the grocery store hearing holiday pop songs on the radio, walking down the streets hearing carolers at a nearby shop, or maybe even singing the carols ourselves, singing is a huge part of this season.

Making music together, and specifically singing together, is an impactful, grounding, and heart-filling part of the hubbub of this month.

As I think back on the Decembers of my childhood, I have many fond memories of the gift of making music in Berks Classical Children’s Chorus Christmas concerts over the years. Specifically, I loved the arrangement of “Children Go Where I Send Thee” that we sang together. I vividly remember laughing with friends and joyfully rehearsing the piece in GoggleWorks room 420.

BCCC offered these moments for me at all times of the year, and it gave me a space to foster a love of music that I didn’t understand the significance of at the time.

I very much looked forward to rehearsals where I knew I would share smiles with friends, but also knew I would learn through some pretty wonderful directors. They were inspiring not only through the way they led us and taught us musical skills, but in the way they fostered a fun and welcoming environment for us to grow and learn.

I can remember summer weeks with Dr. Wolfe joking around about his fun patterned socks and shorts. His smile was contagious and his passion for choral music and sharing that passion with us young singers was always apparent. Dr. Adams would joke with us, but also held us to high standards (most notably when we needed to memorize the German words to “Heidenroslein” but were not rising to her expectations, and she begrudgingly made us signs with the words to follow along and spark our memories). Mr. Brunner was always a goofy bright spot to rehearsals. He always made things fun and exciting, but in a way that still allowed us to reach our full potential when it came to making beautiful music.

These are just a few of the adults who touched my life as a young singer. I credit all of my BCCC directors with helping to mold me into the musician that I am today, and the music teacher that I am today.

It is surreal for me to think that I have stepped into a similar position for new singers that these role models held for me years ago. I am so thankful for the young singers that have been a part of Choristers these past two years and I strive to be for them what my directors were for me throughout my time in BCCC/BYC. I love sitting back and watching the singers interact with each other before and after rehearsals and during breaks. Stepping back and seeing their friendships blossom and grow each week is so rewarding.

Although much has changed in the organization since my early days in Berks Classical Children’s Chorus starting in 2003 (such as the name), I am happy to report that the enthusiasm of our singers is a constant.

A love of singing and music making is the glue that holds this organization together, and it is a glue that bonds our singers to each other. They are the reason we do what we do, and they are so worth the work that goes into everything. Seeing them find their place in an inclusive environment amidst a world that is often so exclusionary is rewarding. It is all the more rewarding knowing they are finding their place through music and song.

There is something special about singing together. It bonds us together despite our differences and it is a powerful force. I am so thankful that BYC is still sharing the beauty and impact of communal music making with young people. I am honored to be a part of this process and to be fostering a love of singing and choral music in a new generation of children.

As you continue through this holiday season, take note of the communal music making happening around you. We are so thankful for all you have done to make sure that our BYC singers can continue to grow and make music together.

Our voices are a powerful force—both in this month when music seems to be in the very air we breathe, and as we strive to carry the spirit of this season with us throughout the rest of the year.

In a world where there is Berks Youth Chorus, “how can we keep from singing?”

How often do you step out of your comfort zone?

We ask our singers to do it all the time. New singers are worried their voice isn't good enough to fit in. Most singers are nervous before they perform. We encourage quiet kids to raise their hands to answer questions. Some of our singers' voices change and drop far faster than anticipated!

Mistakes are scary, change is uncomfortable, and stage fright is common.

My first reaction is to assuage that fear. I tell them that chorus is the perfect place for shy singers to find their way because they're not alone. I remind them that even Beyonce and Taylor Swift get nervous to perform; it's only human. They tend to be...skeptical of my counsel.

Of course, I get to watch our kids reach the other side of that fear. I see them learn to sing out, form friendships and find their way. That sense of pride and accomplishment from a performance well done is invaluable. It sticks with them long after they've sung their last note with BYC.

Case in point: MasterSingers pushed past their inhibitions in their first rehearsal, and they sounded fantastic on the first piece they learned.

If the zone beyond our comfort is where the magic lies, we should go there more often.

As their teachers, we take risks alongside them. Each rehearsal, we try new activities, games and techniques to help them grow. This year, we are hosting visits from guest artists and other choirs, taking the MasterSingers on a trip to Philly, and planning even more performance opportunities than before. Our singers will perform for meandering museum goers, fundraiser attendees, peers, hockey game-goers.... they'll see it all.

I must admit—these new plans push me beyond my comfort zone too sometimes. I worry whether I've properly prepared our singers for success. But just like our singers, I can grow by leaning into that discomfort. It's worth it on the other side.

Each leap of faith is a step toward true growth, as musicians, artists and community members. I'm proud of our singers for their courage, resilience, and most of all, their unrelenting kindness toward each other. It's much easier to be uncomfortable when you find solace in each other.

August 11, 2023

"What can YOU do to help our singers grow?"

I asked our MasterSinger Interns this question a few weeks ago. Every year, a select few of our oldest singers volunteer at our Summer Sing camp. I train them during the week before camp to prepare them as leaders and facilitators.

It's one of my favorite days of the year: we invite these singers to think like teachers, to understand how to create a good learning environment, and to contemplate how they can direct singers' energy in a positive, productive direction. Our board vice chair, Jeanette Fotis, even taught them how to facilitate improvisational group games, so that they could lead those activities at camp.

I prompted them further:

How did you feel when you first joined BYC?

Why have you stayed all these years?

How do you want our campers to feel at camp?

What can YOU do to help them grow?"

Dear reader, what do you think they said?

As you might imagine, these dedicated, talented, musical BYC-ers didn't mention the music at all. They didn't focus on the importance of rhythmic precision or stage etiquette. While they have expressed their fervent devotion to those principles in the past, their answers revealed other priorities.

They wanted our campers to feel safe. They wanted them to have fun, to feel comfortable to meet new faces, and to feel seen and heard. They wanted to comfort campers who felt lonely and kindly encourage focus from singers who were distracted.

They wanted them to love singing together—and to know that they mattered.

These answers are simple. But they exemplify the importance of this community. Singing is the perfect vehicle to welcome the outsider, provide a sense of belonging, and create memories that last.

Our MasterSingers embody what BYC means. They get to reap the harvest of what we sow. And now, they get to set the tone for our younger singers' growth.

At Summer Sing, those MasterSingers jumped right in. They did all they could to make our camp an inviting, safe, welcoming space. Each of them welcomed new singers with a smile, reached out to shy campers, prepared materials and spaces for the next activity, and facilitated activities with kindness and grace.

We always end our camp with one of my favorite traditions: the Gratitude Web. Each camper in the circle takes turns expressing gratitude to another singer, passing a ball of yarn with each compliment. The yarn eventually unwinds into a web, a chain of kindness—and the campers tie a piece of the yarn to their wrists, to take that kindness with them after camp.

The words of gratitude were especially earnest this year. These young campers expressed sincere thanks to each other—for how they were greeted, for the fun they had together, and for the sense of belonging that they gave each other.

I have no doubt that our MasterSinger Interns, alongside our talented and dedicated staff and volunteers, created the space for those warm feelings.

As our 32nd year kicks off, we are offering more opportunities for our singers. This year features new performance opportunities, a trip to Philadelphia, visits from award-winning guest artists, and more. No two years are the same, as we continuously try to offer more for our singers.

With all of these developments, BYC can rest assured that our core values remain strong as ever. If we have these thoughtful singers and our greater community that supports them, we have everything we need.

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