It’s a hot and lazy August afternoon outside, but inside the choir room at the Alamo Heights United Methodist Church the atmosphere is cool, imbued with a sense of purpose. A few kids have lined up to audition for the Children’s Chorus of San Antonio, and everyone present is focused on that task. For CCSA founder and artistic director Marguerite McCormick, this is an annual ritual that she has gone through for the past 22 years.

First up this afternoon is Christian Janes, a 9-year-old with a reticent manner. He is not feeling quite well, his mom explains. With associate director Irma Taute watching, McCormick puts him gently through the paces. “This is not a test,” she tells him, “just a chance for us to hear you.”

Through a series of simple exercises, she checks his ability to match pitch, hold a musical line, keep a steady beat, sing and clap at the same time and reproduce or imaginatively complete a somewhat intricate melody.

Although not everything goes perfectly, at the end McCormick flashes a broad smile and tells Christian that “we are pleased to welcome you to the Children’s Chorus of San Antonio.”

The next candidate to audition, 10-year-old Lauren Burges, is more confident and relaxed. She asks questions of her own. Wants to know where the chorus went on tours. Later, the fifth-grader tells us about her love of singing and how her dad’s friend who is the choir director at Reagan High School recommended CCSA. Her assured demeanor comes partially from acting in plays at the Magik Theater. Like many kids today, she is involved in several activities and knows she will have to sacrifice something.  

“I am giving up piano and softball,” she says. “But I can do choir and acting at the same time.” She, too, is warmly welcomed by McCormick.

Both youngsters will join the Junior Chorus, where most kids start their CCSA careers.

“We very rarely reject a child,” explains McCormick. “Sometimes we may advise them to come back in a year because they may not be ready. And kids don’t have to read music to join or have any previous experience. We can develop their musical abilities. Many are shy at first, but that doesn’t mean they won’t come out of their shells in time.”

All chorus members, including juniors, must re-audition every year because kids’ voices change so much, explains the director. Depending on those changes, he or she is assigned to one of the other three groups within the organization: the Choristers, for treble voices in the age range 10-15; the Chamber Choir, an advanced treble group for the same age range; or the Youth Chorale, which features mixed voices of teens 14-18. There is also the preparatory Prelude Choir for 7- and 8-year-olds.

All of them — 162 altogether — will join forces Dec. 5 for the CCSA Winter Concert, which has become an audience favorite during the holiday season. The program spans several centuries of music making, from the Renaissance to new settings of English carols and the compositions of contemporary composer John Rutter. The two advanced choirs will also appear with the San Antonio Master- singers performing at the Holocaust Remembrance Concert to be held at the Jewish Community Center Nov. 9.

Over the years, the children of CCSA have delighted audiences in many settings, including appearances at the Majestic Theatre with the San Antonio Symphony, numerous choral conventions, invitational festivals in the United States and abroad, and at a variety of special concerts. In 1997, they sang for the first time at Carnegie Hall and on NBC’s “Today” show. The following year, the CCSA marked another milestone by appearing at the International Festival Institute at Round Top. Recent tours abroad took the older singers to Great Britain, Italy, Ireland and Canada. The group has also released two CDs, Alamo City Sings in 1999 and Voicerenity — Children’s Lullabies in 2002.

“Being in the chorus involves a lot of commitment,” says McCormick. “But the children who stick with it love it. After kids leave (when they graduate from high school), they say that the experiences in the Children’s Chorus were the best of their childhood.”But for Christian and Lauren it’s too early to think about the glory days ahead. For the time being they are happy to be in and looking forward to the first rehearsal on Sept 7.

A Labor of Love

Marguerite McCormick fell in love with choral music as a young music teacher in Fort Worth. The native San Antonian had just earned a piano degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., when she landed a job back in Texas, teaching high school. Among other things, the school asked her to teach choir.

“I had experience singing in church and in college, so I said OK. I walked into that classroom, and 15 minutes later I was hooked on kids and music. I knew that that’s what I wanted to do,” she says. So much so, in fact, that she spent the next 30 years of her life teaching in public schools in Fort Worth, Houston, St. Louis and, since 1981, in San Antonio. But it wasn’t until she heard the Chicago-based Glen Ellyn Children’s Choir in concert with the St. Louis Symphony in the late ’70s that she realized she wanted to start a similar group. “I was just mesmerized with their singing,” she recalls.

The opportunity finally presented itself in 1983 after McCormick had completed her master’s in choral conducting at UTSA. Her son Kevin — now a musician himself — penned the first audition flyer, which brought in 33 youngsters to form the UTSA Children’s Chorus, as the group was called for the first 10 years. Since then, some 1,200 youngsters have passed through the program, some staying as long as 10 years.

It was clearly an idea whose time had come. Although boys’ and girls’ choruses have existed in Europe for centuries, mixed choirs started appearing only in the late ’30s and early ’40s. It took a couple of decades before the concept crossed the Atlantic, but when it did, it spread successfully across the United States with typical American enthusiasm.

“When we started 22 years ago, there was very little in way of repertoire specifically written for children’s voices,” says McCormick. “Now music publishers find that music for children’s choirs is one of the most profitable of their ventures. I work hard to find the best literature for the kids.”

Although CCSA is mostly oriented toward art (classical) music, it also performs folk songs, Christmas carols, music of other cultures, a few show tunes and original compositions commissioned for its use. The latest one is a piece titled Then, Now, Forever, to be premiered in May 2005. Composed by David Brunner, the work is dedicated to McCormick’s late husband, Robert, who died two years ago. He was “our tour director and biggest supporter and cheerleader,” says the director.

UTSA professor and Mastersingers director John Silantien, who has followed CCSA’s progress, has only the highest praise for McCormick’s accomplishments.

“She’s done a great job,” says Silantien. “Not only because the chorus is top-notch musically but also because it plays an important role in the community, especially now that public schools are often cutting down on music programs. CCSA alumni are all over the country (in college music departments). But even if they don’t become professional musicians, studies show that people who learn to sing early continue to sing for the rest of their lives, in churches or other community groups.”

For McCormick the entire experience has been a dream come true. Now retired from teaching in NEISD, she can devote herself full-time to the chorus.

“I believe that what we offer children is vital for their souls,” she says. “We help them find beauty in themselves. When they are actively engaged in learning a piece of music, they must involve their minds, their bodies and their creative abilities. And it gets them involved with others in a community of musicians.”

The First Rehearsal

Back at the church, it’s time for the first Junior Chorus rehearsal, and the community of pint-sized musicians is ready to go. In her gentle yet firm way, the director instructs them on how to hold their bodies and breathe as singers. But pretty soon, they start practicing the simple songs posted on the board. First up is Music, Sweet Music, which, she explains, everybody in the chorus sings from age 7 to 18. With the help of associate director Rebecca Jarvis, herself a CCSA alumna, the kids pick up quickly while their parents watch from the sidelines.

The latter know they are in it with their offspring. That’s OK with Lauren’s dad, Roy Burges.”I think this program will exceed my expectations,” he says. “I’ll certainly do my part to help.” Christian’s mom, Heather Janes, already knows what to expect since her older daughter has been a member for five years. A parent must make a commitment as well as the child, she says. Besides driving, parents are organized in committees to chaperone when necessary, organize the fund-raising gala, order uniforms, plan auctions, etc.

As for Lauren and Christian, they look slightly flushed as the rehearsal draws to a close. Lauren admits to being a little tired, but “I learned a lot of new songs and it was fun,” she declares. “I feel confident about our first performance. Ms. McCormick is a good teacher, and she has taught me a lot already.”

But Christian, now feeling fine, is a man of few words. Asked what he liked best, he deadpans, “the break.” Still, we have it on good authority that when he went home that night, he eagerly showed his music folder to his sister.

Tuition ranges from $350 a year for the Prelude Choir to $600 a year for the Youth Chorale. For more information, call CCSA at 826-3447.

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Janet Rogers