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Campus School Chorus: A Connector to Community

“Everyone take a deep breath and relax into the song,” Cindy Naughton tells a gymnasium filled with Campus School chorus members. “Let me hear your beautiful voices!”

It is Wednesday at Campus School, and the basketball hoops are raised to the ceiling. A piano abuts the stage in the gym, and rows of chairs are filled with young singers snacking on sandwiches and shuffling through lunch boxes. Children listen attentively as they finish their meals and prepare to sing. Ms. Naughton– who has taught at Campus School for thirty-five years– stands, with a smile, in front of them.

For the past eight years, Ms. Naughton has directed the chorus and grown its participation to seventy students from the fourth through sixth grades. “The fact that we have high participation means a lot to me,” she shared, “Some school choruses are audition only, but ours is not. Ours is open to anyone who wants to come sing, as long as they can focus and participate positively… I try to make it as possible as I can for everybody to come to chorus and give what they can and get what they need.”

At the end of rehearsal, one young singer shuffled over in his winter coat to share what chorus means to him: “We get to sing good songs and go to places big and small,” he said, “retirement homes, hundreds of people at a concert. We get to learn all these songs. It feels really good to sing, because it’s like, even if you get off tune, it’s not the worst thing– you can get better. You’re the one making the music, not just listening.” Standing to his right, a friend nodded, reiterating: “It’s really nice because I can sing the way I want to, with so much passion. Ms. Naughton has a kind heart, has a lot of soul, and chorus is a place that you can feel free to just sing.”

 

Ms. Naughton supports a solo-performer at the annual Campus School Thanksgiving Assembly held in John M. Greene Hall

Ms. Naughton pays careful attention to the selection of those “good songs” that students so enjoy, infusing her chorus curricula with music both current and classic:

I try to make sure that I have a balance between what’s just singing for fun, and what’s really pushing the kids, “ she shared. “We have some things that are challenging and hard, and each rehearsal– and each year– I’m trying to balance those things. Every year, I try to make sure that I program some things that the kids have asked for, some things that represent multicultural music that’s available, including at least one piece that’s in another language. I try to program one piece from the classical repertoire so that they start to learn how to sing that kind of music, and I also often have something from a current Broadway musical or musical movie: we’ve done Les Mis, Hamilton,  Matilda. This year it’s Mary Poppins Returns, last year it was The Greatest Showman. We often do medleys from these musicals so we get to do more songs. Also, because the pieces were created for a different context, not a choral setting, there will be parts of them that are more or less appropriate for a kids’ chorus to sing, and by doing a medley I can include things that, if I had to do the whole songs, maybe wouldn’t work.

An integral element of the Campus School chorus is its emphasis on cultivating community within and beyond Campus School walls. Representative of the ways in which music draws people together, the SCCS chorus both gives and receives: “The past three years, I’ve been lucky to have an extremely talented parent who comes in as my accompanist and also does arranging, and has even composed some pieces for us,” Ms. Naughton shared. “This is her profession, and she’s very good at it, so we’ve been extremely lucky to have her donate her time. I have parent volunteers who come in, and I’ve had Smith student volunteers who come in to help both with management and being available for someone who might need a little reminder, or can’t find the music… This year, I have a student who is in the Glee Club and is coming in to help with singing, so when we’re learning pieces that have two parts she is singing with the sopranos, and I am singing with the altos, and we can just learn music that much faster.” Ms. Naughton also appoints student helpers who stay after chorus to stack chairs and clean the space. “It’s really a lovely community service that they provide to their fellow chorus members and to me,” she said, emphasizing the stewardship inherent in this ritual.

Campus School chorus members share their voices in John M. Greene Hall.

Outside of Campus School, young chorus members share their work with the Smith community at events like the Thanksgiving Assembly in John M. Greene Hall; the Martin Luther King Jr. Day assembly; Grandparents’ Day assembly; Smith College student houses at Friday afternoon teas; Smith College Art Museum; and Otelia Cromwell day, among others. In the local community, Campus School students perform at retirement facilities like Rockridge and Lathrop, in downtown Northampton at the annual holiday Bag Day, and, in years past, even in operas at the Academy of Music Theater. “Singing allows me to sing what’s in my heart, and it’s important to me,” one young singer shared after practice. “I look forward to it every week.”

From a technical standpoint, Ms. Naughton guides students through the nuances of vocal performance, encouraging children to focus on themselves as individual performers, as well as members of a group:

We talk about body posture—how you use your body, how you sit, how you breathe; singing in harmony, trying to point out thirds or sixths—what most harmony would be built on in two-part; how to find those pitches; how to sing in cannon or in a round and be able to hold your own part. A little bit on how to find a pitch, especially when we were doing the operas… they’re listening ahead for this thing coming ahead of them: how do you find your pitch from the last thing that you just heard? Breathing. Singing in tune. I also talk about blend—if you can hear your voice, and it’s louder than everybody else’s, then it’s too loud. Or sometimes, when we’re singing in harmony, I want to encourage people to blend. So, if the mezzos have a solo, then other people have to back away, so those are the things that I like to work towards. Also making them aware of the kinds of things that are out there—we’re doing a short little Handel piece from Judas Maccabaeus, so they’re learning how to sing it in that typical baroque vocal line, and we have done some Bach, we’ve done some Schubert, so they’re learning a bit about the masterworks of classical repertoire. Last year, they did a piece with the Smith College Glee Club that was all in Lithuanian… it was really impressive.

Ms. Naughton says that she “was one of the lucky people who discovered what [she] wanted to do fairly early on.” In high school, she was the choreographer and accompanist for her school musicals and was asked by a friend’s parent to give piano lessons to her friend’s younger sibling. “I sort of just agreed because it was a family friend,” she admitted, “but then I found that I really, really enjoyed it, and that’s what started me on the path to wanting to go into music education. I was really lucky that everything I did as I went along my educational path confirmed that this was really what I wanted to do.” Her career began in Nebraska, where she student-taught under the guidance of a cooperating teacher in all vocal and instrumental music programs in grades k-12, in a small school where she “had a chance to do everything” before moving east to teach in Milford, Connecticut, and West Hartford. She then ventured to Northampton and finding her place at Campus School. At the time, she was Musical Director, and later took over for a theater company at the Center for the Arts– a passion that she channeled into the first fifth grade play, what is now a central tradition of coming-of-age at Campus School. She sent all four of her sons through the k-6 program (to read about one of their successes, please check out our alumni profile with Geoff Moss ‘96 here) and has continued to enrich both music curricula and extracurricular offerings since her start at SCCS.

“Singing is important because it lets me express myself,” one boy shared as he reached for his backpack. “It’s really helpful, and there’s something supportive about it. [When I’m singing], I feel good and happy and courageous and emotional and hopeful.”

Listening to the lyrics of chorus members through the gymnasium doors on Wednesday afternoons, we at Campus School feel the same.

 

Written by Brittany Collins

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