In Burlington’s Bella Voce, mentees take singing, and conducting, seriously
When Grace Chris was heading into her fourth year in the University of Vermont’s music-education program last year, her real-world experience was typical of most aspiring school-choir directors. As a junior, she had visited the South Burlington middle and high schools with her methods class twice a month. Outside of school, she volunteered at a preschool and substituted for a church youth choir director. She spent her last semester student teaching the choir at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg.
Then, through word of mouth, Chris discovered the Burlington’s women’s chorus Bella Voce . The 45-member group, whose name means “beautiful voice,” is not just a community choir. It’s stacked with experienced music educators — from instrumental teachers to band and choir directors — who are eager to share their real-world knowledge with aspiring, young music educators. A main component of Bella Voce is, in fact, its mentoring program, which supports five to seven music-ed majors a year, including a conducting and an accompanist intern.
Chris, a trained soprano, had been “itching to be in a really good choir,” so she auditioned and was accepted. It was her first women’s choir. “All the women are so nice and caring and just wonderful people,” she enthuses. But, Chris adds, “the biggest resource for me was all the music teachers who gave me all these suggestions for classroom management and repertoire.”
Bella Voce’s founder, Dawn Willis, realized that the mentoring aspect was crucial soon after she formed the choir. The Texas native moved to Vermont in 2003 after holding several academic and community-choir-conducting positions around the country, and she joined the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus as a way to get to know the singing community. Willis was surprised to learn, from conductor Robert DeCormier, that the area had no women’s choir. “It was kind of a growing movement,” she says. So, during a break in a rehearsal, she pitched the idea to the soprano and alto sections. She held auditions and conducted Bella Voce’s first concert in 2004, all within a few months.
After its first full season — the choir performs two major concerts a year, in December and May, and a handful of other engagements — Willis says she “thought it’d be great to have some sort of leadership program for young women pursuing music-teaching careers.” Another VSO chorus member, Vikki Day, was then working as the UVM music department’s administrator. Day helped spread the word among the women students. Willis explains with a laugh that Bella Voce still gets new mentees by asking current ones, “Do you have any friends who’d like to audition?” (The mentoring program is slowly expanding its reach; this year’s crop of seven includes a Johnson State College student and a Burlington High School senior.)
The program is all about “building leadership skills and confidence,” says Willis. While the conducting intern is “the top of the program,” every mentee helps with section leadership and conducts warm-ups, receiving immediate feedback from a music educator in the group. Often the pair confer in the hallway of Essex High School, where Bella Voce practices, so that rehearsals can continue uninterrupted.
Interns also get “a lot of behind-the-scenes information for putting a choir performance together,” Willis notes. “They watch how the board works, how to fundraise, how to put up risers — all sorts of things they never get in the classroom.”
Equally important, she adds, are the intergenerational friendships that form among the singers. On the group’s June tour through Austria and Italy, Willis observed several of her young mentees on the bus “chatting away with over-60-year-olds.”
Day, a freelance graphic designer, describes the group as “a great breeding area for all the mentoring stuff we do. That’s why we started this — because we want to pass along the knowledge we have.”
One lesson that interns regularly experience is teamwork. At the last rehearsal, Day mentions, the Bella Voce women “did some singing; then we handwrote 800 donation letters in a half hour. All our members are very, very involved. You know that going in.”
Members also follow their mentees’ careers with interest. Willis mentions that the group’s first conducting intern, Jennifer Carpenter, who spent two years with Bella Voce, was accepted into Indiana University’s prestigious music school and is now pursuing her doctorate.
Do women choral directors get a leg up when they’re mentored by women? Willis says no. She “believe[s] the mentoring process is always valuable,” and Bella Voce “happens to be a women’s chorus.” Fortunately, the world of choir conducting is nothing like that of orchestra conducting, which is more than 90 percent male. Leane DeFrancis, membership coordinator of the American Choral Directors Association in Oklahoma, says the number of women versus men choral directors is “a toss-up.”
Grace Chris confirms this: Her program at UVM had equal numbers of men and women. After graduating, the West Hartford native landed the music-teacher position at the Waldorf School in East Montpelier. But she continues to live in Burlington, and a primary reason is Bella Voce — she’s the conducting intern this year. “I hope to be in it for a long while,” she adds.
Last week Chris stood in front of the full choir for the first time to rehearse a piece, chosen by Willis, that she’ll conduct in concert. “Everyone was staring back at me,” she recalls, noting that the experience was like nothing she has encountered in her education or job. The attentive women were “really supportive” — they’ve sung with her for a year — but “it was actually a little scary because I know these women and I care what they think. I worry about not rehearsing a passage the right way.”
“We all clapped and cheered when she finished,” Willis assures. “She’s a new conductor. By next year, when she conducts at the May concert, she’ll be great.”