WATCH: New VocalEssence Youth Choir Celebrates Diversity

VocalEssence’s new diverse youth choir will collaborate with local artists and choreographers, compose their own music, and sing both traditional and nontraditional choral music

A new music group for high school students, still seeking applications, combines the centuries-old history of choral music with hip-hop, spoken word and other contemporary influences. It means the Minneapolis choral organization VocalEssence is breaking ground in its 49th season, as the new choir is its first ongoing choral program for 9th- to 12th-grade students.

The focus is a buzzword topic these days: diversity. But conductor G. Phillip Shoultz, III, says this isn’t an attempt to be political, but rather a simple representation of the Twin Cities urban youth population. “We want to create an ensemble that meets the needs of our city,” he says, referencing a desire to keep up with the Twin Cities’ increasingly multicultural demographics in a time where political and social division runs rampant. The choir does not yet have a name, but not due to indecisiveness: since the choir’s goal is to encourage growth and community, Shoultz has left the naming to the students themselves.

The admissions process is unconventionally open. To earn a spot in the choir, students send an introductory video with footage of them singing a song of their choice. But Shoultz, who has been with VocalEssence since 2015, called these tapes “interviews,” not “auditions.” Of the 54 students who had sent a video as of late October, all were invited into the choir. Shoultz says he hoped to facilitate students’ access to music, not to weed people out. Accessibility is key—Shoultz works with students and parents to coordinate carpooling, as well as to provide dinner and a pre-rehearsal study space to reduce barriers to participation.

Guest instructors will include local hip-hop artists Dessa (of local rap collective Doomtree) and Chadwick “Niles” Phillips (founder/CEO of Minneapolis music production company The Avant Garde), as well as vocalist/actor T. Mychael Rambo (known for Guthrie and Penumbra Theatre productions) and in-house choreographer Roxane Wallace. Some of these collaborators aren’t even singers, but Shoultz says he’s not sticking to purely conventional choral music. Hip-hop, spoken word, and other tradition-defying music is all fair game. In addition, he hopes to work with students to create two original compositions over the course of the season.

While 80 percent of the choir’s funding comes from an Arts and Learning Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, VocalEssence hopes to raise additional funds through a GoFundMe campaign, which has raised more than $3,000 so far. The choir will participate in VocalEssence’s “Together We Sing” festival on January 13th, and will host its own concert in February.

But the choir is not a one-year project: It represents “the nucleus of the next 50 years of the organization,” says Shoultz. It’s about providing opportunities and creating a community. As for the music itself, he’s optimistic: “They’re already sounding good.”

Weekly rehearsals began on October 30th at Augsburg University’s Hoversten Chapel. Future practice venues include Orchestra Hall and the Ordway, both of whom have agreed to partner with VocalEssence. The choir is still seeking singers; interested students can contact youthchoir@vocalessence.org.

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