The Twin Cities Youth Chorale (TCYC) has struck an amazing balance, teaching children the skills they need to achieve musical excellence, while fostering a fun-filled atmosphere. And it all started right here in Maple Grove.
TCYC is an auditioned choir for boys and girls between ages 9 and 14, who represent 31 schools from 17 communities. The choir’s membership hovers around 100 kids, and one half of its blossoming singers come from Maple Grove. The choir, which is currently in its second season, has drawn members from as far as Elk River and St. Paul. “This is a united front where everyone is there to share their individuality,” TCYC artistic director Diane Nielsen says. “But the product is a whole and it’s something for these kids to be proud of.”
Amid drastic budget cuts and rumors about the fate of public school music programs, dedicated Maple Grove parents and teachers were unwilling to give up. “In this economic environment, it is no secret that funding music and the arts presents ever-increasing challenges,” says Jennifer Rose, who, along with her husband Tom and a handful of other Maple Grove parents, was responsible for TCYC’s inception.
The Roses banded together with friends Paul and Lori Wisnewski—Maple Grove residents who have contributed through volunteer work and the creation of TCYC’s website—to build a new, sturdy foundation for youth music. The Roses and Wisnewskis were introduced to Diane Nielsen, Ann Wingert-Williams and Julie Bright while their sons sang under the trio’s direction as members of the public school choir.
In February 2007, they drew up a business plan for a nonprofit community choir and approached the directors. The plan meshed with the ideas of all three directors, as they had shared a similar vision for nearly a decade. “We felt there was a need for a choir program for young, mixed voices in this part of the metropolitan area,” explains Nielsen, a Maple Grove resident since 1987 and teacher at Fernbrook Elementary. Along with the other two directors, she brings 32 years of teaching experience to the table.
By fall 2008, TCYC was performing around the metro area, with Nielsen, Wingert-Williams and Bright as artistic directors. Jen Rose assumed the role of executive director, while her husband Tom serves as president of the board of directors.
Making the Team
Nielsen stresses the inclusive nature of the program. “No experience is necessary,” she says. “It is a fun, safe environment where all choir members find acceptance and the opportunity to express their emotions through choral music.”
Rose likens the audition process to a sports team tryout. “The ‘coach’ or artistic director gets the chance to assess a player’s skill set,” she explains. Potential members can prepare for the audition by singing along with practice audio files found on the TCYC website. Singers are scheduled in small groups, but children also sing individually during the 20-minute process. They are assessed in the categories of rhythm, pitch, range and stage presence through vocal exercises and reading rhythm patterns.
The auditions, as well as rehearsals, take place at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Park, which was chosen based on size, easy freeway access and a supportive congregation.
Unlike public school choirs, TCYC mixes male and female students from elementary and junior high, acting as a bridge between age groups and cultivating leadership skills. “We believe our older youth act as fantastic role models for our younger singers,” Rose says.
Tom Rose is amazed at the choir’s influence on children. “The kids are cognizant of the right way to achieve the right sound. [The directors] don’t settle for second best, and the kids really step up,” he says. “I have seen this bring kids out of their shells.”
TCYC’s leaders recognize the many obligations of fast-paced family schedules, so rehearsals are limited to Tuesday evenings, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. This brief window means practice is all business. “Rehearsals are pretty intense,” Nielsen says. “They rise to the occasion because they’re disciplined and they want to be there.”
TCYC’s musical selections incorporate the entire spectrum of choral arrangements. “Not being affiliated with a church or the public school system allows us the freedom to expose singers to a variety of secular and sacred music from classical, traditional folksongs to contemporary musical literature,” Nielsen says. Many songs incorporate foreign languages, and children sometimes accompany their singing with choreography or percussion instruments.
The choir often collaborates with adult groups, and members are encouraged to attend concerts by older performers. “We want to expose them to the next step,” Nielsen says. “We want to share that this is a lifetime experience.”
Since last year’s inaugural season, every performance has been memorable, but a concert at The Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis was particularly breathtaking. Rose recalls her son Nathaniel craning his neck to take in the stunning architecture as he approached the choir loft. “It was great to see them awestruck by their surroundings,” she says.
“I have yet to make it through a performance without crying,” choral coordinator Bob Hainlen says of the captivating and emotional concerts. Hainlen and his wife have lived in Maple Grove for 25 years. Hainlen’s fifth-grade twins, Elizabeth and David, are second-year members of TCYC. “Last year, the first concert was at the Bethel Concert Hall,” he says. “It was a tremendous thrill to see our twins standing with the other singers in front of nearly 2,000 people singing so beautifully and calmly as if, ‘Of course, this is what we do.’”
David Hainlen offers a glimpse into TCYC’s diverse repertoire: “I like all of the songs we do,” he says. “I like the ones by Beethoven and Mozart, and also Mr. Grinch and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” David recommends the choir to any kids interested in singing. “Once you’re in you’ll have lots of fun,” he says.
Elizabeth Hainlen is particularly fond of singing in front of audiences. “I’ve always been a singer,” she explains. “But being able to perform has really encouraged me.”
Letting Kids Be Kids
Some performances are less formal. Last year, TCYC sang the national anthem at the opening ceremonies of the Brooklyn Park Athletic Association baseball season. At the Maple Grove half-marathon, the kids boosted runner morale by dressing up like the Village People and performing the YMCA song. “The runners were whooping and cheering,” Nielsen says. “I think they were supporting the kids more than the kids were supporting the runners!”
TCYC focuses on relationship building in a fun, comfortable atmosphere. “I’ve made a lot of friends and they’re all very good singers,” David Hainlen says. Families often dine together after performances, and one unforgettable trip to Old Country Buffet resulted in a mini-performance—in front of the salad bar. “That was a nice little performance for the restaurant patrons,” Nielsen says. “We want to stress that social piece.” Other fun events have included a trip to the Grand Rios Water Park—a favorite memory of the Hainlen twins.
Although the choir has required immense work, the Roses attribute its success to support from local businesses and volunteers. “If there’s one thing this has taught us,” Rose says, “It is that individuals in this community are ready to give back and help support a vision that enriches our children’s experiences.”
Tom Rose is excited about the future of TCYC. “The time is right for Maple Grove,” he says. “This place is growing. The art scene is growing. We’re going to get the word out and we’re going to be here a long time.”