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Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News
8-year-old Elizabeth Christensen warms up with vocal exercises during choir rehearsal.

RIVERTON — It's 4 p.m. Monday afternoon. Children ranging in age from 7-14 are streaming into the basement and one of the upstairs rooms in the LDS meetinghouse on the corner of 12600 South and Redwood Road.

The sound of children singing scales drifts up the stairs as they begin warming up their voices. After 10 minutes, their voices are ready and choir practice officially begins.

Heidi Christensen teaches first. Christensen, along with friends Patrece Johnson and Christine Mickelsen, directs the choir. Today, Christensen is giving the choir members an impromptu Spanish lesson as they begin learning a Spanish lullaby they will sing at their concert.

Fifteen minutes and four lines later, Mickelsen takes the stage. The kids start practicing "The Prayer." Mickelsen explains how at the concert a soloist will be singing, and they will be the echo. Deciding the kids need to hear what it will sound like, she invites Johnson to be the soloist, while Christensen accompanies them and Mickelsen directs the choir. The remainder of the time Johnson takes over, teaching the kids the songs she's in charge of. At 5 p.m., a mass exodus takes place as choir practice ends and the children file out to meet their parents.

Three heads are better than one

Mickelsen, Johnson and Christensen are the creators and directors of the Riverton Children's Choir, which they started six years ago. The three alternate accompanying, directing and singing parts with the children. Over the years their partnership has grown so they have directing down to an art.

"I think that (having three directors) is the only way to go. Patrece and Christine are both so talented and down-to-earth. We're just moms. It's great because when we do three-part harmony, we can each take a part and sing with the kids. They can hear it and start to blend," Christensen said.

Each semester they choose nine songs for the choir to learn. The directors all take three numbers they are in charge of preparing for the concert and they divide up rehearsal time to allow practice time for their songs.

"It would be very hard to replace one of us with just one person," Mickelsen said. "We fill so many roles that we don't step on anyone's toes. It's a great resource to have, as a director, to be able to make assignments and have other capable directors."

Picking the perfect tune

One of the criteria for determining what pieces the choir will sing is the rhythms and harmonies in it, which the directors agree, must be interesting. The children generally like the faster numbers better than slower, but the directors keep slower pieces for a reason.

"We feed them slower pieces to keep their vowels pure and keep them excited," Johnson said.

Every year they try to do one foreign language piece. To date they have done pieces in Spanish, German, Hebrew, Latin and Italian. Sometimes they choose only pieces from composers in a certain geographical area, other times it may be from different historical periods or musical styles. One year selection was based on the poetry of Robert Frost. Last year, Johnson said, they did an Americana concert featuring only pieces done by American composers.

"We're just three moms that really love music and want to provide a really good musical experience for our kids and our neighbors' kids, just for the joy of seeing them sing. You can see when the lights go on," Johnson said. "They learn so much and progress so much."

A choir is born . . . and grows

Mickelsen got the idea to form the choir because she wanted her own children to have a choral background. When she approached Johnson, her next-door neighbor, they agreed that starting a children's choir would be a good idea, especially as they both had children just the right age to be involved. They decided to add a third director to their partnership and invited Christensen, along with her children, to join.

The initial response to the choir was much higher than they anticipated. Johnson said they expected a couple dozen kids and instead got 70. The choir has continued growing so now there are 130 children participating in it.

"We have grown in membership every year. What's changed the most is that we have had to add a second choir to keep up with the interest, so we've made a preparatory choir," Mickelsen said.

The preparatory choir is for children without much exposure to music, while the concert choir is intended for children who have been in the choir for at least a year and can handle singing more complicated rhythms.

The cost to participate in either choir is very low. "We don't charge any tuition. The kids just have to buy a choir robe and pay a little bit for the music. Financially speaking, it's within reach for all children," Mickelsen said.

To become a choir member, each child had to go through an audition process and sing a song for the three directors. The audition was not intended as a way to weed out children who can't sing, but to test their voice type and range and see how comfortable they were with harmonizing, Johnson said.

More than just a choral experience

The choir was started mostly as a way to help the children gain a choral background, but it also has become a means to expose them to quality music.

"When we started it, our purpose was mainly to give our children a really neat choral experience," Christensen said. "The music that they're learning in choir, nine pieces each semester, is really good music. Some is in languages they don't understand. It's good music with good lyrics. The kids are humming it when they're not even aware of what they're doing. That's what's going through their heads. We're happy that's the caliber of stuff going through their minds when they're not even aware."

All three agree that they would much rather have their children humming songs they learned in choir than some of the popular songs heard on the radio. Twice a year they make a CD of all the songs taught in choir that year for the children to keep.

"The benefit is my children listen to these CDs all the time and this is their favorite music," Mickelsen said.

The choir has had several performances that were very exciting for them. They performed at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City with a children's choir from Cache Valley and an international children's choir; in the Assembly Hall and Tabernacle on Temple Square; and at the Provo Tabernacle. Every year they also have what they call a side-by-side concert performed with musical artists such as Voice Male, Eclipse and the Bar J Wranglers.

"Any time we perform with guest vocalists, it's their favorite number," Mickelsen said. "They have a new energy in that performance."

Above all, Christensen, Mickelsen and Johnson hope to provide children with a great musical experience.

"We want to get them as solid as we can musically," Johnson said. "The more repertoire that opens up to us the more groups we can partner with. The better we get the more we can get others interested in singing and performing with us."

"We hope we're providing an exceptional musical education and it's a wonderful thing. Anyone can be taught to sing," Mickelsen said.


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