A! Magazine for the Arts

The Highlands Youth Ensemble at Carnegie Hall.

The Highlands Youth Ensemble at Carnegie Hall.

Tri-Cities' musical Mecca celebrates 25th anniversary

April 30, 2013

The East Tennessee Children's Choir began with a dream; and after a few stumbles – including an armed robbery – it has grown beyond its original dream and celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

In 1987, Dr. Carl King, professor of music education at East Tennessee State University, founded the East Tennessee Children's Choir. He wanted to provide exceptionally talented children an opportunity to experience a choral repertoire, including music of the masters, while also enriching their lives with music representing the heritage of the Appalachian region in which they live. In addition to providing a solid musical foundation, the organization strives to supply an experience in non-competitive team behavior that calls for the best in each of the students. Non-competitive doesn't mean that these talented students don't compete against other choirs and win; it means they compete together, not with each other.

The choir began with about 70 children, fourth through eighth grade, who rehearsed in a school auditorium in Johnson City. After three years, membership began to dwindle, and Dr. King's responsibilities prevented him from continuing. In 1991 when Dr. King resigned, Laura Ann Warner became chairman of the board. The board, composed primarily of public school music teachers, decided to work to restart ETCC rather than disbanding.

One of their first moves was to hire a new director, and they chose Beth McCoy. But McCoy almost backed out of the job.

"It's a wonderful story," McCoy says. "I was the music director at Pleasant View United Methodist Church; and, in the fall of 1993, Laura Ann came to substitute for my organist/pianist. When she saw that I had 60 children practicing for our Christmas cantata and that I used Kodály hand signs to reinforce their learning; she went to the ETCC board and asked them to hire me. Dr. David Runner was the board member who called and offered me the job. I remember I was delighted to be the ETCC director; but after I was robbed at gunpoint in my car in late September of '93, I almost backed out, because I had a hard time imagining myself driving to Johnson City alone. It had a good ending because Laura Ann and I drove together all those years and often held "board meetings' in the car on the way down and back. Laura Ann was the best mentor I could ever have had."

"Based on the earlier ETCC experiences," McCoy continues, "we decided to ask Central Baptist Church to let us rehearse in their beautiful music department for two reasons: it was close to the mall, which gave moms time to do necessary shopping and it was a wonderful facility with generous space and an excellent piano." ETCC still rehearses at Central Baptist; and McCoy and Jane Morison (the current director) consider Tony Martin, Central Baptist's music director, a good friend.

McCoy began her new job with auditions for a new choir in January of 1994. Warner served as accompanist the first few years as well as board chairman.

"Beth and I pretty much handled all matters concerning the choir, including applications for grants and serious fundraising necessary to remain in business," Warner says. "I realized immediately we were extremely fortunate to have Beth sign on, because she was unbelievable in every way and made sure that Carl King's vision would not be lost, and the organization would continue to grow. It was a challenging time, having been inactive for two years, but an exciting time as the group grew and expanded its impact on the arts in our area."

Warner was soon able to turn over the accompanying, even though she says it was "one of the happiest jobs" she has had, because they were able to hire an accompanist. Ann Jones of Johnson City, Tenn., took over from Warner and then Jane Morison took over the accompanist role in 2004. Warner stayed on as volunteer at all rehearsals, helping with recording attendance, filing music, scheduling, whatever was needed.

Under McCoy's leadership, ETCC grew tremendously. McCoy organized the Highlands Youth Ensemble for students who graduated out of the children's choir, and turned the organization into MECCA (Mountain Empire Children's Choral Academy).

"Graduates of the ETCC, especially home-schoolers, began to ask for an older singers' choir, so they could continue to sing high caliber music in unique collaborative settings with other singers who loved choral music. I started rehearsing with them at First United Methodist Church, Bristol, Tenn.," McCoy says. "Before I asked the ETCC board to support this endeavor, I developed this choir, which named itself the Highlands Youth Ensemble, to be sure that the interest was strong enough to justify revamping the ETCC charter and constitution. When the HYE had proven it was a viable addition to the program, the board agreed to add it. We renamed the entire program the Mountain Empire Children's Choral Academy – a musical MECCA for the Tri-Cities area – and rewrote the constitution and bylaws. This was hugely time-consuming for the board. The HYE came under the umbrella organization in 2002.

"We soon realized there was a demand for feeder choirs as well, so we started three Chorister Choirs for first through third graders, one in each of the Tri-Cities. Again, the board, led by Tom Corum, spent countless hours laying the groundwork for these additions to the program."

In addition to her collaborations with the children and the board, McCoy initiated much collaboration with area artists and composers, and helped secure grants through the Tennessee Arts Commission.

"One of her really big accomplishments was having ETCC chosen as the Tennessee arts organization to present the state's contribution to the national millennium celebration of the arts," Warner says. "ETCC performed Daniel King's "Appalachian Harmonies,' which was written especially for the choir." A PBS documentary about the project is archived in the Library of Congress. The ETCC sang with the Rybinsk girls' choir at Milligan College and collaborated with Tom Hazelton and Ron Rhodes at the Paramount Center for the Arts in a concert that highlighted the center's organ. They have performed with the Johnson City Symphony and the Symphony of the Mountains, including singing in "Carmina Burana," "La Bohéme" and Mendelssohn's "Elijah."

The ETCC and HYE choirs have been invited to sing every year for the Biltmore Christmas Candlelight Tours ever since McCoy contacted Biltmore in 2000. The HYE has sung at Carnegie Hall twice.

The HYE competed in the 20th International Chamber Choir Competition in Pécs, Hungary in 2007. "It was a fabulous experience even though we didn't win," McCoy says. "An all-music-majors-adult choir from Belgium won, but we received rounds and rounds of Hungarian applause and some very nice comments from the judges. Hungarian applause is very special. While the audience is clapping, someone starts to clap very slowly. If the audience agrees, everyone joins in the slower applause, and they begin to increase the rate of clapping until it is back to normal applause. Then if someone thinks you are super, they start the slow applause again, and the audience joins in again. Sometimes the audience disagrees, and they don't join in. We received five rounds of Hungarian applause when we sang our first concert in Pécs. It was truly thrilling."

The choirs hosted the Pécsi choir that housed them during the competition when the Hungarian group visited the Tri-Cities in 2008. "Many deep friendships have continued to grow from that international connection," McCoy says. "Especially notable was our return with five HYE singers as honored guests of the city of Pécs. Our singers joined choirs from Japan, Romania and several cities in Hungary in the International Youth Choir Workshop and received gifts from the mayor."

As a precursor to their Hungarian trip, the organization brought renowned composer and teacher, Alice Parker, to King University to lead a workshop. Her workshop focused on fast-reading, which means sight-singing a piece of music after studying it for 90 minutes. "What a thrill," says McCoy. "Her teaching greatly influenced the HYE when they sang the fast-read in Pécs. Her emphasis on the music coming out of the words greatly improved the quality of our sight-singing."

The MECCA choirs have commissioned and premiered numerous works, including Kenton Coe's "Five Psalms for Treble Voices" and other works. They gave a composition of Evelyn Kopitze its international premiere when the HYE girls sang it in the Chapel of the Holy Right Hand of St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest, Hungary.

They have also performed many of McCoy's compositions. "I wrote a major work for them in 2004, which I titled "The Ghosts of Featherstone Castle and Other Tales of the Border Country," about how most of our ancestors came from Northern England or Southern Scotland, an area called the border country," McCoy says. "I was delighted to collaborate with the talented former Barter Theatre actor Derek Davidson, who wrote the script, and I dedicated the musical to Laura Ann and our accompanist. The ETCC gave three performances in the Tri-Cities and a copy of the DVD ended up in Haltwhistle, UK, where Featherstone Castle still stands."

While there may have been obstacles to overcome during McCoy's tenure, she doesn't remember them, other than not having enough space for storing files – her dining room began to fill with them. She does remember support from area teachers and from the community.

"We seemed to always receive grants from the Tennessee Arts Commission, wonderful donations from sponsors, both corporate and individual, including generous ones from Con Vivo and the Patty Miller Trust," she says. "When we hosted the Pésci choir, we were so supported by the Tri-Cities community that we raised $17,000. This fully funded their visit and, when they returned to Hungary, we found we had $6,000 remaining which we returned to the MECCA treasury."

Parents are vital to MECCA's success. In addition to realizing that their children love music, they have to pay MECCA tuition fees, be supportive, bring them to rehearsals and performances, buy performance attire and, sometimes, music.

"The HYE singers loved their music so much that they voted early on to purchase and keep it," McCoy says. "One bass, Sam Nolen, carried every piece of HYE music we had ever sung into each concert. What a heavy, but much loved load to lift." Parents also help organize game activities and snack breaks, serve on MECCA boards and fill leadership roles such as choir coordinators, OAKE (Organization of American Kodály Educators) fundraisers, and ad salespersons for printed programs. "MECCA could not exist without great parent/volunteers," she says.

McCoy retired from MECCA in 2008 because her husband developed Parkinson's disease and needed her to slow down. She still teaches 23 piano students a week and stays involved with the program. She helped Morison increase the number of singers who could audition for OAKE, a national honor choir program. This year MECCA had 33 children accepted to OAKE national honor choirs. Twenty percent of the Chamber Ensemble, and 10 percent of the Concert Women's choirs were MECCA students. McCoy and her husband also fund a MECCA scholarship and have put the program in their wills. McCoy says she has intentionally not served actively on the board to give Morison more freedom to develop the program her own way.

And grow the program, Morison has. She formed Da Capo for seventh and eighth graders and MECCA Men in 2008, and Bella Voce for high school women in 2011. MECCA now serves 120 singers in grades one through 12.

Morison took the HYE to Carnegie Hall in 2010 to sing John Rutter's "Requiem" under the baton of Rutter himself. "Our singers described their time in rehearsal with Rutter and the concert at Carnegie as the experience of a lifetime," Morison says. They also work with Barter Theatre. "Barter frequently finds that their young cast members are also members of ETCC," she says. "In 2009 we collaborated with them on their main stage production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.'

"This spring we will premiere "To Sing,' composed by McCoy, in honor of our 25th anniversary," Morison says. "Last year, we premiered Robert Campbelle's "Sanctus,' and this Christmas we were delighted to premiere a work by one of our own HYE singers. Luke Ponce, a ninth-grade baritone did a beautiful choral arrangement for Bella Voce of Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.' Luke also accompanied on the piano.

"One of the best things about kids singing in MECCA is the unique solo opportunities it affords them. So far this year, four of our singers have sung solos with the Symphony of the Mountains, and in just a few weeks one of our boys will sing solo on Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms' with the ETSU Chorale. This is an amazing opportunity that kids in more urban areas rarely get."

While some of the students have gone on to become everything from chemists to homemakers and live all over the country and abroad, some chose music as a career.

"I have always said that through the MECCA program I was not trying to create music majors but singers who could stand on any stage and present themselves with a confident "Ta dah,'" McCoy says. Three of the most notable graduates are Hilary Ginther who is in rehearsal for "Le Nozze di Figaro' with the Virginia Opera; Rachel Barker who is directing the handbell choir at the Princeton Theological Seminary while she sings in New York City opera productions; and Martha Easton, who is landing lead roles in opera at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University, while pursuing her degree.

McCoy says she dreams of seeing all three singing the trio in Mozart's "Magic Flute" some day. While she's waiting for that, she did hear Ginther and another MECCA graduate, Chris Jennings, when they sang in the Operafestival di Roma in Italy.

Warner, McCoy and Morison all have one thing in common: their favorite part of MECCA is the children.

Warner says that while her current involvement is limited to support and attendance at performances, former members of ETCC greet her with "there's the law," which was what they called her when she was working with the choir. "I love hearing that," Warner says, "even though they never really obeyed me as the law when I was active. My years with ETCC were probably among the most exciting and rewarding ones of my career, and still are exciting as I see young people move through the program and continue in productive musical lives upon graduation. Many are performing professionally and many more are headed that way. Also, MECCA is educating young people, not only in knowledge of music and their musical heritage but is ensuring through the discipline instilled in them that they will become responsible adults who will be the leaders of the future. Because of youngsters like them, I know there is hope for this world."

McCoy echoes that: "I love children and youth, and I love teaching them how to make music and how to be confident on stage. To see five little boy sopranos floating up to high B flats in "O Holy Night' with a symphony orchestra supporting them was glorious. To have a young singer in the HYE write her own setting of a Hungarian Christmas carol, then teach it and finally direct it, as well as sing the part of Mary in Bristol's "Journey's End' (as Rachel Grunstra did) made my heart swell."

"We work with kids from all backgrounds and when you see and hear a child sing a classical piece of choral music for the first time with a group of similarly enthusiastic and energetic kids, you can't help but get excited," Morison says. "They are discovering their gifts and how they fit into the grand history of music and singing. We learn and perform a wide variety of genres in so many languages. Last year I wrote a college recommendation, and one of the things I listed was how many languages the singer had sung in our choirs. I honestly counted 20 different languages. They also learn about other cultures. Music helps them to travel the world; it creates understanding and tolerance, and being involved in music just enriches their lives. In turn, they enrich the lives of those who see and hear them perform in our community and region, and beyond."

If you'd like to hear the music these talented children create, their 25th anniversary concert is Saturday, May 4 at 3 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church in Johnson City, Tenn. The HYE spring concert is Sunday, May 5 at 7 p.m. at Waverly Road Presbyterian Church in Kingsport, Tenn.

If you'd like to be a part of MECCA, spring auditions for ETCC (rising fourth through eighth graders) are Monday, May 20 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Central Baptist Church in Johnson City, Tenn. No preparation is necessary. Auditions for HYE (singers in grades nine through 12 and changed male voices in the eighth grade) are May 15 through May 31 by appointment. The organization consists of children representing more than 30 schools (private, public and home). It is open to all children. A tuition assistance program is available for disadvantaged children. Contact Morison at director@meccacademy.org for more information or to make an appointment for an audition.