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LIFE LESSONS THROUGH SONG: Local choirs reach new heights

You don’t have to watch an Allegro Choirs of Kansas City rehearsal for very long before you start to understand why these youngsters sound so good. The founding director, Christy Elsner, knows exactly what she wants, and she will persist until she gets it. “On a scale of one to 10, that was about a two,” she told the 75 or so young trebles on a recent Monday night in the choir’s ample studios in downtown Bonner Springs. The combined Allegro Con Moto choir (middle schoolers) and Allegro Con Brio high schoolers tried again, and again. It got better each time, and the conductor was encouraged.

Christy Eisner founded Allegro Choirs of Kansas City in 2000.

At another point in the rehearsal, Christy beamed. “That was 80 percent: Can you give me a hundred?” On the wall beside the bleachers was a display of colorfully framed “life lessons” (or “Christy-isms” as they are called around the studio). “Halfway does not count.” “Attitude is everything.” “We are only as strong as our weakest link.” “We believe you can do amazing things.”

Founded in 2000 as a single choir of 38 male and female treble voices, Allegro has become such a powerhouse that it performs for national choral conventions and on overseas tours (Italy, France, England, Germany, Austria, Sweden, to name a few). It has performed in New York and Washington, D.C., including an appearance at The White House for President and Mrs. Obama.

And its top two choirs are the consistent favorites of the Kansas City Symphony when it needs a chorus of young trebles for works such as Mahler’s Third Symphony or Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

The organization now boasts more that 200 youngsters in five choirs, including the tenor-bass Allegro Con Spirito, the Vivo Allegro (fourth and fifth graders), and the recently formed Primo Allegro. They rehearse Mondays and Tuesdays in a building owned by Christy and her husband: It includes a check-in lobby, an office/score library, two rehearsal studios, and a visitors’ waiting lounge.

This bright spot in downtown Bonner Springs began its life as a Ford dealership in the 1940s and had many other lives before being renovated as the Allegro headquarters.

“We take these kids who have an extra love for singing and ‘hone in’ on that passion,” Christy said. “We just have extremely high expectations, technically and artistically. … We instill in these kids a sense that there is a bar of excellence, and that we’re not just going to meet it, we’re going to exceed it.”

Of course, it’s not only about singing, she said: “All of these things that we learn from singing apply to life.”

A graduate of The University of Kansas who holds a degree in music education and is recognized as a leading figure in youth choirs nationally, Christy received her initial inspiration as an assistant to the person she calls a primary mentor, Janeal Crabb Krehbiel, who founded Lawrence Children’s Choir in 1990.

“Janeal is a wonderful singer herself, and so she trained kids the way you would a classical singer,” Christy said. “Posture, technique, resonance, tone, lift of the soft palate.” Janeal also taught an indefatigable drive for excellence, which seems to have rubbed off.

“To be a natural motivator means being 100 percent persistent,” Christy said. “Never letting them slack, because they can always do it better. … We focus on good basic singing techniques: things that you can use to sing for the rest of your life.”

One studio wall is decorated with ‘Christy-isms’

Most any former Allegro member would confirm everything in the previous paragraph. “Christy is full of life-lessons, you learn all kinds of things if you hang around her long enough,” said Kelsey Abele, who sang with Allegro as a girl and is currently assistant professor of Communication Studies at West Texas A&M University. “She is a ball of absolute life, all the time.” For six years of her youth, Kelsey fervently looked forward to Mondays. “That was the best night of the week, hands down.”

She remembers the importance that Allegro placed on problem-solving. “One of the things that Christy does such a good job of is helping kids, youth, folks in general, consider the way that they approach problems. … That you don’t have to scowl or be angry, but instead approach problems with joy and creativity.”

Ryan Main 

Any difficult task that has a reward can bring great satisfaction, especially for young people. Singing three- and four-part harmony in tune, difficult as it might be, remains one of the joys of vocal music, and when a chorister hears it “click” for the first time, it can be magical.

“I love when they have a breakthrough moment, either individually or as a choir,” said Ryan Main, a prominent area choral director who formed the Youth Chorus of Kansas City in 2017. “You can see something change in them … their eyes light up the first time their choir really ‘locks’ on a three-part chord. That can be a ground-breaking moment for a young singer who has never really experienced it.”

Ryan formed his choir, which is incorporated in Missouri, to complement, not to compete with, Christy’s choir. (It is more centrally located, plans its first Carnegie Hall performance this June, and unlike Allegro it has an SATB youth choir.) The Youth Chorus joins other choirs in the area such as the Young MAIstersingers, the Lawrence Children’s Choir, and the Boys Choir of Kansas City/Girls Choir of Kansas City.

It’s a small wonder that youth choirs continue to thrive: Choral singing is just plain fun, for people of all ages and all skill levels. The beauty of Allegro is that, as much as its directors strive for sonic unity, the goal is still to let voices roam and explore.

Mia Ramsey of the Kansas City Boys Choir and Kansas City Girls Choir, and Gabe Lewis-O’Connor of the Lawrence Children’s Choir

“We like to let the voices be free, let the young people discover what it means to use their full voice,” said Kellyn Button, an Allegro assistant director who has also taught in Olathe schools.

Toward that end, the Molto and Brio choirs do not assign its treble singers a “voice part”: Each new composition involves a shuffle on the bleachers as the singers assume new voice parts for the next number.

A girl’s voice change can be nearly as drastic as that of a boy. At this age, Kristy said, “their voices are still changing, and they’re not altos or sopranos, right? They’re really all sopranos.” (This notion is backed by researched evidence.) “So why are we going to put them in a box? I think it’s important that they remain ‘Play-Doh.’ ”

Allegro has shaped world views, and “it has shaped how I approach teaching,” said Kellyn, who has a master’s in choral conducting from The UMKC Conservatory.

Allegro Choirs have found, as have many others, that the acoustics of Helzberg Hall inspires artists to perform better than they thought they could.

“There’s a human connection in choral music, you’re sharing this music … in way that you don’t quite get playing the violin.” During the occasional Allegro “reunions,” singers from all walks come from far and wide to join the choir. “Most of them are not in music,” Kellyn said, “but they still look for a way to be involved in music, one way or another.”

—By Paul Horsley

For more information about Allegro, which performs this April 7th at Graceway Church, go to allegrokc.org.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter/Instagram (@phorsleycritic).