Idea for children's choir comes to fruition after almost 2 decades
A new sound is ringing out in Schuylkill County.
The Minor Notes Chorale, the county's first children's and youth choir, formed this year and made waves with its first performance last month.
A brainchild of Mark P. Thomas, the group, consisting of children ages 6 to 15, made its first public appearance May 18 at Music at the Majestic held at Sovereign Majestic Theater, 209 N. Centre St., Pottsville. It was an important mark for the arts in Schuylkill County, and one that hopefully will be a stepping a stone to bigger things for the young group.
"Since we performed we got a lot of inquiries," said Eileen Thomas, who runs the group with her husband.
The Minor Notes began to take shape with auditions in the fall of 2013 and met for its first rehearsal in January. Although it only took four months before the group performed on stage, the story behind the children's choir begins about 20 years ago.
Thomas, who also serves as director for the Schuylkill Choral Society, said he had the idea of establishing a children's choir in the Schuylkill County area in the mid-1990s. He said he saw the need for a group for younger singers after parents asked if their children could join the Schuylkill Choral Society. Thomas said he felt children who were 12 and 13 years old were too young for the older group, especially with traveling and late nights.
Unfortunately, the idea hung in limbo for almost two decades.
"We talked about it but nobody wanted to take it further," Eileen Thomas said.
Mark Thomas said three children chorus concerts were held in conjunction with the Schuylkill Choral Society concerts in the mid-2000s. He said the feedback from parents and the community became so great that he and Eileen decided to complete the goal of creating a full-season children's chorus.
"We want to teach people who want to learn, so that's part of our mission," he said.
To help manage the musical side of the group, Thomas brought in Allison Kline as assistant director and accompanist. Kline is the middle and high school choral director and co-curricular band director at Mahanoy Area School District. She is also the assistant accompanist for the Schuylkill Choral Society.
Eileen Thomas took control of the behind-the-scenes work. A "jack-of-all-trades," Eileen handles all non-musical aspects of the group, from booking performances to publicity.
Currently, the children's choir has 12 members. However, Eileen said a few more have asked to join since the performance in May.
"Considering we started in January, I think we had a pretty good turnout," she said.
The group holds its rehearsals on Thursdays at Trinity Episcopal Church, 200 S. Second St., Pottsville.
The church will also be host to the group's summer vocal camp. Scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 24, 25 and 27, the camp is open to children ages 6 to 15.
The children will study multiple facets of singing, including technique, note reading, harmony and group singing. The camp will conclude with an on-field performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Reading Fightin Phils home game on July 27.
Tuition is $100, which includes the camp, T-shirt and club picnic tickets to the Phils game for the camper and a chaperone.
The theme for the summer camp is baseball, Eileen said. While there is a connection with the concluding performance in Reading, she said she hopes the theme will bring some boys out to participate.
The Minor Notes are currently made up entirely of girls; however, Eileen said a few boys have expressed an interest in the group over the past few weeks.
One challenge the group has faced in its infancy is a lack of funding. Eileen said the group couldn't get any grants, so they had to implement a charge to join.
For the fall semester, the fee will be $50 per month or $190 for the semester, which runs from September to December. For families with more than one child, the second student is given a discount of $10 per month or $50 for the semester.
Eileen said they researched the prices of vocal, instrumental and dance lessons in the county. By comparison, she said the average instrumental lesson cost about $100 a month and dance averaged between $50 and $100.
"It's a business in a way, an organization as we are running it," Eileen said. She said the ultimate goal would be to keep the group as affordable as possible for families.
"We hope in the future to keep the cost down," she said.
Mark said he hopes the group grows to about 30 to 40 members. He also wants to have enough students to be able to split the group into two categories - the Minor Notes and a younger group tentatively called the Half Notes. He said having two groups would allow him and Kline to teach the students more and help them transition into the Schuylkill Choral Society when they are 16 years old.
Looking ahead with the current group, the Minor Notes will be performing July 6 at the Yuengling Mansion. The performance, scheduled for 6 p.m., is in conjunction with the Anthracite Philharmonic.
"None of them are afraid to get up there and sing," Mark said of the young performers.
Auditions for the 2014-15 season will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 28 at Trinity Episcopal Church. Mark said the auditions are not to earn a spot in the group, but to learn where the singer would fit.
"It's more to see what the vocal range is," he said. "It's not a cutthroat audition."
Mark Thomas said the goal is to have two concerts a year - one at the end of the two semesters.
After dreaming up the idea almost 20 years ago, Mark and Eileen Thomas hope the group can continue to move the arts forward in the county and provide an outlet for the young artists. As schools continue to cut from the arts departments, the options for the children are shrinking. Eileen said the group's future depends on the people.
"If it pays for itself, we can keep it afloat," she said.
A long-term plan for the Minor Notes is in the works. As long as there is an interest, the children's' voices could be heard for many years to come.
"I hope that in 20 years from now there will still be children's choir in Schuylkill County," Eileen said.