Arts in the Schools

Houston Chamber Choir Celebrates Youth Voices With A Time To Lift Up

Houston's best and brightest K-12 singers will sing their lungs out during Houston Chamber Choir's A Time to Lift Up.
Houston's best and brightest K-12 singers will sing their lungs out during Houston Chamber Choir's A Time to Lift Up. Photo by Jeff Grass Photography
As Whitney Houston once sang, "I believe the children are our future." Some of those children she so famously referenced will be on full display this weekend thanks to the Grammy award-winning Houston Chamber Choir. Led by Founder and Artistic Director Robert Simpson, the virtual concert, themed A Time to Lift Up will take place Sunday at noon. The show will spotlight both the teachers who lead the choirs as well as the K-12 students and their voices. It will also feature performances by the Houston Chamber Choir in a pre-recorded video format. The performance will be available online through August 31.

This concert is an annual event for the choir, even though COVID-19 has forced the organization to rethink how it presents the performance. In response, it decided to utilize previously recorded concerts it has hosted with students.

"We created this concert 21 years ago because we wanted to spark a love of music in our city's students. The past performances will be an opportunity to remind ourselves of what live performances are like and what we look forward to getting back to. The musicality and interpretation is what makes this concert the high point of Houston Chamber Choir's season," Simpson said.

The concert will feature clips of past performances of 20 schools. Interspersed between the clips will be inspirational messages from teachers to one another as well as creative thoughts and methods music educators have found to get around the limitations due to the coronavirus.

Simpson made a special note that this concert is as much for the educators as it is for the students. When the coronavirus first hit, teachers were asked to adjust from in-person learning to online learning at a breakneck pace. Parents, simultaneously, started to become stand-in tutors to help fill in the gaps. Teachers have long been undervalued, and COVID-19 has been a wake-up call to just how much they handle in an average day.

For music teachers, the difference has been even harsher. Most forms of music are meant to be performed in an ensemble setting, so how do teachers do that when everyone is socially distanced? And how do teachers do it when singing is known to be a super-spreader activity? Despite the challenges, educators have risen to the challenge. The Houston Chamber Choir, as an example, has rehearsed in outside spaces like a parking garage to help keep its members safe and to keep the music going. The choir has also adopted a digital stage for fans to enjoy their talent.

"There is nothing new in the notion that teachers are essential, but the realization of just how resilient and fearless they are has lifted them to a hero status during these past months," Simpson says. "The Houston Chamber Choir pays tribute to the indomitable spirit of our music educators, and their talented students, with performances by school choirs selected from past choral invitational festivals."

The appreciation of teachers hits home for Simpson because his wife is an educator who he sees turning lemons into lemonade everyday with her pupils.

"I think we’ve all developed a new appreciation for what a teacher really does. I have firsthand watched my wife teach virtually, and I‘ve witnessed her in front of her computer screen corralling kids. I have a new and profound appreciation for the creativity and work that it takes to keep children interested during a virtual setting. We have a new appreciation for what it takes to be a great teacher," he said.
click to enlarge Whitney Houston said the children are our future. Here's the future of youthful singers. - PHOTO BY JEFF GRASS PHOTOGRAPHY
Whitney Houston said the children are our future. Here's the future of youthful singers.
Photo by Jeff Grass Photography
The performance is a reminder that the concert has traditionally been a way to showcase the best and brightest of Houston's youth talent, and it gives them a chance to strut their goods that they might not have had otherwise. It's truly a feel good moment for both the Houston Chamber Choir to host them as well as for the students to perform.

"We’ve been very touched by some of the responses by teachers and the students," Simpson explains. "Many of the students - even in the finest schools - never get to perform beyond high school. Traditionally, this concert gives them a chance to come downtown and take part in a major event is something they look forward to and take pride in. They also have the opportunity to represent their school, and it shows just how much we admire them and how special we think they are."

In addition to the ooh-ahh feelings of seeing youth perform, this concert marks another special occasion for the group. It was one year ago that it won a Grammy Award in the Best Choral Performance for its album "Duruflé: Complete Choral Works." For dramatic effect, Simpson learned of the Grammy win during last year's same concert. While he was accepting the award, someone attending last year's concert got word of the accolades and word spread, resulting in the entire room bursting into cheer mid-concert due to the news.

The Houston Chamber Choir has had a character-building year. To win its first Grammy only to cancel its season out of an abundance of caution shortly thereafter was quite the rollercoaster. The group, like many other performing arts organizations, relied upon ingenuity to find ways to keep the music going in the new challenges of the pandemic. After all, necessity is the mother of invention. The organization launched a podcast in spring 2020 to offer a few minutes of respite each week for their fans. Now, it is performing concerts via a digital stage as the group figures out the safest way to get back to in-person performances - whenever that may be.

But Simpson says the choir doesn't let the award or all the changes wrought by 2020 affect the group too much. It's still the same Houston Chamber Choir it was before the Grammy.

"There’s a validation from the Grammy win," he says, "and it’s a special, deep satisfaction from knowing that our recording received that recognition. We’ve been interviewed and heard from all over the world, and by the same token, it’s changed nothing. We’re still the same group of people, we work just as hard as we ever did, and we take nothing for granted. We can be very successful, we can take pleasure in the fact that our music touched people so deeply, but it also rekindles our desire to make the finest music we can."

The Houston Chamber Choir will perform A Time to Lift Up at noon on January 31 on its Digital Stage. For more information, visit Free.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd