As a new parent of a YCCO student, I’ve had a few questions. My daughter is spending quite a bit of time in rehearsals and I am spending quite a bit of time to get her there. I wanted to know more about this group so I went straight to the source and sat down to interview Beth Basham, the artistic director of YCCO, to ask her my questions. Beth was wonderful to talk to and her enthusiasm for what she does with her choir kids is infectious.
Me: How did you get started with the Youth Choir?
Beth: I’d been teaching in Bend for many years. In 1990, the Cascade Festival of Music called me and wanted me to start a musical outreach program, a children’s choir. I directed that single choir for four or five years, and then decided to break off from under the Cascade Festival umbrella and become our own non-profit choral organization. The choir used to have a membership of 4th through 8th graders. The kids would cry when they got done with 8th grade. They didn’t want to stop singing, so I decided to let them continue singing all the way through high school. We have grown so much that we now have THREE choirs with singers in grades one to twelve.
Me: What do you like best about being the director?
Beth: The kids give me energy! Choir is different every week. Young people are so full of good stuff that I feel like there’s a deep well of their talent and knowledge and enthusiasm ready to be sent out into the world. I get to create something beautiful with them.
Me: How does choir instruction differ from being a teacher?
Beth: I have a different relationship with the students. The atmosphere is more relaxed, but at the same time, more intense. The students are all high-achieving people. They like being with other kids at the top of their game. They like the challenge. They respect each other and me, so I can push them to their maximum potential.
Me: What do you like best about being part of YCCO?
Beth: I love the kids and their creativity. There is a big difference from the beginning of the season to the end as far as the level of performance goes. I love to see their feelings of joy and pride in what they accomplish. Their actual part of a performance is 20 minutes. Singing is NOT about the actual performance. It’s about the work- the daily rehearsal work. Music is a layering of knowledge. If you have a blooper during the performance, oh well. It’s about the rehearsals, the hard work each time they meet, seeing results layer upon layer. Baby steps. That’s music. We build brick by brick by brick. Great musicians work really hard. Singers come into the room and they’re tired, they have a lot on their minds after a long day, but they start singing, they feel better and they’re glad they came to rehearsal. I tell them, “Take all the bad stuff that happened today, throw it in the worry basket and focus here. One student told me, ” Singing is letting your insides come out.”
Me: What is your most memorable experience with YCCO?
Beth: We were in England in 2000 in a cathedral workshop with a master choral director. He was talking to my singers about singing with a certain color or tone. Is it blue, pink purple? The tone changed and they started to sing so well that they started crying. Singers were crying because of the beauty of that moment. The master conductor and I were crying. He said to them, “You have just experienced something that many people never will experience. Some singers NEVER have this moment when everything seems perfect and you know it.” For them to experience the feeling of , ”I will never forget this, this was the ultimate.” was very gratifying to me. Former choristers have told me that having THAT specific experience was one of their all time life changing moments.
Me: What have you learned from your time with YCCO?
Beth: Over the past 22 years I have learned to continue to be patient, to be kind, and to use humor. Every week the students teach me. They are the greatest people. Choir is interactive. Singers make decisions with me. “How do you think the mood should be, what is the color, should we trail off here? ” We are partners in music making. Sometimes I have to say no to their ideas and sometimes I let them decide. I’m the facilitator. They create with me.
Me: What are you looking for in an audition?
Beth: A child who has a passion for singing and wants to sing at a high level. Can they be trained, can they match pitch, can they sing in tune?
Me: How can you tell if they’re passionate about it?
Beth: I ask them questions about themselves, what they feel like when they sing. Why do they want to do an extra activity like Youth Choir ? You wouldn’t do this extra activity if it’s not something you want to pursue deeply and passionately.
Me: What do you want your choristers to learn?
Beth: I want singers to learn to express themselves and not just sing the notes. It’s about expressing themselves through the music, communicating to the audience. We are not cardboard people on stage. We need to engage the audience, bring them into our world of music at that moment.
I want my singers to improve musically, to learn self discipline,responsibility and teamwork as well as the JOY of music making. All of this is preparing them for adulthood when they have to go to a job interview, perhaps give a speech, how to work with colleagues, run a business meeting, lead a choir themselves.
Me: What else do you want people to know about the Choir?
Beth: I hear people say, “I had no idea they could be so good. I just thought they’d sing a few songs.” Most family members attend their children’s concerts. The average person has no idea the depths to which these kids go in order to accomplish what they do. This summer after a very moving performance in a cathedral in England with a full orchestra, a parent came to me and said, ” My daughter and the members of this choir have now experienced excellence, not average, but the peak of excellence this evening.” I want people to realize how hard these young people work, how much heart and soul they put into their music making and what great results they can get when they work together for a common passion.
Another thing I want people to know is that I have never turned away a talented singer because they couldn’t financially afford to be in the group. I’m very proud of the fact that if a singer has the talent, we can find a way to have them sing with our organization.
What I think came through the most during my discussion with Beth is how much this really means to her. She even said to me, “I know I am meant to do this. I know every day when I wake up that I need to drive to that school and be with those kids. I can’t imagine doing anything else.” This is someone I want to teach my own child, someone who I want to be a part of her life. I’m looking forward to her next few years with YCCO and seeing how she grows and what she learns.
If you’re interested in getting your own child involved, I highly encourage it. Rehearsals are open to the public and Beth really wants you to know this. You can drop in and listen to their voices and watch them in action. All rehearsals are on Mondays. The Debut group rehearses from 4:30 to 6:15 p.m. and the Premiere choir goes from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Oh, and that way they’ve found to include all talented kids? That is done through scholarships which can’t happen without support from the community. If you’d like to donate and see where your money is going, come to rehearsal. Come and catch the enthusiasm!