The Mississippi Girlchoir—A Heart for Song

By on February 3, 2014
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By MARILYN TINNIN

Photography by ANGELA BAUER PHOTOGRAPHY

You might say their reputation precedes them. The Mississippi Girlchoir’s resume includes performances with the Vienna Boys Choir, the American Boychoir, the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, numerous university choirs, the Mississippi Opera, and The Mississippi Chorus, not to mention a performance in Carnegie Hall and prestigious venues in Australia, Italy, England, Hawaii, Washington D.C., Boston, New York, Chicago, and Canada. These fresh faced young women come from diverse backgrounds—public schools, private schools, home schools, city, suburbs, small towns, black, white, Asian. The common denominator that binds them like members of the same sorority has been their love of singing and the team spirit born in the Mississippi Girlchoir. Music is indeed the universal language.

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I went to observe late on a recent Monday afternoon—on a dark, gray, and very wet January day. I wandered down the hallways at Galloway United Methodist church following the very polished sounds of angelic voices. I almost expected Julie Andrews and the von Trapp family children to greet me at any moment!

How It All Began

Lillian Lee, founder and original artistic director, was approaching retirement from a 30-plus-year career teaching choral music in various schools in the metro area. She was one of those teachers who was passionate about her subject AND her students. “Mrs. Lee” was the teacher they missed most when it was time to move on. Many stayed in touch after their time in her classroom had passed, and over and over she heard them say, “Oh, Mrs. Lee. We miss you so much! It’s not the same!”

She says, without even a hint of braggadocio, “I’ve always felt that God has blessed me with the ability to work with children through music, and I believe the idea for the Girlchoir really came from Him.”

During her 18 years at First Presbyterian Day School, she had begun an honor choir—a select group of sixth grade boys and girls—that sang many a program for civic groups, churches, and organizations far and near. For the students, it was pure delight, but Lillian saw benefits that went beyond music education and appreciation.

There was the art of teamwork, self-discipline, constant thirst for learning, and the awareness that in a group endeavor the individual parts function as one—all skills not easily “caught” in the changing contemporary culture. But such skills would serve one well long after choir days were past.

While attending a summer workshop as a member of the American Choral Directors Association, she heard a girls choir from Seattle perform. “I was blown away,” she said. It was then she realized that although retirement was imminent, she was just not ready to give up choral music altogether. She would start an independent girls’ choir in Mississippi! Surely she could do that!

As with most entrepreneurial adventures, there were so many things she did not know about building a girls’ choir from the ground up. It would not have made a bit of difference. In those first days she was literally the secretary, the director, the booking agent, the janitor, the second mama, and anything else she needed to be. Her enthusiasm for the task exceeded any reservations she might have had—had she known every detail involved in bringing it about. It continued to be a work in progress for all concerned!

She gathered an advisory board, hired an accompanist, and sent letters to her past students that there was to be a Mississippi Girlchoir and it would begin—where? In Lillian Lee’s living room, of course. So in 1995 with 17 girls, ages 13 to 16, the Mississippi Girlchoir launched.

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Growth was immediate. Lillian says, “It has been my experience in years of teaching that if you give young people good music, they will develop a lifetime love for it. With the girls coming from many different schools, the choir would offer: fellowship; musical training in artistry, skill and understanding; character development of commitment, responsibility and cooperation; community service; and a love of the arts. From the beginning we provided scholarships so no worthy girl would be denied the opportunity of membership.”

With only word of mouth advertising, the calls kept coming from girls who were interested in auditioning. Many were much younger girls, and so Lillian bravely began a second choir in 1996, a training choir of five little girls, who sang in parts at the Christmas concert and who would eventually join the older choir. That was a very successful idea, quickly creating the need for yet a third choir, and finally a fourth choir. More than 100 girls from across the Central Mississippi area participate today.

Today the four divisions are: (1) Prima composed of beginning voices, usually elementary age (around third grade) singers; (2) Jubilate composed of intermediate singers although they may be just learning the classical style of the Girlchoir; (3) Lyrica composed of those who are probably upper middle school age and who are training for the Bel Canto choir, and; (4) Bel Canto is the touring and performing choir for older girls.

Connecting the Dots—Making it Meaningful

Lillian had no doubt as a very young woman that her mission field was teaching and her platform was music. With the Girlchoir, it was no different. It was important to her that she represented Christ well—in her interactions with the girls, in the choice of music, in her discourse with parents.

Girls-at-Practice-in-ChurchIt would seem a daunting task to take a mix of girls from all backgrounds and differing levels of exposure to music and to mold them into a world-class choir. Some could read music, some could not, some had actually played a little Bach or Mozart, but many knew nothing beyond the latest pop diva from American Idol, and it was Lillian’s job to teach them to sing as one voice. And then, of course, to love the discipline was an additional challenge! God was indeed in this from the very first day.

The repertoire of the Mississippi Girlchoir includes a lot of sacred music. Lillian has seen that as a definite strength. In learning a new piece, there is the opportunity to talk about the lyrics. There are few things more powerful than beautiful music with sacred words, and something about learning the words in song stays with you all your days.

It is a great tribute to Lillian’s expertise that she was able to instill in her girls skills that would benefit them long past their involvement in the choir. In a school setting, students can be motivated by grades or by consequences for breaking rules or missing a test. In a volunteer organization, what is there to motivate members to be committed and to do their best? Lillian recognized the importance of building rapport. The love for singing was there from the start, but it was the intentional development of relationships and her own commitment to each girl’s development that nurtured great loyalty and a personal sense of ownership and responsibility in the girls themselves.

Lee-SchmidtThere was little turnover in members. Most who began as third graders came back year after year. Lee Schmidt, a senior at St. Andrews this year, began as a fourth grader. She says, “Once you try Girlchoir, you just want to keep going.” In her eighth year, she admits it takes some juggling with school activities, rehearsals, and performances, “But it is all so worth it.” She has made trips to Hawaii and New York City with the choir. Singing at Lincoln Center was a highlight, but then, so was singing this past December at “Fondren Unwrapped” right here in Jackson!

As the choir grew, so grew the need for more help! Finding the right chemistry between girls and additional conductors was a major consideration in Lillian’s mind. Then there was the issue of the administrative duties. Lillian found herself expending far too much of her energy on such things as itineraries, cataloging music, and answering correspondence. Her dream was to have a real office exclusively for the Girlchoir business.

She laughs as she describes her storage system in those days. “There were boxes of music, programs, records, and other related information in every closet and under every bed in my house!”

And God Provided

Anna Waldon Johnson was a vocal performance major at Mississippi College when the Girlchoir’s accompanist, Judy Foster, mentioned to her that Lillian was looking for some assistance. Although Anna’s original plan had been to pursue a career in New York City after graduation, she liked the idea of working under Lillian Lee and getting some very practical experience in the meantime.

Rehearsal-Standing-UpLooking back, she sees God’s hand all over the place. She was Lillian’s answer to prayer, but the choir was also the answer to a prayer Anna had not known to pray at the time! First there was the young man and fellow musician Ross Johnson who swept her off her feet and redirected that New York ambition to marriage, motherhood, and music ministry by his side. Then there was falling in love with conducting the Mississippi Girlchoir. After a three-year apprenticeship of sorts, watching Lillian, learning every aspect of the Girlchoir operation, Lillian decided to step down and leave her cherished legacy in Anna’s capable hands. After 13 years, she said, “I was ready for a little ‘me’ time.” She had groomed her successor well.

Anna took the reins and Lillian became the Artistic Director Emeritus, never interfering, but close enough to offer moral support and advice when asked!

Anna does not take that gift or Lillian’s trust lightly. She explains, “I feel this great responsibility that she gave me her ‘baby’ for us to keep going. When a situation arises that requires a new policy or when there is a decision to be made about anything, her first thoughts are, “What would Lillian do?”

In 2011, the choir was finally able to relocate its burgeoning archives of history and music from the closets and crevices of Lillian’s home. It was a day of great celebration for Lillian and for Anna. The offices at 1991 Lakeland Drive now offer a place to hold auditions, a place to house thousands of copies of music, records of the hundreds of Girlchoir Alumnae, and the memorabilia that chronicles the journey from Lillian’s living room to international accolades.

Executive Director Elizabeth Briscoe came on board in 2012 and was one more step up for the choir’s professionalism. With a lifelong love of music and a Bachelor of Business Administration in Management degree, she had the perfect training and skill set to assume the administrative oversight for the organization. Elizabeth’s degree requirements gave her a good foundation in marketing, promotion, and even event planning. She was no stranger to Lillian Lee either. A First Presbyterian Day School alumna, she and her two siblings were all members of Lillian Lee’s Honor Choir.

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More Than Music

In an economy where resources are stretched to the max, arts programs, unfortunately, are frequently scratched for lack of funding or because math and science programs are considered more “worthy.” Research does not agree.

Elizabeth points out, “There have been so many studies done in recent years that show how singing and music use both sides of the brain and actually help very much academically and especially in math and science. Participating in arts, especially singing in a choir which is the ultimate team activity, really does contribute to academic ability.” She adds, “Singing in a choir is so much more than just singing. It really does develop you inside and out.” (I did some googling to verify her claims—’tis true).

Girl choirs, of which there are many internationally, have quite a camaraderie and system of connection among themselves. There are numerous honor choirs where individual girl choir members can send audition tapes and be chosen for summer programs that allow for travel and an enriching cultural experience. Such opportunities are expensive, but the Mississippi
Girlchoir has had several participants in recent years.Girls-in-TShirts

Still, as the Mississippi Girlchoir has built its reputation to meet the very highest standards there are, it is simply reality that we are not a wealthy state. Even so, the talent here is as great as the talent anywhere. And so the staff of the Mississippi Girlchoir came up with their own world-class event so that any worthy singer from around the state of Mississippi could have the opportunity to sing in a first-class choir under a world-class conductor.Treble-Song

TrebleSong is a weekend choral festival where participants are chosen either by audition or by audition tape. They arrive on a Friday night from every corner of Mississippi and beyond the state line, having never seen the music or most of their fellow choir members, work all day on Saturday with a guest conductor whose resume amazes, and then perform a concert on Sunday afternoon. The final impression is jaw dropping! And aside from the impeccable performance, the friendships the girls develop in that short while are usually long lasting.

The staff at Mississippi Girlchoir is committed to providing as much scholarship funding as possible so that any worthy girl is able to participate. Auditions are held throughout the year, and the tuition is inclusive of dress, music, and books. They try very hard to work with anyone who wants to be a part of this star in Mississippi’s crown!

For more information, visit www.MSGirlChoir.org or call their office at 601.981.9863.