Simply saying that music has deep roots in the Berkshires undermines the very way it has helped to shape the character of the communities nestled within. Music has flowed with the history of Western Massachusetts like the way the Housatonic keeps time with the changing seasons in the Berkshire foothills.
Whether it’s Louis Armstrong trumpeting at the Music Inn or Janice Joplin opening the summer season of the Boston Symphony Orchestra before she went on to perform at Woodstock in 1969, generations of music lovers have hummed along with the symphonic sounds of the area in hopes to pass the legacy on to those who will come after. This rich tradition has also touched the heart of education in Berkshire County, which has become a wellspring for youth-driven music initiatives.
In Sheffield, MA, the Berkshire Children’s Chorus has provided young people of all socioeconomic backgrounds access to the world of the arts for almost three decades. Today, on the 30th anniversary of the non-profit’s mission to give voice to area youth, and during a year fraught with adversity, the Children’s Chorus is once again taking the lead for the future of musical education in the Berkshires.
For many aspiring vocalists, parents and educators in Berkshire County, The Berkshire Children’s Chorus plays a pivotal role within the community. Started in 1990 by Nancy Loder, a music teacher from Mount Everett Regional High School, who felt the children of the Berkshires needed more exposure to music and choral singing, the children’s chorus has worked fervently to not only offer premium choral education, but access to perspectives, opportunities, and camaraderie that are difficult to find within the traditional musical education structure.
“We have always been driven by a desire to present music education in a new and engaging way,” says Natalia Smirnova, who is presiding over her second term as the president of the Berkshire Children’s Chorus Board of Trustees, and whose daughter sang in the chorus for four years. “We provide a similar type of educational structure while allowing children to find their own musical niche. Be it classical, folk, or even multi-lingual. In fact, last year students performed in six different languages.”
As such, young people of all socioeconomic backgrounds enjoy an opportunity to access the world of musical discoveries, one of the defining features of the Berkshire region. Since the beginning, the Board of the Chorus has been dedicated to welcoming all interested children, regardless of their family’s ability to pay. To make this possible, the Board seeks community donations that allow them to keep tuition affordable and offer scholarships to all families that demonstrate need. According to the organization, the increasing foreign-born population and growth in communities of color are trends that require renewed attention to cultural competence and the relevance of extracurricular services to help integrate underserved and minority populations.
Growing income disparities, particularly between year-round and seasonal residents, the growth in the percentage of the senior population, and the geographical dispersion of rural sub-populations are demographic trends that also necessitate unique responses to engagement in the arts. That cultural investment in the arts has helped the Berkshire Children’s Chorus expose area youth to a wider culture of music steeped in Berkshire history. “Our main priority is to allow students time to invest in their musical interests and ambitions,” Smirnova says. “All while learning to adopt the discipline of listening to music, hearing style and timbre, and most importantly, engaging with each other’s differences.”
It has been those transcendent principles that have made the Berkshire Children’s Chorus a bedrock community organization for budding artists and families for years – until 2020.
A fateful year and an encore performance
As a prominent member of the community for the last 30 years with students from Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts in grades one through 12 participating in making choral music, performing in various towns’ venues, and providing opportunities for children to form mentoring relationships and life-long friendships, the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic struck a particularly painful chord for the Berkshire Children’s Chorus.
In March of this year, in the midst of wide-reaching lockdowns, the chorus was forced to meet online, and the normal fundraising and performing calendar – which allows the chorus to cover costs as they arise – was wiped out. Perhaps most devastatingly, because singing has been shown to allow high rates of transmission of coronavirus, choral singing will likely not be allowed for at least another six months. So, the 2020-2021 singing season was cancelled.
Despite the crippling effects of both a lack of music, and of crucial funds necessary for continuing the all-inclusive program, the Board of the Berkshire Children’s Chorus steadied their resolve. “Choral singing has been one of the most tightly-restricted activities during the pandemic because of the nature of singing and the proximity of the children,” she says. “Still, I felt I needed to hang on as president despite the incredible challenges presented by the pandemic.”
Like the steely vocal chords of the young singers themselves, the Berkshire Children’s Chorus has decided to adapt rather than be silenced. This reimagining has taken form in the Take the Lead! program, which began in the Spring.
Take the Lead! is a series of online events for both choristers and their families featuring guest speakers who have graduated from the Berkshire Children’s Chorus. One such esteemed guest speaker, Dani Dillon, sang with Berkshire Children’s Chorus between 2005 and 2008. Dillon has since built an impressive career in the world of food and small business, leading the development of food and beverage programs for Irving Farm, the International Women’s Club, The Wing, and others. Dillon relayed her time with the chorus and how she learned to be OK with being vulnerable, managing a team, and finding the strength to find and maintain her voice.
“There are several life lessons music and choral singing can teach us,” Smirnova says. “In particular, learning how to present yourself in a way that allows you to project confidence, for young girls this is especially important.”
As artistic organizations and small businesses throughout our area fight off the hopelessness of the challenging times the pandemic has wrought, the Board of Trustees of the Berkshire Children’s Chorus is somewhat miraculously looking ahead with optimism.
“If nothing else, 2020 has been a time of reflection for many of us,” says Smirnova. “After three decades of community engagement, we have a lot to reflect upon. We are welcoming the opportunity to explore new ways to fulfill our mission, while at the same time looking forward with so much anticipation to the time when singing together will again be possible.” •
Please consider donating to the Berkshire Children’s Chorus to keep musical education alive in the Berkshires by visiting www.berkshirechildrenschorus.org/donate.