Written by Phil Cerroni
By Alice Canham
Each year the Irving Chorale performs with children from the Irving Honors Choir and the Irving Children’s Chorus in a series known as the ‘Side-by-Side’ concerts. It takes a great deal of preparation, and all three groups have been rehearsing vigorously for several weeks.
“The kids have really enjoyed working on the pieces,” said Linda Hoffmann, a music teacher at Stipes Elementary in Irving. Since 2006 she has led the ICC, an auditioned choir of about 50 students in grades 3-5. “Some of the selections are challenging, but that’s what this is all about. This experience opens up a richer literature to our elementary students, and they get to perform with professional musicians.”
This year’s performance on March 2 holds special meaning: it marks the world premiere of a commissioned piece on the topic of bullying. With sections subtitled “Respect”, “Self-Identity”, “Empathy”, “Peace” and “Pain”, the work delves into every aspect of bullying in our society, and the emotional and psychological scars it leaves.
Librettist Terry York and composer David Schwoebel began working on ‘Sit in a Circle – A Choral Response to Bullying’ in the summer of 2012. For both men, the journey began with the words.
“Usually I’m writing for church,” said York, a professor of liturgy and theology at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary. “And this was quite different for me.
“So I turned for help to my wife, Janna. She is a counselor in a Waco grade school, and she helped me see how widespread bullying has become.
“Realizing the deep emotional harm that can be done - that even young children may consider suicide – it was very painful for me to put those concepts and those words into the mouths of children.
“I’ve learned that bullying is not benign – you don’t outgrow it. Kids who were bullied may act out in ways that impact them their whole life.
“So I tried to find themes, using words like peace and pain, and I brought in the concept of how teachers will have kids sit in a circle when there’s something important to communicate. You have to make eye contact in that setting.
“I deliberately left some of the tensions unresolved, almost like homework for the audience after the concert is over.”
David Schwoebel hopes the music will also linger with the audience.
“I have an understanding of how children sing,” said Schwoebel, the minister of music at Derbyshire Baptist Church in Richmond, VA.
He varies the pace in his composition, alternating bright musical passages that sound like nursery rhymes alongside those that convey sorrow.
“I worked to have the music communicate the emotion of the text,” he explained. “You don’t want a happy melody when you’re talking about a word like ‘pain’.
“I actually had one of the secretaries at my church make a comment, just hearing the music for that particular section. She walked in and said, ‘this is dark.’
“My attempt is just to make the words come to life.”
It worked that way for the Director of the Irving Children’s Chorus.
“Just reading through the words – I’m an Asian child,” said Hoffmann. “Growing up, my family was very different from everyone else, so a lot of this hits home – not because I was bullied, but just being different. I know what it’s like to not quite fit in, and have people comment about a different appearance.
“It reminds me of how much people have changed from childhood through adult, or maybe how they haven’t changed. You’ll always have people who push other people around. Who whisper behind each others’ backs.
“At the end of the day we have to stop and remember, we’re all the same. We all hurt the same, and we all laugh the same.”
For Irving Chorale Artistic Director Harry Wooten and the Board members whose discussions led to the creation of this commission, the hope remains that this piece will show society how to move toward the goal of treating all persons with dignity and respect.
One more thing – it will be a musical joy.
“Every year teachers and administrators have really complimented the quality that has come out of this collaboration,” Linda Hoffmann said.
For more information on the Irving Chorale, Side-by-Side concerts and ‘Sit in a Circle – A Choral Response to Bullying’, please visit www.irvingchorale.org .