Magical moments of song

A talk with teacher Susan Tevis about the formation of a new Chico Children’s Choir

RAISING A HAPPY NOISE<br>Newly re-formed Chico Children’s Choir director Susan Tevis (right) explains the intricacies of the human voice to her young students.

Newly re-formed Chico Children’s Choir director Susan Tevis (right) explains the intricacies of the human voice to her young students.

Photo By Tom Angel

One of my mentors, Albert Cullum, used to refer to the “touch of greatness” that occurs when young children confront great art. I have seen, in classrooms, how Shakespeare, Picasso, Emily Dickenson, Beethoven and Melville can touch the souls of kids far younger than one would ever think able to deal with them. No one knows exactly why, but it is so.

It is also true that youngsters’ involvement with the greats—acting out versions of Sophocles, painting their own “Renoirs,” singing versions of Rossini’s William Tell, “dancing” poems—nourishes their imaginations, their sense of possibility, and their breadth of understanding and stays with them for the rest of their lives.

Shift to a small concert hall on the Chico State campus. A slender yellow-haired woman stands in front of 15 children, mostly fourth- through eighth-graders. She leads them through stretching exercises. Then she has them all hiss. “Ssssssss,” they all say. Then she starts counting; can they hold the hiss for 16 beats? For 24? Then, using a rounded soprano voice, she whoops upwards, having the kids join in.

Next, using the same rounded, child-soprano sound, she has them sing “oooo” on a C, on a D, on an F. Soon they are singing “dooby, dooby, dooby, dooby doo” down the bottom five notes of a scale. Then up a half step; then up another. Then they are all singing an arpeggio, “I love to sing,” to a descending do-sol-mi-do pattern.

By about this point, the stand-offish boy sitting next to me decides to go down and join the others. Soon he is in their midst, and soon they are learning one line from a Christmas round. And then another, and then they are putting the two lines together. They are on their way.

This is teaching genius at work, and this is the first step in the direction of the moment when these kids, those who keep on, will touch musical greatness. The leader is Susan Tevis, and the children are part of the newly re-formed Chico Children’s Choir.

There have been Chico children’s choirs before, most especially the one run by Sharon Lasher several years ago. But they are a tough undertaking. They demand a leader with teaching talent to burn and a backbone of steel. They must raise money to buy music, put on performances, travel to festivals where their efforts are reaffirmed and their horizons broadened. They are subject to disagreements among board members. In Chico, they must work with students, most of whom get no school music until fourth grade (shame on the school board!).

Later, over the phone, I talk to Director Tevis and ask her some questions:

CNR: How large a choir would you like to eventually have?

Tevis: An ideal size would be 50 to 60 kids. Then you can have separate groups of singers, different levels. You can also teach them to read music.

Kids here don’t read music at all.

What, in your words, can a choir like this do for a community?

First, it can give children experiences and skills they can call their own. But most of all it gives them those magical moments, moments so beautiful they just make you soar. Many children don’t see a lot of beauty in their lives, so we teachers try to build opportunities for children to see beauty. If we don’t do it, they’ll never get it.

Aren’t kids today rather over-programmed?

Surely. It’s a sign of the times, of a “point-keeper society.” A whole lot of the effort goes into sports, where you can beat someone and then feel “better.” Music is much more collaborative undertaking: everyone works together to create something that pulls each one of them upward.

How about finances?

First, it’s wonderful to have the support of the university and Music Department Chairman Mike Bankhead. But we have to bear the costs. We charge a small tuition, but it’s not enough to pay for music, for van drivers, for scholarships for disadvantaged children. So we are hoping fund-raisers, perhaps a few businesses will help us “float” this thing.

Any long-range dreams?

Possibly a community music school, allied to a community art school. But that’s a long way off. For now, we just want to get kids singing.

(For further information about the Chico Children’s Choir, call 898-5572 or e-mail