Hitting All the Right Notes

Written by Annie Beckman
October 5, 2015

To be a member of Seattle University Choirs is to take part in a community experience like no other on campus.

Watching them perform gives you a sense of it. Christmas and spring concerts at St. Joseph church on Capitol Hill, Baccalaureate Mass at St. James Cathedral, even a rehearsal at the Campion Hall Chapel could call for a handkerchief.

President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., has fond recollections of being invited to listen at Campion when the choir rehearsed one of his favorite songs.

"They sat me in a chair in the middle of the chapel and they sang 'A River in Judea' and the river just flowed from my eyes," says Father Sundborg. "I'll tell you, it was the most beautiful thing just sitting there and having the whole choir there singing 'A River in Judea' and being the only person there to absorb it. It was phenomenal."

Choir is intense and not just for those in the audience. Being a part of the choir is, frankly, time consuming. With that, though, comes camaraderie and friendship that continues throughout life. And years even decades later, choir members describe how singing turned out to be central to their personal and professional formation.

Take Ian Adams, 09, who today is the Western regional director of the R Street Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C. His career focuses on public policy and the law, with an emphasis on severe weather and climate change. His job would appear to have no connection to the time he spent in the choral program.

Yet when he was in Seattle last spring to give a speech on the realities of global warming, he dropped by the Fine Arts Building to visit ?Doc??what most everyone calls Joy Sherman, director of choral music (above right) and Lee Peterson, assistant director and piano accompanist (above left).

"Now there is music in everything that I do," Adams told them.

Discipline and commitment, teamwork and performing live are all factors that make choir one of the most valued experiences that many like Adams say they gained from Seattle U. There's more to it, though. Sherman and Peterson bring synergy and charisma to the experience. They both had fathers who were pastors, which might explain how they developed the know-how and deep dedication for fostering an inspired choir.

"It?s a thrill to have somebody like Lee, somebody who actually comes from a similar faith context," says Sherman, who has a doctorate of musical arts (DMA) from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Peterson has a DMA from Michigan State University and in 2003, completed a master's in transforming spiritualty from Seattle U?s School of Theology and Ministry.

"As we walk together for awhile, we try to help people uncover their best," Peterson says. "Choir works with questions of meaning and a sense of knowing."

It was the first week of classes in 1999 when Sherman heard Peterson tickling the ivories in a practice room on campus and moseyed inside.

"The next thing I knew, she was standing there saying, 'Hi, I?m Joy and I need an accompanist,'" Peterson recalls with a laugh.

Sherman credits former SU Provost John Eshelman for her own hiring 24 years ago.

?She understood that music could be fun and that it could contribute both to the education of music and fine arts majors and to a well-rounded education for students in any other major.

?She also understood the role the choirs play as an extracurricular activity, in addition to their academic roles, providing opportunities for growth and creating community among the participants,? says Eshelman.

Sherman concedes it was a tough gig when she started.

"Those first five years were like digging coal," she says. "I had to dig deep to figure out how to make them sound good."

In Sherman's first year, the choral program numbered 78. These days, 95 to 130 singers participate.

Sherman shrugs and suggests there's much meant-to-be-ness in what she does. Still, each year she sends out a letter with a return-mail postcard to all incoming students asking if they'd like to join any of the four one-credit choir courses University Chorale, Women's Chorale, Men's Chorale and Chamber Singers. She receives about 50 postcards every year, yet following up with these and other candidates means she makes about 500 phone calls to offer auditions and discuss the importance of a full school-year commitment.

"Most choir members remain for the full four years. Some remain and sing as alumni," Sherman says, adding that University Chorale, Men's Chorale and Women's Chorale are really one.

"Because each gender has different developmental issues vocally, we rehearse the women and men separately one day a week in classes tailored to meet those needs," says Sherman.

University Chorale is the center of the choir program. Chamber Singers is the group for singers who are more vocally and musically developed and want to devote more time to choral music in a smaller group.

Choir also welcomes faculty and staff. Among them, honored staff retiree Sue Hogan, most recently marketing and communications director for the School of Theology and Ministry, who looks back on singing in the choir for 17 years as a form of therapy.

"If you are in class or rehearsal or performing, you cannot think about any of the stuff that is worrying you," she says, adding that she may have bowed out of choir in 2010, yet still hears from others who sang when she did.

Paulette Kidder, associate professor of philosophy, started singing with the choir just before Sherman started here.

"Every year I am privileged to see Joy Sherman take an unformed group of students and turn them into a dedicated, disciplined and inspired group of musicians," Kidder says. "I never get tired of being part of that transformation. Watching Joy teach has made me a better teacher insofar as I steal whatever I can from her."

Audrey Hudgins, an instructor at Matteo Ricci College and an EdD student at SU, joined the choir in 2004.

"If choir is a joy, it's because of Joy and her talented students," Hudgins says. "Choir feeds my soul, sustains my spirit and has been like a family to me over the last 11 years I?ve worked at Seattle U. It's a guarantee that I'll get goosebumps during the processional at the Christmas concert each year and there have been moments at the spring concert when I haven't been able to sing because I've been overwhelmed by the beauty of the song and its heartfelt harmony."

Sherman is an avowed talent scout. She once recruited a fellow she heard humming as he repaired a window outside her office. Her ear is always perked, ever ready to enlist new voices?especially when listening to hymn-singing churchgoers around town.

Hayden Chandler, '15, was bolder than most, however. He sought Sherman out when he toured campus before his freshman year, auditioned and was on board before fall registration.

"Being part of the SU choir community gives you a sense of place and purpose," Chandler says. "The Jesuit education model of Seattle U emphasizes discernment and a vocation that enables you to become the best you can be and feel while also serving your community. Choir does just that."

Within the first half of the school year, Chandler says he was hooked on choir's artfulness, music theory, history and pedagogy. Clearly, this baritone wanted to do more than sing.

Soon, he emailed Seattle area high school music and choir directors in an effort to craft his own internship in conducting and directing. He interned at Garfield as a junior, then at O'Dea as a senior.

"The O?Dea choir is only five years old so I've been able to watch the program grow," says the native of Silverton, Ore.

At Seattle U, he served as student conductor, top dog among choir members and their section leaders. He earned his BA in interdisciplinary arts with an emphasis in music and plans to pursue graduate studies in music education at Western Oregon University in Monmouth at the start of 2016. He'll be able to continue to assist with choir and band at O?Dea, study online and trek to Oregon for classes every other weekend.

"My primary goal is to become a high school choral director," Chandler says. "But if I were to apply the art of conducting and directing a choir to the business world, it would not be difficult. Leading a choir is similar to leading any group. There is a goal and a means to a goal. The director must provide guidance and expertise but allow the choir creative freedom and a voice for input."

Sherman likes to paraphrase Gerard Schwarz, conductor laureate of the Seattle Symphony, when she says, "Most of what we conductors do has nothing to do with music."

The structure of the choral program features a management team and eight section leaders for the four choir voices, two each for soprano, alto, tenor and bass. A retreat for section leaders kicks off the school year to discuss mentoring, leadership skills and how to offer feedback in constructive ways.

Sherman invites all returning choir members to her home each fall, too. "We discuss what we did well, our goals for the year and the culture we want to create," she says.

Character formation is a notable role for Sherman and Peterson.

"We build this sense of community and care of the person," says Peterson. "After all, your voice is you. We have to be so careful in the nurturing of that."

Sherman says what?s most important to her is supporting students in their growth.

"The joy of facilitating and witnessing that growth is what keeps me here," she says. "When the voice grows, the person grows.


This article first appeared in fall 2015 issue of Seattle University Magazine.