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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2019

Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music

Members of the SWCC Community Chorus in rehearsal.
Members of the SWCC Community Chorus in rehearsal.

Choral Program at Southwest Virginia Community College


In May 2010, the music program of Southwest Virginia Community College (SWCC) in Richlands presented a Choral Celebration Concert featuring the SWCC Community Chorus and the Southwest Virginia Children's Choir in a first-ever joint appearance. The choirs performed under the direction of acclaimed conductor and composer Dr. Andre Thomas.

The event celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Community Chorus under the directorship of Dr. Joseph Trivette, Albert Endowed Chair of Music at SWCC. Formation of the Chorus was one of Dr. Trivette's first projects at the college, and one he considers the "flagship of our music program."

In the audience were two choral instructors, William F. and Diane Thomas of Bristol, Va. Diane recalls, "We were impressed with the 75-voice SWCC Community Chorus. The beauty and energy of the group's sound, the intonation, balance and blend were all first-rate. Although the program notes indicated a 'non-audition' choir, it sounded very 'auditioned' to us. We were also impressed by the fact that the majority of the singers were young and middle-aged. The 100-voice Children's Choir was amazing, both in its numbers and the cooperative effort and support provided by local school boards, principals and teachers. Students obviously receive solid instruction in vocal production through well-chosen, quality choral literature."

The Community Chorus performed Liebeslieder Waltzes by Brahms and the inspiring "Testament of Freedom," composed by Randall Thompson and featuring the words of Thomas Jefferson. The Chorus also presented two Andre Thomas spirituals, a medley from West Side Story, and a variety of sacred anthem selections. They were accompanied by pianist Kathie Wilson-Parker and organist Dr. David Runner of Milligan College. Dr. Andrew Necessary, Justin Camacho, and Kelsey Sykes were featured on brass accompaniment.

Children's Choir pieces ranged from the Dilworth spiritual "Wheels A-Turnin'" to an arrangement of Handel's "O Sing Out With Pleasure." They joined the Community Chorus for "Gloria" from Rutter's Mass of the Children and for the hymn "Be Thou My Vision." The combined choirs also sang the Ivory/Caldwell arrangement "Hope for Resolution," which pairs the African freedom song "Thula Sizwe" with the 11th-century chant Divinum Mysterium.


The biggest hurdle for the Children's Choir was providing transportation for youth to bi-weekly rehearsals. The four school districts agreed to provide transportation as well as financial support for the Choir. The children are from grades 5-7 and "most of them start the year never having sung in a Choir," co-director Wenda Fuller says. "It is almost a rebuilding of the Choir each year. That, in itself, is a challenge — to continue to maintain the performing excellence each year with more than half of the members having to learn basic musicianship."

Dr. Trivette says, "You asked about the challenge of fostering quality music in a rural area. Every semester I find more 'local' musicians: students who are just realizing that their inclination toward music may be channeled into specific development, adults who sang or studied instruments in the past but set them aside in order to pursue careers, folks who sing in church but have never expanded their experience beyond one style of music, people who hear a concert and come to me saying, 'do you think I can do that?' The pool of potential singers and instrumentalists may be smaller than that in more metropolitan areas, but there is impressive talent and interest available to us."

When Dr. Trivette accepted the Albert Endowed Chair of Music at SWCC in 2000, he says, "I was directly challenged by the college president to 'bring back quality music to Southwest Virginia.' For several years previous, there had been a lull in music activity originating from this college. My initial challenge was to locate individuals who would have an interest in the music ensembles that I would attempt to form, beginning with the Community Chorus."

Networking through local music teachers and churches, Dr. Trivette came up with a list of about 200 people. Some of them are founding members of the Community Chorus, which became the "flagship ensemble." Others support the music program by attending music events and through financial donations.

Over the past 10 years, the challenges that evolved have included stimulating Community Chorus growth not only in numbers but also in quality of choral repertoire and sound. Dr. Trivette says, "We are not content to be the same Chorus with different music each semester, but rather an ever-more professional choral group. To that end, we have expanded our performance experience beyond the immediate service area, accepting invitations to sing at Duke Chapel in 2010 and at the National Cathedral and other sites in Washington, D.C. in 2011. We have joined in concert with other college and university choirs including Bluefield College, Berea College, West Virginia University, and Appalachian State University. We have performed Mendelssohn's Elijah with WVU choirs and at SWCC, Carmina Burana with WVU choirs, and Messiah with WVU and with ASU choirs."

According to Dr. Trivette, "Selection of choral repertoire is vital. The music must be challenging but attainable, and varied enough to maintain the interest of the group. Certainly there is an important focus on choral masterworks, but we may also include spirituals, folk songs, and other genres of quality music. The same factors apply to selection of children's repertoire. Their current semester, for example, includes a classical selection by Handel, but also popular and folk arrangements."

For the Community Chorus, there is no separation in rehearsal of college students from community members. Choral technique is emphasized. Music reading is not specifically taught during rehearsal, but non-reading members are encouraged to take Group Piano to develop this skill.

An additional challenge has been one that is faced by all state-supported programs in recent years — that of budget cuts. While the music program at SWCC has grown, budget has decreased. Dr. Trivette says, "We have been fortunate to receive the support of community members whose generosity allows us the freedom to expand music programs at SWCC. We have also supported various aspects of the music program by obtaining grants from sources including the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts."

The Music Program

Dr. Trivette says, "What keeps me here is a combination of factors that include the opportunity to develop all aspects of music in this area. We have not only the choral groups, but an active jazz band, a new community orchestra, and music majors in a variety of instruments. We sponsor a Jazz: America's Music program that annually brings in professional musicians to perform in area schools, and a Chamber Music Institute that provides private lessons to individuals from area secondary schools."

He continues, "I am motivated by the fact that I have been afforded the freedom and support to develop a multi-faceted music program, and by the fact that this program continues to transfer music majors in a variety of instruments to highly-reputable four-year college and university music programs."

In comparison to choral programs in four-year university music programs, there are both positives and negatives. Dr. Trivette says, "In Southwest Virginia I have the opportunity to foster the growth of musicians who come to me without the background of private vocal or instrumental lessons available in more metropolitan areas. I get to take choirs whose members include many without choral experience and "grow' them into a quality ensemble. In the case of our Children's Choir, many youngsters and their parents have never heard a choral performance prior to their participation with us."

He adds, "The potential for musical growth among my students and ensemble members is challenging and exciting. By comparison, the 'ivory tower' teachers and conductors in large universities, working largely with private-lessoned and auditioned students, miss the gratification and excitement of seeing the degree of music skills development and music awareness that our students experience in this program. There is a lot of good teaching to do in this setting. It is just a "cool' experience to see a 70-year-old community member and a high school potential music major seated side by side preparing a choral masterwork and thereby sharing a timeless experience. That is what our community college music program is about."

All music majors at the college, regardless of major instrument, become part of the Chorus, and many Chorus members become members of the jazz band or orchestra. Dr. Trivette says, "We are supportive of both choral and band programs in our area schools, conducting clinics, providing professional lessons, and promoting concert attendance. Instrumental and choral music are mutually supportive in our view. What a student learns in choral or instrumental disciplines includes knowledge that transfers from one area to the other."

Dr. Trivette says, "Again, we draw from a smaller pool of potential musicians. However, we are able to benefit from the sense of community that exists in a rural area and community college. The networking and personal contact means that there is hardly a church, school, or civic organization in the area that is not aware of our program and concerts. The community has a sense of pride in the "ownership' of this program."

About the Choral Ensembles
About the Choral Directors
What Former Students are Saying ...
Performance dates

Topics: Music