Concordia is a music school; there is no doubt about that. One-sixth of the student body participates in the Christmas Concert alone. Every day of the week, the musical Cobbers take advantage of any excuse to make music. But Concordia’s website says that there are only 17 credit ensembles, and music department head Dr. Robert Chabora says that the music department is too busy with existing ensembles to oversee any more. So where is all the music we hear coming from?
It’s coming from the sweat, blood, and love that students, such as junior Ryan Fellman, can’t help but throw into their music at every opportunity. Fellman’s 40-person choral ensemble, The Shadow Singers, is a group that will perform 10 pieces in a concert Fellman has entitled “Vernal Equinox,” complete with string quartet and pianist on March 24.
The ensemble and others like it are fascinating because there is almost no faculty involvement. Fellman is in charge of picking the music, the vocalists, the accompanist, and preparing each rehearsal to make the ensemble ready for performance. Most of the music department has only heard that Fellman has started up a new ensemble, and none of the vocalists or instrumentalists are receiving college credit. The Shadow Singers are totally independent and totally on their own.
Over the past four years or so, student-run ensembles have appeared with more and more frequency. Adam Christie, a 2010 Concordia graduate, headed a group of vocalists primarily from the Concordia Choir called The Aesthetics last year. This year, the American Choral Directors Association Choir is a student-run performing group that allows only music major vocalists. Each of these ensembles is student-run; students may have talked to a faculty adviser in order to reserve practice space, but other than that there is little influence from faculty. D. Michael Smith, the faculty adviser for The Shadow Singers and conductor for the Chapel Choir, Cantabile and Männerchor and music department head Chabora are equally in the dark about student-run ensembles. Nobody really knows how many ensembles there are. Neither Smith nor Chabora doubt the challenge nor the value that organizing and being part of these ensembles give students.
This challenge is something that comes naturally to Fellman and others before him who simply love to make music, and it is the love for music that is the only prerequisite to be in The Shadow Singers. He chose his vocalists primarily for their love for music, and then based on their musical skill and voice tone. Fellman said that he could tell how genuinely excited and dedicated the vocalists would be based on their attitude in approaching him about auditions.
He was looking for people who love to make music and are dedicated to being in an ensemble. Fellman found them.
When looking at the vocalists in The Shadow Singers, the factors that set this ensemble apart become clear. Instead of pulling from a specific group of people, Fellman opened auditions to anyone with access to Facebook. As a result, The Shadow Singers contains vocalists from the Concordia Choir, Chapel Choir, Bel Canto, Cantabile, Männerchor, some who aren’t in any other vocal group, freshmen through seniors and many non-music majors. Despite stereotypes and rivalries between the ensembles, The Shadow Singers create a welcoming atmosphere.
“Nobody ever talks about which ensembles they are from,” Fellman said.
Sam Kjellberg, a senior involved in orchestra, band and percussion ensembles, but no other vocal groups, thinks Fellman’s method for choosing members without bias towards specific ensembles allows for a more collaborative effort in the group.
“What Ryan does is allows the best vocalists,” he said, “which allows for a better blended sound.”
Not only is the sound different from any other ensemble, but musicality is on a new level as well. Grant Schneider, a junior from Chapel Choir and Vocal Jazz II, another ensemble conducted by Fellman, said his favorite part was being in an ensemble that is “going to sound amazing without four hours of practice trying to get the notes.”
Mitch Peery, a freshman from Männerchor, laughed about Fellman deciding to cut back on rehearsal time because the group was accomplishing too much.
Another factor setting The Shadow Singers apart is the score for their concert. “Vernal Equinox” is a 45-minute concert with a clear central theme. The theme revolves completely around Fellman’s intense dislike for winter, beginning with Vivaldi’s “Winter,” a part of the Four Seasons. The Shadow Singers then jump directly into a piece called “The Snow,” followed by “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind,” “Frostiana,” “Spring” and “Waternight.” Each of these pieces is dramatic and dark, varying in intensity. The second half of the concert begins with “Hold On,” an upbeat piece that that gives the listener some hope. However, the concert finishes with “Let Down the Bars, O Death,” “Come Sweet Death” and “Der Tod Und Das Madchen,” the darkest pieces in the concert.
Despite this dark music, the atmosphere in rehearsal is relaxed, professional and always fun. The mix of vocalists present, chatting with each other about their pieces and there to make music purely because the love to do it, creates a sort of static noise, Fellman said. He likes the noise and says that it helps him remember that he isn’t working with “robots without any musicality.”
Kjellberg, after giving a brief rundown of previous student-run ensembles on campus, said that the continued success and upswing in ensemble numbers is a testament to how much Concordia students love to sing and care about music and how much successful ensembles encourage new talent to create new groups.
“Everyone wants to pull from the best choir,” Kjellberg said. But Fellman said he would rather have “40 people who love making music than 20 from Concordia Choir who love to perform.”
Fellman, unsure of his own musical agenda for next year, expects to continue seeing an increase in student-run ensembles. Kjellberg shares that opinion, hoping that in a few years it will permeate into instrumental groups as well. Many young members of The Shadow Singers are interested in pursuing involvement with other student-run ensembles in the future because of the valuable experience they have had so far. Fellman hopes the success The Shadow Singers have experienced will encourage others to overcome their fears and create new ensembles for Concordia to enjoy.