At the start of choir practice on Monday afternoons, Elisa Fraser Wilson, DMA, sings cheerfully, “Hello! – How are you?” to greet the kids in the UTEP Children’s Choir.
From the risers on stage in The University of Texas at El Paso’s Fox Fine Arts Recital Hall, 8-year-old Amerie Espinoza and the other singers take turns crooning, “I’m fine – Thank you,” in response.
After a 12-year hiatus, the Children’s Choir returned to UTEP in September 2017. The fun after-school activity enables young singers like Espinoza to develop their vocal talents while learning teamwork and building self-confidence.
“(Amerie) told me she had experienced a bit of bullying and she felt scared to sing,” said Espinoza’s aunt Cathania Grau, a UTEP music education student who encouraged her niece to join the choir. “Being a music person myself, I felt you can’t let people take (music) away from you. So I said, ‘I’ll be with you and you’ll have fun and make lots of friends.’ I’m trying to build that love for music in her.”
Wilson, director of choral activities at UTEP, created the music program in 1999. The choir sang its last note in 2004 after increasing professional and personal obligations led Wilson to disband the ensemble in 2004.
For years, parents, teachers and UTEP students urged Wilson to bring back the popular program because it provided a positive extracurricular choral music experience for children. It also offered the University’s music majors a powerful experiential learning opportunity.
“My own daughter is 11 and loves to sing,” Wilson said, “and with the University’s increased emphasis on community outreach and high impact-learning experiences for our students through the UTEP Edge, the time just seemed right to start it up again.”
Since its return to the stage, the UTEP Children’s Choir has helped kids across the community find their voice. For the first time, UTEP collaborated with the El Paso Symphony Orchestra’s Tocando Music Project to host a satellite UTEP Children’s Choir on Friday afternoons at Guillen Middle School.
Funded by the Carnegie Hall Weill Music Institute, the Tocando Music Project is an after-school program that provides music learning and performing opportunities to elementary school students.
“I think (the choir) is a great way for kids to meet other students who also like to sing, and it’s a great way for them to get to know people from across the city,” said Rocio Manriquez, a UTEP music education major and director of UTEP’s satellite choir with Tocando. “I’m hoping this choir will open doors for them to feel that there could be a future for them in singing.”
Boys and girls ages 8-11 without an audition or previous musical experience are welcome to join either choir.
Children learn to sing in tune, control their breathing and develop stage presence.
The 28 children in the ensemble at UTEP practice with six volunteers from the University’s music program, including Cathania Grau. UTEP students get invaluable experience teaching mini-lessons and receive feedback on how to further develop their teaching skills, Wilson said.
“We’re learning how to foster a healthy community for children through outreach,” said Grau, who plans to become a children’s music therapist. “Working with children in this setting, I’m understanding how to deal with different personalities and make it a fun environment for them.”
At the parents’ UTEP Halloween concert, family members got a front row seat to watch the children perform some of the concepts they’ve learned during rehearsals.
Dressed as princesses, vampires and characters from Harry Potter, Ghostbusters, and Super Mario Bros., children sung four songs in 2-part rounds. Vocals were split into two sections, with each section starting the song at a different time.
Wilson explained that round songs like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” are the easiest way to teach children to sing in harmony.
During a lively rendition of “Hey Ho, Nobody Home,” singers bounced up and down on the risers and waved their arms.
“The choreography added another layer,” Wilson explained. “It’s easier to remember things when we have gestures to go along with them, but it’s hard when there’s another partner on the risers with you doing it at a different time. So we’re multitasking at a very high level.”
Started in 2013, Tocando offers UTEP music students valuable professional development experiences to create social change in the community through music education. As Tocando teaching artists, Manriquez and UTEP music education majors Octavio Macias and Victor Diaz practice the skills they’ve learned in their classes to teach music to students at Hart Elementary in the Segundo Barrio and at Mission Ridge Elementary. In September 2017, the program at Mission Ridge was moved to Guillen Middle School.
After volunteering with Tocando for three years, Manriquez was inspired to create a community choir to provide singing opportunities for children outside of school. Listening to UTEP’s satellite choir perform with the El Paso Symphony’s Youth Orchestra at the Abraham Chavez Theatre on Nov. 12 was music to her ears.
The program also struck a chord with Victor Diaz, a UTEP senior and cellist who has taught cello, viola and violin to Tocando’s students at Hart and Mission Ridge elementary schools for two years.
Due to a conflict in his class schedule, Diaz was unable to teach this semester. Instead, he volunteers with the choir at Guillen Middle School.
He said Tocando has helped him to prepare for a career teaching music after he graduates from UTEP.
“The first lesson I learned in teaching is that the kids feed off of your energy,” Diaz said. “If you’re having a bad day and you teach with no enthusiasm, that’s how they’re going to respond to you. So no matter what, always teach with a lot of positive energy and that’s the amount that you’re going to get back from the kids.”
For more information about the UTEP Children’s Choir, contact Elisa Fraser Wilson at 915-747-8708 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The cost per singer is $20 per semester.
For information regarding the UTEP Children’s Choir at Tocando, contact Rocio Manriquez at 915-253-0683 or by email at email@example.com. The cost for the satellite choir per singer is $10 per semester.
Author: Laura L. Acosta – UTEP Communications