By Zoe Case
I was singing in a church and could hear my own voice bouncing off the walls five seconds after I sang each note. The 51 people who were standing in formation with me were running through Tchaikovsky’s “Blazhenni Yazhe Izbral,” and we couldn’t get the timing right because Cleveland’s Mary Queen of Peace Church seemed to be singing back at us.
I am part of Kenyon’s Chamber Singers, a campus choir composed of around 50 students who sing every weekday for course credit, fun and a bit of camaraderie. The choir requires an audition, and I auditioned at the beginning of my first year mostly out of peer pressure. I have never regretted that decision.
That day in the echoing church was Saturday, Feb. 27, the date of our last performance before our spring tour. Spring tour is a yearly undertaking for the choir, and we have been drilling our pieces every day, memorizing words and spending countless hours outside of class listening to our recordings. We leave for Columbus on March 5.
In the following days we will visit Cincinnati, Louisville Ky., St. Louis, Evanston, Ill., Ann Arbor, Mich. and finally Toledo, Ohio. Upon arrival at each of those cities, we will sing, and then be taken in, fed and housed by host churches and organizations.
The choir is conducted and guided by Professor of Music Benjamin “Doc” Locke.
“What makes Doc such a great professor?” I asked Lexi Bollis ’17 on the bus ride to the church.
“He just loves what he does so much, and he cares so much, that it just elevates the art that we create,” Bollis said. “Because it means so much more than just mouth-sounds.”
There are 14 pieces of music in our tour repertoire, including favorites “Hard Times” by Stephen Foster, Stephen Chatman’s “The Tree of Song” with words by Sara Teasdale, Josef Rheinberger’s “Kyrie,” a Xhosa South African folk song transcribed by Locke called “Dubula, Mfana Ndini” or “Shoot, young man!” And then of course, there is the Tchaikovsky, the Brahms and the Bach.
Each of these pieces we memorize and sing in a mixed formation, meaning the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses are not standing with their groups, but instead are interspersed. Imagine standing between two people who are singing completely different notes than you in the middle of an eight-part, 90-page Bach motet — a piece for a cappella choral groups traditionally associated with religious practices.
The singers are very close. I believe it is a product of singing with the same group of people for an hour every day. “It’s the fact that you’re making music together,” Bollis said. “You have this special bond with people.” Of course, we also have our binding traditions.
Locke and his wife, Kay, have hosted pre-tour lasagna dinners for the singers at their home on Brooklyn Street for years. On the tour bus, veteran Chamber Singers will share stories of past tour adventures over the bus loudspeaker. Then we will play a rousing game of “Name that Chamber Singer!” in which we will try to guess the singer based on their answers to a special personality quiz. The greatest tradition of all is when we perform “Kokosing Farewell.”
Doc Locke arranged this special composition of the song in 1988. We always sing it as an encore during tour, and some graduating senior singers have been known to shed a tear or two at its beauty. It is, after all, the second-to-last time they will sing that song. The last will be on the steps of Rosse Hall beside their graduating peers.
The piece becomes even more beautiful with Doc inviting alumni of the group to come up and sing with us every night. “I actually picked that up from the student a cappella groups, The Kokosingers, Owl Creeks, Chasers,” he said. “I had heard of it being done other places with college choirs and I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ One year I did it and it was tremendously successful.”
The song, with its sweet melancholy, parallels the Chamber Singers’ tour itself. After tour, rehearsals for the group gradually taper off for the year and the seniors graduate. Never again will these exact people be in this exact room singing together.