Singing the Praises of the American Youth Chorus

Kids love to sing and mimic their favorite musical idols. They love to sing along with Sean Mendes, Selena Gomez and Justin Timberlake. They clamor to be the next pop sensation to make it big. They even go so far as to make short music videos and upload them to Instagram and TikTok. Though there is nothing wrong with kids wanting to sing like people they see all the time, now is a great opportunity to talk about a totally different style of singing that kids hardly ever see – choral singing.

Put plainly, choral singing is a style of singing that is performed in a chorus. A chorus is a group of people who sing together, rehearse and perform for others to enjoy. Choral music is very different than popular music; most of it is classical, but it also allows for singers to add harmonies to enrich the sound. Individual singers such as Rihanna do not sing in a chorus. A better example of choral singing in pop culture is the Backstreet Boys, but only when they sing in unison.

About AYC

A charming and little-known children’s choral group in the D.C. metropolitan area is American Youth Chorus (AYC), which was created in 2008 and is celebrating its 10-year anniversary during the 2018-2019 season.

AYC is one of three groups within the choral family belonging to the Congressional Chorus, an audition-only, 100-member group of adult choral singers based in Washington, D.C. Children can participate in AYC by first auditioning; they are placed in a junior or senior level according to age and musical ability. Participation fees vary and are based on a sliding scale dependent on household income. AYC proudly offers need-based scholarships to families that have extenuating circumstances.

AYC staff is small, but mighty; everyone wears multiple hats to make sure the children get the best possible music theory and singing education. David Simmons is the artistic director and conductor of AYC. Simmons is the sole teacher of music and the one responsible for selecting choral musical choices and teaching kids proper singing and performance etiquette.

Harlie Sponaugle has been the executive director of AYC since 2016. Sponaugle handles the financial oversight for AYC and works actively on fundraising goals by soliciting donor contributions and hosting annual silent auctions. Brian Duckworth is the newly-hired director of youth programs who feels “privileged to be a part of [the kids’] music education experience,” while Kathleen Vadala fills in the crucial role of pianist accompanist for rehearsals and concert performances.

According to Sponaugle, “AYC is an afterschool music education programming that incorporates fun games and activities to teach choral singing.” Children ages 8-10 participate in the junior division by learning how to sing in unison with two-part music. Children ages 8-14 participate in the senior division and have the chance to learn a more challenging repertoire.

Arts organization Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW) partners with AYC to provide physical space for the children to rehearse each week. According to the CHAW website, “The AYC curriculum focuses on artistic discipline, healthy vocal production and technique, basic music theory, sight-singing skills, singing in two-part harmony, stage presence and cooperation within an ensemble.”

Children in AYC generally rehearse at the CHAW studio for 1.5 hours each week. During rehearsals, Simmons uses a variety of lively Americana music to teach children how to sing as part of a choir and works beautifully in tandem with Vadala, the pianist who has accompanied AYC children’s choral practices since its inception.

Harlie Sponaugle distinguishes AYC from other children’s choral groups. She notes, “At AYC, we give our students the musical building blocks they will use for the rest of their lives whether it be in singing or instrumental music.”

Children rehearse wearing plain clothes, but must perform in a plain white dressy shirt or top and a solid black pair of pants or skirt. AYC loans red bowties to the children for each performance. Each year, children have wonderful opportunities to perform at prestigious events and locations in D.C.

In previous years, AYC has performed at the White House during President Barrack Obama’s administration, the U.S. Department of State, the Library of Congress and the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, and in conjunction with the Welsh National Opera performance during the Smithsonian’s annual Folklife Festival, to name a few. Performance opportunities vary each season, but they are always intriguing!

The Master Conducts the Children

Another important distinction between popular and choral singers is the presence of a conductor in front of a choral group. The conductor evokes passionate facial expressions and distinct upper-body movements to instruct the group to sing or not sing, to build up to a seat-gripping crescendo or to keep a careful pace with adagio. It is the conductor who has the unique power to cause the listening audience to experience both the jubilant and cathartic releases of emotion with each musical note, harmony and song.

David Simmons fulfills his role of conductor to masterful perfection as if the instruction was a glove and he the only one who could fit it on his hand. He exudes his polite teachings on the kids with a momentous fervor that enhances the musical education of the children and ultimately teaches things that children would not necessarily learn in school. “I always strive to make our performances as thought-provoking and educational as possible,” notes Simmons.

A former attorney who practiced law in D.C. and a Pennsylvania native, Simmons is an accomplished pianist whose seasoned work has given him an insight into music. He was the artistic director of Congressional Chorus for two years before becoming the founder, artistic director and conductor of AYC in 2008.

According to Simmons, “We use various methods to teach singing in our program. We understand that all kids grasp new concepts differently, so we incorporate many different teaching methods to make sure all of our students grow as singers. Teaching students to read music, versus learning orally, is one of our primary goals.”

Future Plans

During the 2018 – 2019 musical season, AYC plans to host three concerts featuring its junior and senior divisions. AYC will perform on December 6, 2018, March 14, 2019 and May 21, 2019 at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

Brian Duckworth is in charge of the administrative and logistical aspects of AYC performances. In addition to working on outreach efforts to increase enrollment and general marketing activities, he is very busy planning a unique summer camp for children, tentatively scheduled for the summer of 2019. Says Duckworth, “There are very few summer camps in the D.C. area that offer a comprehensive choral music experience, complete with music theory, sight-singing training and choral singing techniques, so we hope to fill that void.”

The general public is encouraged to donate funds to help AYC provide need-based scholarships to children who otherwise could not afford to participate in AYC. Tickets for AYC concert performances may be purchased online through the Congressional Chorus website or by calling their main office: (202) 629-3140.