There’s quite a difference between 25 and 1,400. The former is the age of the Tacoma Youth Chorus, which celebrates this week in workshops and concerts with renowned English director David Flood. The latter — 14 centuries — is how long choristers have been singing at Canterbury Cathedral, where Flood is organist and music director. Yet Flood’s visit is just the latest in a 13-year collaboration on both sides of the Atlantic, and despite the American vowel sounds, he says that Tacoma has something very special in its youth choirs.
“The great thing I enjoy about Tacoma is the very, very special feel of the whole organization,” said Flood, 60, on the phone from Canterbury, England, last week. “(The staff) are enormously responsive, and all the children are so enthusiastic. … I’ve been delighted to come and work with them, both here and in Tacoma.”
Over 25 years Judy (Herrington) has created something really special in what you might think is just an ordinary town.” -
David Flood, Canterbury Cathedral organist
The feeling’s mutual. Tacoma Youth Chorus, which director Judy Herrington began in 1991 after hearing the Seattle Girls Choir and realizing there was nothing like it in Tacoma, went to Canterbury in 2003 to take part in the cathedral’s annual Children’s Choir Festival. There she met Flood, a tall man with boundless energy and quick voice, in demand as an organist and choral teacher around the world, who had been cathedral organist and Master of the Choristers since 1988. Canterbury Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, nominal leader of the Episcopal (or Anglican) church worldwide. Founded in 597, the current building dates to 1077, and the choral tradition even longer.
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“For our young people to experience walking in the back door of Canterbury Cathedral and studying in that kind of history is really meaningful,” says Herrington.
“Getting to stay in the rooms there, walk to the cathedral … it’s an enormous deal,” says Michael Bennett, a chorus alum who sang from fourth-grade through his senior year in 2007, and took part in the first two tours to England.
Tacoma Youth Chorus has toured Europe five times. They’ll go again in 2017.
While the Tacoma Youth Chorus has since sung in other important European churches such as St. Paul’s in London and Notre Dame in Paris, the connection with David Flood has had the most impact.
“He’s an amazing choral musician,” says Herrington. “Then there’s this person that’s just electrifying. He’s amazing.”
He also has a sense of humor. In a recent day-in-the-life video of the Canterbury choristers (who live and study in the Choir House, singing daily Evensong with the adult choir), Flood laughs, sings and directs from the piano — and behind him is a triangular street warning sign that reads ‘Flood.’
“He had such a playful energy,” remembers Bennett. “He knew how to work with young people and made it fun … but also had high standards. I was in awe of him.”
Of course, there are bigger differences between the Tacoma Youth Chorus and Canterbury Choristers than just history. When Flood gives his four days of workshops this week, he’ll be working with singers from kindergarten to high school who rehearse only once a week. The Choristers, on the other hand, have two rehearsals per day, singing different music in public services every day and twice on Sundays. They also get lessons on two instruments.
“(At home) we learn music quickly,” says Flood. “When you only rehearse once a week, these things take longer to take hold.”
And then there’s the accent.
“There’s nothing like a British accent for teaching choirs!” says Herrington. “The Northwest American accent has very flat vowels. We close up our mouths — it’s not very expressive. The lip shape is horizontal, whereas British vowels are rounder or taller, which gets a better sound.”
For instance, says Flood, think of the word “of.” An American will pronounce it “aav,” whereas a Brit will say it with a more pure, short-o sound.
Americans also pronounce every single “r,” a consonant guaranteed to flatten pitch and sound ugly (unless you’re a pirate).
While Flood politely says he doesn’t try to make Tacoma kids sound like an English choir, he does spend time “clarifying” vowels for better projection and expression of the text, as well as Italianate pronunciation of Latin texts. He also works on stage vitality in performance.
“I try to teach elements which will enhance the performance quickly, as well as helpful teaching comments that will last when I leave them,” he says.
Flood will be in two concerts this weekend: an organ recital on Friday night (April 22) with the Tacoma Youth Chorus Chorale (the high school-age choir) at Christ Episcopal Church, and a Saturday night concert at Mason United Methodist Church with all the choirs and guest soloist Leann Conley-Holcom, a youth chorus alum.
Donations for the Friday show go to the chorus scholarship fund, which helps out nearly one-third of the 210 singers with tuition.
But as Flood himself points out, the effect of the Tacoma Youth Chorus goes far beyond his workshops.
“It was a huge part of my musical education and experience,” says Bennett, who went on to get a music degree at Westminster Choir College and is now choir director at Concord Academy in Massachusetts. “It made a huge impact. … For a kid who loves to sing, seeking an outside-school experience and finding other kids like you … the quality has always been so high, and it was really fun.”
There’s something really powerful about a community of singers. When we breathe together, it changes our community and ourselves.” -
Judy Herrington, Tacoma Youth Chorus
“It’s such an important connection in the brain, emotionally, expressively,” says Herrington of choral singing. “Studies have shown your stress levels go down, your immune systems go up. For children it helps develop reading skills. Attention-deficit becomes hyper-focus. There’s something really powerful about a community of singers. When we breathe together, it changes our community and ourselves.”
If it still seems a little bizarre that Tacoma should have a choral bond with one of the oldest and most important cathedrals in the English-speaking world, it shouldn’t, says Flood.
“Over 25 years, Judy has created something really special in what you might think is just an ordinary town,” he says. “Tacoma should be very lucky to have someone like Judy and her team.”
David Flood and Tacoma Youth Chorus
What: Organ recital and chorale performance.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (April 22).
Where: Christ Episcopal Church, 310 N. K St., Tacoma.
Admission: By donation.
What: Tacoma Youth Chorus choirs, directed by David Flood with Leann Conley-Holcom.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Mason United Methodist Church, 2710 N. Madison St., Tacoma.