One man. One choir. One mission. Sixty-three children.
Rob Swenson scrambles rapidly around the stage of the American Fork Tabernacle on Saturday, June 4, stepping over clusters of audio cables and shuffling through stacks of music and text. Occasionally he points a finger at the organist or the choir to cue certain parts of the song, all the while keeping his head down. Fidgety kids, whose ages range from 9 to 18, show various degrees of attention to their director as they look around the spacious hall as if searching for words to the songs they just finished memorizing.
Dress rehearsal for the American Heritage Youth Chorus did not go as Swenson had hoped. This was the last rehearsal for the choir before the dry-run performance the next day, which would be the culmination of more than nine months of preparation for the week-long California tour starting June 11.
A graduate from Brigham Young University with a bachelor’s degree in choral music education, Swenson was brought on in 2009 as the founding director of the choir at American Heritage School in American Fork. He was promoted recently to full-time faculty at the school, and will direct this choir as well as four others.
The choir, which includes members from the school as well as from the community, will perform six times in seven days including firesides in Oakland and Sacramento. The program is a musical fireside about temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and is titled House of Glory, House of God. It will include 10 songs, including narration, all which have been memorized by the choir members.
During the dress rehearsal, which reminded me more of a Laurel and Hardy comedy act than a professional music group, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Swenson had added instrumental parts to the songs in the program, songs arranged by Steven Kapp Perry, Mack Wilberg and others. Sitting next to me were three other students that I knew from the Utah Valley University Wind Ensemble, a student from BYU as well as three other adult community members that I did not know.
A series of emails a month earlier had been disseminated by Swenson through the Utah Valley performing arts community in search of college musicians qualified and available for the tour. This invitation was exciting to me because it meant that my name would be plugged into the network of this community and next time a potential gig came up I might be more likely to get the call.
As the rehearsal went on, any doubt about the musical integrity of the group was melted away by the voices I heard singing behind me. Little nine-year-old voices flowing together with the more mature teenage voices combined to create a unique aggregate that hit like a solid wall of sound. There is something synergistic about children singing. In this case, the effect is amplified by the kids’ sacrifice to participate in a group like this. Not only does each child pay their own way, but each lets go of their own agenda and pride to selflessly serve with a purpose beyond their own. Swenson describes this energy as a result of putting personal belief, or testimony, into the preparation and delivery of the program.
“Real music and real art isn’t real music or real art without that human element – without that belief infused in it, or someone’s true emotions,” Swenson said.
Talking about feelings and expressing emotions can be quite uncharacteristic for a youth, which is why it came as quite a surprise to not only see these kids so willing to let their emotions show through the program but to see on the itinerary what was prohibited for the tour: headphones, portable electronic devices and any other game, toy or object that might hinder the spirit and purpose of the visit.
Listening to the kids sing, it’s hard to define what it is exactly that makes the choir’s performance so powerful. After reiterating everything they give up, however, Swenson made it clear when he said, “It’s the sacrifice the kids make that makes the choir so meaningful.”