The UST Chamber Singers had just completed a brisk warm-up, and primed for the performance, moved into a small classroom just down the hall from the auditorium on the North Dakota State University campus. Moments away from a featured performance at the 2008 North Central American Choral Directors Association regional conference, students fidgeted. There was a little nervous laughter, but mostly nerves ran high as singers anticipated their time on stage. Then came the news: the previous choir was running long, and there would be a delay.
Members of the Show’d Up Band, accompanists for one of the choir’s numbers, welcomed the delay for a last-minute tuning. No one really remembers how it started, but a little innocent instrument tuning among the Showed-Ups turned into a familiar fiddle tune. Within a handful of measures, members of the choir began moving to the music. Rocking, bobbing and smiling soon bubbled into some tentative dancing. The first song flowed into another, and then another, and soon the entire room had morphed from nervous energy into joyful energy.
Bob Douglas, mandolin player for the Show’d Up Band, began calling some simple square-dance steps and the classroom became a joyful barn dance with young men in tuxedos and young women in long black dresses. After a few minutes of fun, choir director Angela Broeker collected the attention of her talented young men and women, took them on stage, and brought down the house.
This unique collaboration came about because Broeker was looking for a dynamic closing piece for this important gig. Declining any cliché way to end the concert, the choir wanted something fresh and unexpected. Having heard the Show’d Up Band on Thursdays on campus, Broeker asked her husband, Jay, if he could write a piece that combined her two favorite sounds: bluegrass band and choir. The result was an arrangement of “Down in the River,” a folk song with text that speaks to the importance of community – an apt message for the choir and its audiences.
The Show’d Up Band is a group of St. Thomas faculty and staff who gather every Thursday at noon to play a mix of fiddle tunes, American folk music, and just about anything that grabs their interest. With a core group of seven members, the number of players on any given Thursday varies depending upon who “shows up” for rehearsal. The arrangement of “Down in the River” was written for four players: mandolin, guitar, hammer dulcimer and bass. Bob Douglas, Physical Plant; Tom Hodgson, swim coach; Joe Kreitzer, associate vice-president for Academic Affairs; and bass player Dave Tousley came to the experience with varied backgrounds. This caused some trial-and-error learning while memorizing the fairly complex arrangement mostly by ear. But Broeker and the choir were patient, and soon the band and choir were making music together in both a joyful and professional way.
The synergy between the band and choir was immediately apparent despite a significant age gap! Members of the band instantly recognized the polish and discipline of the choir and practiced their parts diligently to reach the desired level of performance. For Kreitzer, the connection was especially close: his son, Tom, sings in the choir.
Reflecting on the experience, Tom said, “I got to sing with my dad, and that makes me pretty proud.”
The collaboration was such a success that the piece was revived for a performance at the Minnesota Collegiate Choral Festival in the fall of 2009. Once again, the performance was preceded by a mini square-dance festival in the warm-up room. Senior Kathleen Geraghty summed up the experience this way:
“Having the Show’d Up Band with us after warm-ups helped me relax and remember why I was there. I couldn’t help but let my nerves calm down as I watched them play and dance with all the other Chamber Singers. Sharing those moments with the Show’d Up Band and my fellow choir members reminded me that we were there because we love music and we know what kind of joy and beauty it brings to our lives. Since then, I have always looked forward to any collaboration with the Show’d Up Band, and I thank them for always supporting us and for being willing to create memorable musical experiences with us.”
The Chamber Singers hit a high note in March when they performed at the American Choral Directors Association national convention in Chicago. Performing at this venue – with more than 4,000 choral directors from across the country in attendance – is the highest national honor a choral group can receive. St. Thomas is one of only five college or university mixed choirs that performed. The selection came after a blind audition process that included recordings submitted from 75 college and university choirs across the United States. St. Thomas’ Chamber Singers, directed by Broeker, performed historic works by Claude LeJeune and Claudio Monteverdi, as well as contemporary pieces from Lithuania, Canada and Cuba. They ended their program with “Down in the River,” accompanied by – who else – the Show’d Up Band.
Broeker plans to twist her husband’s arm to write more arrangements for this combination of musical forces. The Show’d Up Band and UST Chamber Singers continue to be in tune with each other.
You can listen to their rendition of "Down in the River" by clicking below.
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