Vocalists from Salem High School have been continuing a legacy of excellence this year. The Salem Chamber Singers took home first place in the SCA state competition. At the MSHSAA State Solo and Small Ensemble Festival April 27 – April 29, vocalists Christopher Harris and Nealy Leathers won gold for their solos, and Eli Brakensiek, Christopher Harris, Corby Ball, Miles Skaggs, and Bryce Stewart won gold for their chamber ensemble. Taking home silver from the event were vocalists Miles Skaggs, Hannah Greener, and Devon Blackwell, who performed solos. Caroline Pryor took home bronze for her vocal solo. The Salem Chamber Singers took home a gold first place award in class and category as well as the Adjudicator’s Award (for top scores) from nationals in Orlando, Florida on April 13-17.
Christopher Harris also made Salem High School history when he qualified for both All-State Band as well as All-State Choir in the same year.
Vocal teacher Elaine Russell says vocalists from Salem have a history of excellence. Russell is passionate about preserving history, she said. The walls of the choir classroom are lined with photos, plaques, trophies, and awards chronicling the achievements of her students.
“The All-State Choir is really a big thing, and it’s really good and hard to get in, especially for smaller schools. Up there, I have a plaque that has the different kids (that achieved All-State in years past) that I could find. I researched and tried to put the history on there. I’m big into history, because there wasn’t any history here. I grew up here, so I knew we had a good program when I was here in the early 90’s,” said Russell. “It’s meaningful because I mean it’s a small town, it’s where I grew up; these kids were me, basically. Ok, without cell phones,” she laughed. “I want them to see different things and do everything, so that’s why I take them to Nationals, the advanced choir. We go out of state. They’ve sang at Carnegie Hall. I’ve been there three times with my choir since I’ve been here. Experience is good in life, because they’re never going to get that experience again. I also know that 99.9% of them will never be in a choir again once they graduate here. Like professional sports, most of these athletes, this is all they get.”
Russel said it’s important to always be building a team. Choir students must work with each other and rely on each other to excel.
“I have to build a team. These are teams. If I can’t build a team, and the team doesn’t want to be a team, we have issues just like any sport. We’re not an individual sport. Choir is a team, whether it’s 18 members or 50,” said Russell. “They all have to work with me as the director, and then they have to be comfortable with each other and do what they need to do to bring it all together. That’s key. If you can’t have a team, it fails. Even if I have the best singers. It doesn’t matter. If they can’t be a team together, it will fail,” she said.
As with other school teams, each graduating class leaves a hole in the choir. Russell said the team-building is continuous.
“Every year, it doesn’t matter how many seniors there are. It’s always a new team building. No matter whether you want to or not, you end up depending on that one person. Then the other people have to bring it on, and build themselves, and now they have to be that person. It’s a team building no matter how many people you use. We start over in August every year. This year, I have four seniors leaving. Next year, I’ll have nine, maybe 10.”
Having a good team is important Russell, because it allows the students to travel, connect with their audiences, and have an experience they’re proud of, she said.
To build those experiences, students compete at a variety of competitions and perform local concerts. Events with the choir in the past have brought students to the Missouri State Capitol, Orlando, Florida, and Carnegie Hall. SHS vocal students have a history of success at many events, such as the SCA competition.
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“With SCA, I take my advanced choir, and we have a festival, and we compete against the other choirs that show up for the SCA Champs. We have been pretty consistent. For many years, we’ve been the top choir in the SCA as a choir. We always put on a concert together with the other schools, so it’s not just a competition, but singing together. Just like the District Choir; we compete separately, but we’re all with all these other schools singing in one choir. So, it’s a little different with sports, where you pretty much stay with your team,” said Russell. “With SCA, it’s a different set of schools than all-district. We are on the south end of our district, so we’re competing against kids from Rolla, all the way to Jeff City, all the way down to Camdenton, east to Owensville and Cuba. With SCA, it’s South-Central Association, and we’re on the north end of that. We compete with kids down in, used to be West Plains, but now it’s Thayer, which is the Arkansas border almost. So, it’s a totally different community of students that we get to be a part of and compete with,” she said.
“This Spring, at State, both of my High School choirs got gold. That’s happened three times since I’ve been here in 13 years. It’s really difficult. The Chamber Singers are auditioned. It’s meticulous, so I expect great things out of them, and push them really hard. The other choir isn’t (auditioned).”
She says many of the rural schools in the area don’t have choir, which means many of her students each year have no prior knowledge of music.
“Those kids that come from those areas, which is a lot, they don’t have any prior knowledge of music unless they had a private (teacher), and there are some kids like that,” said Russell. “The concert choir rotates because I have students that have no previous knowledge, and those that do have knowledge that I’ve taught before from middle school that are in it. It’s a much more volatile educational experience, because I’ve got kids that know nothing of music or even singing, and they can be in that choir because I only have one other choir in the high school.”
Russell said the technical aspects of music are good to know, but that she’s focused more on the feeling behind the performance and a connection to the audience– the magic of the music.
“I’m not really one that is like ok, every kid has to read notes, and know them exactly. If I did that, they would be gone. That’s not speaking to them. I can do all that, but it’s more about the singing and expression, and the connection between what we’re trying to say with the song and our audience,” she said. “Music is all about meaning. It’s feelings that somebody wrote down. There’s a story behind that. We have to bring that forward,” said Russell.
“One of the great stories from Nationals was that we were in Universal Studios. Hagrid’s ride, I think. It was a three-hour wait line. It’s Florida, it’s hot. We’ve got little kids, these families, and then there’s us as a team. We look like everyone else. You know how it is, you stand in line, you’re hot. We got into this part of the building finally. They build them really cool just like Harry Potter. The acoustics… The ceilings were arched everywhere. I said, ‘guy’s look, you need to sing,’ and then I just leave it up to them. That’s my job as a coach. If I build them, they should be able to just go off and do it. And they did. Everybody loved them; it changed the whole atmosphere.”
The atmosphere isn’t the only change that occurs, said Russell.
“My kids, it changes them too. You’re touching other people, plus yourself,” she said. “That is the experience that you want; that I want for my students. That ultimate experience, that’s the life that you want them to have, not just ‘I can sing a song’. That music is not just in this little room. It’s in the world.”