Of all of Settlement’s ensembles, none has quite the range or level of diversity of the Gleeksman-Kohn Children’s Choir. It is the School’s only school-wide ensemble, with individual choirs at each community branch, and it’s the school’s largest ensemble program by student population.
The Choir is also often an entry point for music study; many students join the Choir’s Junior Singers as their first musical experience. Each year, with new members entering and experienced singers aging out, choir director Rae Ann Anderson shapes this 140-member assemblage of students anew into a unified singing group.
“It really connects the full body of Settlement Music School,” she says.
Though the Choir runs year-round, spring is the busy season: the Choir’s annual concert is in May (this year, on May 3), as is a yearly performance at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The 75 members of the Senior Singers (older, more experienced musicians) are joined for monthly joint rehearsals by the Junior Singers to form the full choir.
From day one, Anderson drills new singers in choral basics. She teaches canons, scales, and solfege, among other foundational material, and reinforces all of these concepts with the help of charts, illustrations and written-out exercises on oversized notepads at the front of the rehearsal space.
Perhaps most importantly, she sings – not only to demonstrate technique, but to accompany the singers while she conducts. “When you sing along, you’re breathing with them,” she says. “You’re part of the ensemble.”
She also helps school the singers in pronunciation, including foreign languages; the May 3 concert features German, French, several African languages, and what Anderson calls a “nonsense language,” set to a Romanian dance song. To aid in committing music to memory, Anderson draws on non-musical ideas and images. “I find the stories behind the songs, or I make one up,” she says, “and then the students add to them.”
Once familiar with Anderson’s methods, they pick up choral technique quickly, form bonds with their fellow singers just as quickly, and memorize their music within months.
Between the start of the year and the spring concert, there are workshops with visiting directors and regular exchange visits with other choirs. Then, after a few combined rehearsals, Anderson says, “you see kids looking out for children from other branches who they’ve met and become friends with.”
Anderson, who first joined Settlement’s faculty to teach organ, now leads weekly rehearsals at four of Settlement’s branches – assistant director Karen Mercer leads the choirs at the Kardon-Northeast and Camden branches – plus monthly joint rehearsals for all six choirs at the Germantown Branch. She keeps a busy schedule outside of Settlement, too, serving as music director at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Glenside; her work as a church musician was what first brought her into working with children.
Within the Settlement community, she frequently collaborates with other faculty members, some of whom appear as guest musicians or composers. Additionally, a stable of piano faculty members - Eugene Gelfenson, Bonnie Hoffmann, Caroline Davidson, and Vanyah Harrigan - serve as accompanists, and violin and early childhood faculty Annalisa Mariani serves as choral assistant.
“When we’re working on pretty difficult, multipart pieces, I really count on them,” Anderson says.