COLUMBIA — The 50 members of the Missouri Symphony Conservatory Children's Chorus take to heart the saying, "Just breathe."
Before each Sunday afternoon rehearsal, the students are led through yoga and breathing exercises and are told to take a collective breath in, then out, as they stretch their torsos and arms. It's all part of an exercise to center themselves physically and mentally before they begin to sing.
The practice, which takes about five minutes, is called "body, mind, spirit and voice." The routine is essential to focusing the children's minds and energy, Children's Chorus director Melissa Straw said. Mindfulness means being completely present and tuning out daily distractions.
"(Through mindfulness) you can be completely bathed in the text of the music, in the harmony, blend, balance and tone, and all aspects of the music-making progress," said Straw, 43.
After the warm-up, Straw asks the children to sing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Let it Snow," both performed at their winter concert last weekend. The children stand with their feet firmly planted on the ground, shoulder-width apart, and begin to form a wide "O" with their mouths.
The children's voices mesh together in near-perfect pitch as they sing: "Have yourself a merry little Christmas/ Let your heart be light/ From now on, our troubles will be out of sight."
During the second chorus, their joyous voices rise an octave, and the higher-pitched notes are amplified by the walls. A few parents in the room shut their eyes and smile, and the well-matched pitches make it seem as if troubles really are far away.
At the end of the song, the melody ends, and the children pause to enthusiastically say, "Merry Christmas!"
"That was good," Straw says with a smile of satisfaction. The centering exercises seemed to work.
Love of music
"I'm one of those rare people who enjoy teaching everyone music," Straw said. "I teach because I want to give a gift (of music) to young people."
Straw, who received a master's degree in music education from MU in 1992, began her career teaching music in the Southern Boone School District. After Smithton Middle School opened, she taught music to more than 500 middle school students each year in Columbia Public Schools. Students were no longer required to take music classes after sixth grade, and Straw was the last person in the schools who could persuade kids to continue.
She became dedicated to the challenge of helping students discover their musical talents.
"(It is because of) my love for sharing my passion for music with others," she said. "For helping others understand the beauty around it, to understand how important it is every day to experience beautiful things."
Straw studied other directors' methods of engaging students and worked to bring to her students the most exciting and fresh practices in the field.
Her teaching methods earned results.
In 2003, the 100 students in her Smithton Middle School choir competed against other choirs in the state and won the honor of performing at the Missouri Music Educators Association conference.
"It is one of the highest honors you can attain in this profession," Straw said. The choir was chosen to perform because it created a music recording that was deemed by out-of-state judges to be the best of those submitted.
She thinks the choir was so popular at the conference because of the appropriateness of the music through its skill level, vocal range and the quality of the performance by the students. The choir's performance CD remains one of the best-selling for that conference, Straw said.
After the conference, Straw was asked to be the director of the Children's Chorus. She is now in her 10th year.
"Children are our future," Straw said. "You have to try and make a positive impact when they are young so they can nurture their understanding and gift for the rest of their lives."
Making a positive connection with students is important to Straw.
"For many years in my teaching career I have tried to save the world and have been let down many times," Straw said. "I no longer try to save the world. I now just try to have a positive contact with everyone I meet."
A chorus line
The Children's Chorus under the Missouri Symphony Society began in 2003 as an elite chorus for children in Columbia and the surrounding areas, Straw said. Their music selections are more advanced than those in the public schools. They are required to sing in multiple languages, styles, genres and parts.
"Let it Snow," for example, requires students to focus on rhythm, metric changes, syncopation and multiple vocal parts.
Fifty students in grades six through nine throughout Columbia's private, public and home schools are accepted into the chorus through an audition process that includes matching pitch, singing in tune and understanding basic musical concepts through sight reading. The secret to the audition is having the desire to become a better musician, Straw said.
"I regret that we have such a rigorous audition process, but I don't regret taking the best and placing them in the chorus," she said.
Straw knows each child by name, their parents and their favorite activities. She said she values the personal connection, and her students appreciate the efforts as well.
"Ms. Straw is honestly my second mother," said Elizabeth Zenner, 14, about how close Straw is to each of her students. Zenner, an alto and soprano, has been with the Children's Chorus for three years.
"Ms. Straw is the best part of it," Zenner said.
Robert Hunter, 12, echoes this sentiment. He says Straw is funny and does a good job of directing, knowing everyone's name and socializing.
Straw engages the students by featuring two singers each week. Showcasing their musical talents is a way to help everyone get to know the singers better and to allow them to feel comfortable performing in front of others.
She reads aloud biographical information about the students and asks them to sing or play an instrument in front of the group. Then, the student gets to pick a prize from "The Amazing Treasure Basket."
Straw's husband, Michael, 58, is also no stranger to educating children through music. He holds a doctorate in music education and helps at rehearsals close to performance time. He works with them on song dynamics, lyrics, tone, technique and diction at certain measures.
"I'm a helpful spouse," he said with a chuckle.
Michael admires his wife as a colleague for the emotional health and encouragement she brings to the kids through her teaching methods, he said.
"The work we do is just building off the work from other teachers in the community," he said.
Outside the Columbia community, Straw has been sought out on a statewide level for her talents. Straw works with choirs across the state and runs one-day skill clinics as a clinician. She is also an adjudicator who assigns ratings and gives feedback at several music festivals.
For her efforts, she has received the award for Outstanding District Director and was twice the nominee for the Columbia Fund for Academic Excellence award.
In future years, she aims to expand the program further by touring nationally and internationally to improve the chorus' musical learning experience.
Straw was first inspired by her mother to pursue a career in music education.
Her mother was an organist at church, and Straw would sit beside her on the organ bench each Sunday as she played. Straw sang in the church choir as she grew older, and by 15 she had her first conducting job directing the adult church choir.
"That was something that was very meaningful for me because I was able to gain conducting and leadership skills at a young age," she said.
At school, Straw followed in her brother's footsteps and took trumpet lessons. She also joined the school choir. In 1987, when Straw was a junior in high school, she experienced a defining moment in her life.
That year, she was chosen to perform in the Missouri all-state high school choir.
"That was the first time that I had a 'mountain top' experience ... that experience one gets when participating in an ensemble that pushes you emotionally over the top," Straw said.
It was an experience she would repeat her senior year, when she was selected to participate in the choir again, and when she toured Europe singing in cathedrals after graduation.
"Those left indelible marks on my soul," she said.
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.