AHS Chorus Partners with Smithsonian

AHS Chorus "Can't Keep From Singing"
Posted on 09/01/2021
For the past six years, choral students at Alexander High School (AHS) have spent time exploring American folk music, specifically that which emerged around the 19th Century.

And earlier in August, these students were able to put their knowledge from the past few years to good use, as they were featured in Folklife, a magazine from The Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, for the performance of a piece from the Smithsonian Folkways collection.

“It’s a big deal for us,” said Sandra Chandler, AHS’ Choral and Musical Director. “It’s very rewarding, and it’s a pleasure for an organization of the Smithsonian’s stature to like and be excited about the work we did, and it’s very exciting for the kids as well.”

When contacted by The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the hope was that AHS’ performance of a piece from the center’s collection would be part of a bigger initiative to educate other choral groups about them

“The Smithsonian has thousands of songs that are just American songs that are free to use. All people have to do is reach out and look for them,” said Chandler. “So they are looking for ways to educate choral people that the materials exist and that they can use them.”
AHS Chorus
With this opportunity in front of them, the first step was to choose a song, and Chandler and the group quickly landed on one from The Sacred Heart Collection called “How Can I Keep From Singing?”

The song is credited to American preacher Robert Lowry after it first appeared in a songbook he edited in 1869, and Chandler said the song’s lyrics, which “aptly pay homage to the human spirit and its power to endure,” made it a favorite of the group that was seeking to perform it during a global pandemic.

“My students love to sing and they love to be together and to make beautiful sounds together,” Chandler said. “And for a while, COVID-19 took that from us. But the theme of the song really resonated with us.”

Dr. Tim Sharp, the former executive director of the American Choral Association who helped AHS with the composition, echoed Chandler’s sentiment about the song and sought to encompass that in the arrangement.

“The resulting arrangement was meant to be a tribute to this high school choir that sang throughout the pandemic, as challenging as that was, and who emerged as a stronger choir now that they are once again singing freely,” said Sharp in the Folklife article.

Despite creating the arrangement during a pandemic, Sharp still made students part of the process. Along with teaching lessons about the music and its time period virtually, he also sent students pieces, which they would record and send back to him.

The group was further aided by being able to rehearse together while masked, and they eventually put the finishing touches on the arrangement by recording and filming the performance at Sweetwater Creek State Park the week after graduation last summer.

Along with reaching out to Sharp to help with the arrangement, they also recorded the performance themselves and Chandler wrote the article for Folklife, making AHS the first school to be featured who did all of the work themselves.

And to round out the educational experience, the group teamed up with AHS English teacher Debbie Rager to prepare lessons plans to help students explore the language and meaning of the lyrics. Those plans and lessons are now available to others.

“We’re really excited, and the article wasn’t just a one-time thing. This is ongoing,” Chandler said. “The Smithsonian has several different arms and branches, and after being in that magazine, the story was picked up by another one of their magazines.”

Click here
to read the article in Folklife and to view the four-minute video of AHS’ performance of "How Can I Keep from Singing?" which was filmed at the mill ruins at Sweetwater State Park in Douglas County.
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