Emma Lai has always loved to sing. For the past five years, the Rockford Washington Academy student has been a member of the Rock Valley Children’s Choir. Lai started in the Do-Re-Mi division, and worked her way through the ranks.
“I love the people who are in the choir. They take me away from all the school stress,” says the soft-spoken 13-year-old, with a wide grin. “It puts me in a peaceful place. I used to be shy and timid and not very social. Now, I’m able to express myself through music.”
The Rock Valley Children’s Choir is a performing and education choral organization founded in 2002 as part of the Community Education Division of Rock Valley College. Five years ago, the choir also partnered with Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center in order to expand its support base and become part of the community fine arts corridor in downtown Rockford.
Director Leah Baskin, a longtime Rockford music and movement educator, says it was formed to fill a need when two other children’s choirs closed shop. “I just felt it was a shame, and it wasn’t fair to the children or the community,” she says. “This program is not about music, as much as it’s about making better citizens. It’s about finding ways to let children find themselves, giving them some guidance and the opportunity to do something that’s a little bit beyond themselves. And when it’s done, they can look back and say, ‘Oh, I did a good job.’”
She adds: “Music is communication. Music is connections. Music is a form of communion for people. My goal is to help children sing lullabies to their children, to sing a hymn in church without the person in the pew in front of them turning around, and you want them to be able to be thoughtful consumers of music.”
The program started out small; 13 children made up just one choir. Today, about 65 children, grades 1-12, make up four separate choirs: the Do-Re-Mi Singers (first through third grade), Music Makers (fourth through eighth grade), Masters Singers (an advanced choir for sixth through eighth grade), and Encore, the high school ensemble.
The children’s choir has performed with a variety of other musical organizations, including the Rockford Symphony; Mendelssohn Symphony; Mendelssohn Chorale; Rockford Master Chorale; and Kantorei, the Singing Boys of Rockford. Up next for the Rock Valley Children’s Choir is a trip in June to Indianapolis, where members will participate and perform at the “Festival of Americas” sponsored by the Indianapolis Children’s Choir.
The singers, both boys and girls, have varying degrees of musical experience. They attend public, private, parochial and home schools from 14 communities throughout northern Illinois, including Rockford, Rochelle, Pecatonica, Kingston and South Beloit. The cost per child is $150 each semester, and there are scholarship opportunities available. No one is turned away for lack of funds. “You just can’t deny a child music because of money,” Baskin says.
Connor Johnson, 13, an eighth-grader at Harlem Middle School in Loves Park, has been part of the choir since third grade. Johnson has made great strides during his time with the choir. “It’s brought him out of his shell,” says his grandmother, Barbara Zimmerman. “He’s not afraid to sing. He doesn’t even care if he’s good, which he is. He just loves doing it.”
She credits the choir’s director. “Mrs. Baskin never ceases to amaze us as to how she pulls all of this together,” says Zimmerman. “The kids all respect her and love her. These children are learning qualities they will carry with them the rest of their lives. Even if they don’t continue on professionally, it’s a tremendous stepping stone, if nothing else.”
Baskin, who gained an appreciation of song from her musically-inclined parents, has been a teacher for 40 years. Currently on leave as music director for Montessori Private Academy, Rockford, she is a member of the Illinois Music Educators Association, National Association for Music Education, American Chorale Directors Association, Organization of American Kodály Educators and American Orff-Schulwerk Association. She has presented for music organizations on state and national levels. Last year, Baskin received the Rockford Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center 2010 Adult Starr of Excellence Award. Her husband, Bill Baskin, a recently retired gastroenterologist, has also been a generous supporter of the choir, donating both time and money. In addition, he sings in three choirs and plays the clarinet.
Many of the children in the choir are also well-versed in other artistic endeavors. Some try the choir for a year, before moving on to another activity, such as dance, theater, swimming or art class.
“That’s great,” she says. “Exploring your interests is what any 9- or 10-year-old should do.”
The Rock Valley Children’s Choir takes part in 10 to 12 community performances throughout the school year. While the performances are rewarding, choir members say the real work takes place during weekly rehearsals. “You’re as weak as your weakest singer,” says Megan Emery, 13, Roscoe. “If one of us is not learning, if one of us is not practicing, if one of us doesn’t know the piece, it’s going to sound sloppy because of that one part.”
Lauren Wilson, 13, an eighth-grader at Winnebago Middle School, joined the choir last summer after taking one year of private voice lessons. Like Lai, Wilson says joining the choir has filled her heart. “I love to sing,” she says. “It’s made me a lot happier. I was afraid to sing in my school choir, afraid of criticism and what people might say. I’m not afraid anymore.”
Her mother, Michelle, has noticed the difference, too, and credits Baskin with building confidence within her daughter. “Mrs. Baskin is fantastic,” she says. “She is motivational and encouraging. Lauren has gained a confidence in her singing that I never thought she would. Mrs. Baskin has given her that gift. The Rock Valley Children’s Choir is the best thing we could have gotten her into.” ❚