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On the Mark: Passion, practice rule music contests


April 2, 2021

Ann Markusen

MaryRose Varo accompanies Tanapon Rungkittanasan during a recent performance at Cromwell-Wright School.

A goodly share of Cromwell-Wright High School students participate in vocal music every year. It's an art form requiring intensive individual work and attentiveness to instruction as well as the challenges of singing with others. Each learns about his/her own voice. Its range and clarity. How to memorize the pieces. How to breathe and sustain notes through slow passages. How to feel and convey the mood of each composition. How to modulate between powerful, often high, and passionate notes, and quiet, gentle stretches.

Opportunities to sing together and for the public have been diminished under the pandemic. But this school year, music director MaryRose Varo figured out how to safely teach one-on-one and collectively. Her curriculum includes voice strengthening (posture, warm-ups, individual and group lessons), rhythm strengthening (including body beats, bucket drumming), music reading (notation, games, quizzes), composition, and creative development.

For a third winter, I've been rehearsing with the students and MaryRose for both Contest, the regional competition that is usually held in Duluth, and recitals for local audiences. It's been exciting. More students than ever have signed up to sing solos and duets. The floor of my living room is scattered with scores that I'm practicing on the piano. This year, Contest is decentralized, ours was held in Cromwell-Wright school with an external judge presiding. We also performed recitals last week for limited audiences of family and friends.

MaryRose chooses the pieces for each student: duets for twosomes, and high-energy pieces for ensembles, matching mood, challenge and range to the voices. This year's duets include Andrea Pocernich and Natalee Hakamaki singing "All Night, All Day," a fast-paced swing version of a traditional spiritual. Katherine Libbon and Andrea Pocernich share a floating "Amazing Grace." Daniel Belden and Katherine Libbon sing Marta Keen's "Homeward Bound," a gorgeous piece that the whole choir sang last year for Contest.

Varo often assigns vintage American, English and Irish folk songs for soloists. This year, Aurora Gervais sings "The Water is Wide." Nika Tkachenko sings "Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier," Michael Zoeller sings "Shenandoah," and Daniel Belden sings "Down by Salley Gardens." Andrea Pocernich solos with "Oh Danny Boy."

Brave soloists are tackling ambitious arias in other languages. Alaina Lind sings the Italian Giuseppe Giordani's "Caro Mio Ben." Josh Lindman sings "Santa Lucia" in both Italian and English. Katherine Libbon sings the challenging "Vittoria, Mio Core" in both Italian and English as well as "Sebben, Crudele," an emotional, fast-paced canzonetta by Antonio Caldara, in Italian.

Ann Markusen

Gracie Foley and Aurora Gervais sing a duet.

Two of the five choir concert pieces, to be performed later this spring, are gorgeous. The students are singing Momoshiki Ya, in "This Ancient House," a lush Japanese poem, sung first in Japanese and then in English. My taped-together copy runs 10 pages, a formidable page-turning challenge. After practicing it for some weeks, it's been a thrill for me to hear the choir's layered voices spilling out above the piano's chords. "Bless the Broken Road," about a fraught but successful journey to love, is equally moving but in an entirely different mood.

Regrettably, the recitals were not open to the public. The Cromwell-Wright auditorium

is small, so the audience was made up of family members and friends, adequately spaced. But life is long, we hope, so we can look forward to more powerful and joyful singing in the months to come with plenty of enthralled listeners.

Columnist Ann Markusen is an economist and professor emerita at University of Minnesota. A Pine Knot board member, she lives in Red Clover Township north of Cromwell with her husband, Rod Walli.


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