She easily fielded questions about teaching and nurturing young people through the decades and handled each with the same polish that she reserves for mastering sheet music.
Then Ruth Dwyer considered the idea of a collection of her former Columbus Indiana Children’s Choir members coming forward at a pair of upcoming Christmas concerts to sing with current members. That’s when her voice cracked. That’s when she struggled to speak over her rising emotion.
“I get teary-eyed thinking of that,” she said of the slated appearances at two Christmas performances of the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic on Dec. 13 at Judson Erne Auditorium in Columbus.
During the 20-year lifespan of the globetrotting ensemble for youngsters from age 6 into their teens, Dwyer has trained young people for life rather than merely prepared vocalists for concerts. She figures she’s worked with 500 to 600 students in the program, which was born in 1996 as a cooperative effort with the Indianapolis Children’s Choir.
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“What immediately comes to mind is how fast it’s all gone,” said the Indianapolis resident and Kokomo native.
Philharmonic Music Director David Bowden launched a precursor of the choir a few seasons before Dwyer, as leaders came and left. Dwyer, now 60, was teaching music in Seymour schools when the Indianapolis Children’s Choir tapped her as its education director. Bowden asked if she’d consider a role as a Columbus choir’s overall leader.
Since that time, she has led choirs, workshops, lectures and more all over the world. In the process, she has escorted the local children’s choir to New York City’s Carnegie Hall, to Washington, to Europe and to Canada.
For starters, Bowden refers to her as a treasure. And the group she leads might be “the only choir in the world” with the chance to routinely perform with a professional orchestra, including one that has earned national honors and accolades, Bowden said.
But as much as Bowden praises Dwyer’s musical, vocal skill, he lauds her nurturing instincts with children who are sometimes shy and struggling.
“There’s no denying that there’s a bond there, especially with those who have been through rough situations. She remembers details about a lot of them when she sees them again, even many years later.”
Dwyer knows adversity and pain firsthand.
Her mother died of long-term Parkinson’s disease and a sister died of a brain tumor within a month of each other in 2008. Another sister and that sibling’s husband died in 2013 at the hands of a drunken driver when out for a first stroll with their 10-day-old grandchild. The baby lived.
The woman who has given her life to music channeled her grief from that tragedy into launching a foundation, Philthrusong Inc., short for Philanthropy Through Song. Through it, she organizes concerts and music festivals to benefit teacher education, anti-drunken driving education and traumatic brain injury research/therapy. Some of the events have featured members of the local choir.
“That’s how I heal,” she said.
Dwyer acknowledged that being a child in today’s world can be challenging. So she makes her rehearsals fun, especially for the youngest singers. Just the other night at a practice with her youngest group, the Preparatory Choir, she kept things moving at a face pace — and literally required her charges to stay on the edge of their seats to stay prepared and focused.
As she prepared to teach them the classic tune, “Frere Jacques,” she told them figuratively, “Put your golf ball in your mouth,” a reminder to spread their lips roundly for fuller sound.
She was business-like enough to quickly stop a first-grader, rehearsing in the first row of singers, from fidgeting with her name tag by playfully reaching out and sticking it to the girl’s wrist. And she was lighthearted enough to get them all tickled even during a serious session on learning to sing a round.
Her diplomacy and creativity work. Moments after these simple interactions, children jumped up and down with excitement when she asked if they wanted to learn more.
“In my 30-plus years of teaching, you learn to pick and choose your battles with kids,” she said. “And I have learned that children want to be challenged.”
Dwyer clearly aims for excellence from her young charges. And some, such as Columbus natives Kate Hamilton and Mary Claire King, have used their elementary school beginnings with the children’s choir to pursue music full time. Hamilton has sung everything from opera to gospel-tinged tunes in and around New York City the past few years. And King, now living in New York City, has sung as part of a major Broadway tour.
“In that choir is really where I first learned to sing properly and to be disciplined,” King said, lauding Dwyer for her passion and high expectations for her performers.
Material for the upcoming concerts includes a piece from noted composer John Rutter, whose work many veteran church choir members consider daunting. But Dwyer finds that young people respond as others expect. And she expects them to eventually use the burgeoning confidence they feel in the choir to have an impact far beyond musical notes.
“Children are the most important people around,” Dwyer said. “And they will change the world.”
The woman with no children of her own regularly considers the choir members as family. Several of the teen singers said that that feeling is unmistakable — at rehearsals, concerts, on trips, you name it.
Listen to Nicholas Kohne, the choir’s volunteer assistant director. He was among students from the choir’s debut season in 1996.
“I still keep in touch with some of them,” Kohne said.
“Well,” 14-year-old concert choir member Kaley Murray said, “we ARE a big family. And we ARE Mrs. Dwyer’s kids. She tells us that all the time.”
Maybe that explains Dwyer’s emotion about the alumni sing-along: Once again seeing the kids, some now all grown up — and at that special time of year when she helped them shine brightest.
Just like Christmas stars.
Role: Artistic director of the Columbus Indiana Children’s Choir and education director of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir.
Regional connection: Taught music in Seymour schools from 1978 to 1992.
Family: Regularly calls her student singers “my kids.”
Education: Music education degree with an emphasis in voice from Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.
Next big moment: Leading the Columbus Indiana Children’s Choir in two concerts with the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic — at 3 and 7 p.m. Dec. 13 at Judson Erne Auditorium, 1400 25th St. in Columbus.
Beyond music: Launched the nonprofit Philthrusong Inc. shortly after her sister and brother-in-law in Seattle were killed by a drunken driver in 2013. Concerts that she organizes and leads help fund the movement.
COMING THURSDAY: Preview of Dec. 13 Columbus Indiana Philharmonic Children’s Concert performances, Thursday in GO!