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Eric Stark had two things in mind when he asked choral students at Columbus North High School to turn to their right and rub the shoulders of the person in front of them.
For one thing, back rubs, breathing exercises and consonant drills wake the body and prepare it to perform to its potential before the real singing begins, Stark said.
For another, attention-grabbing techniques help performers relax, shake off nerves and have fun with their music.
Stark, artistic director of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir and professor of music at Butler University, visited Columbus East and Columbus North high schools this month to stress to young musicians the importance of choral singing and how that music can change people.
Stark is a former North student and the son of Sherry Stark, whose roles have included director of the Columbus Area Arts Council, director of community relations for the city of Columbus and president of the Heritage Fund: the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County.
Eric Stark has made his own mark in music. He conducts the Butler Chorale, teaches graduate and undergraduate conducting at Butler and has earned critical acclaim for leading more than 300 vocalists in the “Grande Messe des Morts” (Requiem) by Hector Berlioz, according to Butler University’s website.
What brought Eric Stark to Columbus this month was no accident. He reached out to East Choir Director Ken Hauan and North Choir Director Janie Gordon by his own initiative, he said, because he loves music and loves Columbus.
It also helped that he already knew both directors. He went to graduate school with Hauan in the late 1980s, he said, and knows Gordon through his mother.
Eric Stark’s first visit was to East the afternoon of Sept. 17, where the school’s Center Stage Show Choir sang for him the song “With You” by Stephen Schwartz.
He held his eyeglasses in his hand as he looked over the students, nodding approvingly and occasionally interjecting such words as “good” and “nice” to describe their sound.
Still, Eric Stark knows the sound could have been better. So he warned the performers he was about to challenge them to step outside their comfort zones in different ways.
“Stand up,” Eric Stark told the performers.
He explained to them the value of good posture and of holding their heads straight to maximize breathing and sound.
He had them imagine their forefingers were the wicks of a flickering candle. He had the students blow on their fingers enough to bend the imaginary flames, but not enough to extinguish it, emphasizing the value of controlled breathing.
Then he had them make eight “F” sounds in a row. Then eight “V” sounds. Then he had them alternate between those and other consonants to exercise their face muscles.
Then the students sang “With You” again — even better than before.
Choir members appreciated the advice.
“It’s awesome to hear an outside perspective,” said Anna Guse, a junior at East. “I feel like I learned something.”
Eric Stark’s next visit was to North the morning of Sept. 23, where the school’s 25th Street Singers jazz choir impressed the visitor with their voices and harmonies.
But again, there was room for improvement.
As he did at East, Eric Stark emphasized the importance of good posture and asked the performers to imagine a ceiling-tethered string attached to the tops of their heads.
He had the performers warm up by massaging one another’s backs. He then had them roll their shoulders, take deep breaths and rattle off the same kinds of consonant drills that the director had used at East.
The rapid-fire consonants had the performers feeling the effort in their jaws, lips, tongues, diaphragms and abdominal muscles.
Eric Stark also emphasized the need to feel the lyrics. To understand the tone of the song. To act alive with their expressions, hands and feet to bring their singing to another level.
North students appreciated the advice.
Micaela McDowell, a junior, said she found it valuable to hear someone with an outside perspective emphasize the same points that she has heard before from Gordon.
Jacob Rudzinski, a sophomore, said he liked that Eric Stark broke down his advice into parts. He said he would use that advice in practice so he can be the best he can be.
Eric Stark said he got at least as much out of his visits to the two high schools as the students themselves.
He said his insistence that they try “goofy things” and step out of their comfort zones helps him connect with them.
The visitor closed his visits to both schools with an invitation to the students to come to Butler to check out its music program. He left them with some literature and the wish that they continue singing no matter what they ultimately decide to do with their lives.
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