A girl thing: Area choirs gather to heal and empower

Burley Middle School Choral Director Craig Jennings has assembled a community-wide group of young women to perform at Winter Songs, a concert to unite and inspire in the wake of recent events. Photo: Michael Johnson. Burley Middle School Choral Director Craig Jennings has assembled a community-wide group of young women to perform at Winter Songs, a concert to unite and inspire in the wake of recent events. Photo: Michael Johnson.

Craig Jennings didn’t know Hannah Graham. But last fall, “after she disappeared under the eyes of cameras on the Downtown Mall, I couldn’t stop thinking about what her family was going through,” said Jennings, the choral director at Burley Middle School. That feeling grew stronger as days turned into weeks, and Jennings watched his students struggle to articulate their feelings of fear and confusion while they tried to understand what had happened. As an adult and a teacher, Jennings said he sometimes felt helpless because he couldn’t answer the kids’ questions about how and why this tragedy occurred in Charlottesville.

The more he thought about it, the more Jennings realized he needed to do something. So last fall he reached out to area choir directors and proposed an all-women concert where each ensemble performs a piece or two of its own, and everyone joins together at show’s end to sing the final number. Jennings told his colleagues he envisioned an evening of “music, encouragement, inspiration, belonging and empowerment.”

On Saturday, January 17, hundreds of female singers from Albemarle County, Charlottesville and the University of Virginia will gather at Monticello High School for Winter Songs, “a concert of sisterhood, song and healing,” the profits from which will benefit the Shelter for Help in Emergency (SHE).

In addition to “raising an enormous amount of money for SHE,” Jennings said he hopes the event, which will begin at 2pm when singers gather to socialize and rehearse ahead of the 5pm concert, will be “one of those oh-my-gosh days that will go in everyone’s lifetime scrapbooks.”

Jennifer Morris, Albemarle High School’s choral director, is bringing two ensembles—No Fella A Cappella and Take Note! —to MHS on Saturday. She said she’s looking forward to the day because “all-female ensembles can be the most powerful of groups. Treble music has such a different aesthetic; there is a strong emotional connection between the girls that is unique.”

Thirteen-year-old Sarah Garretson agrees. A member of the girls-only Burley Bearettes since sixth grade, Garretson has come to rely on “the huge sense of friendship and trust in the group. We know we can be ourselves and that we’ll be supported, no matter who we are.” She said the Bearettes are excited about singing in the show, “even though we’re coming together because of something sad.” But she quickly added that “music can help people feel better,” and the concert is a good way to emphasize girl power.

Cartie Lominack, executive director of SHE, said the age group that is participating in the event is an important one to reach. “Working with Craig opens up the opportunity to inform young women about what healthy relationships look like, and the signs to pay attention to if one is feeling unsafe,” she said.

Lominack added that a concert is also a good way to remind the community about the issue of domestic violence and the services offered by SHE, which include a 24-hour hotline, emergency shelter, counseling, legal advocacy and court accompaniment, and programs for children and teens. To date, Winter Songs has raised more than $500 for SHE through a capital campaign, and while admission to Saturday’s concert is free, donations will be accepted at the door.

When Jennings approached KaeRenae Mitchell, director of the Virginia Women’s Chorus, about participating in Winter Songs, she immediately said yes because “music can be a powerful healer when it embraces a person’s spirit or soul or emotional body, as well as the intellect. That potential, combined with the voices of young women, can move and unify people, and bringing the choruses together from different schools will, in and of itself, create and foster community.”

Mitchell suggested the show’s name when she learned that Jennings was working on an arrangement of the Ingrid Michaelson/Sara Bareilles duet “Winter Song,” which the entire group will sing to conclude Saturday’s show. “There are several lines from the Bareilles/Michaelson song that convey strong imagery of using our voices to inspire and embolden,” she said. “My voice, a beacon in the night/my words will be your light,” for example, and “I’ll be your harvester of light and send it out tonight.”

Despite the serious and somber genesis of the Winter Songs concert, Jennings emphasized the informality and joyfulness of the evening, comparing it to TV’s “The Sing-Off” because as each ensemble takes the stage to perform, there won’t be anyone backstage; everybody will be out front, watching and cheering. “I want the audience to laugh and cry,” he said. “We often can’t answer how or why things happen, but maybe a day for sharing art and community, a day that’s about the commonalty of music, will help us cope.”

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