The piano waits, silent now. On three risers, empty chairs are staggered, shoved aside, askew. The only noise — besides the lazy “flap flap flap” of a sturdy ceiling fan — is a muffled banging from the theater workshop next door and the sound of a lawnmower somewhere in the distance.
Golden stripes of sunlight stream between the slats of old-school venetian blinds, highlighting dust motes that dance a lazy airborne path. The room has a particular smell, a specific mixture that’s both earthy and refined; ammonia and fresh-cut grass and PB&J mixed together into an ever-so-faint bouquet.
But the sleepy ambiance is temporary. In just a moment, 13 chairs in two rows will fill: seven young women in front, six young men in back. The still air will stir, wakened by laughter and talking and papers rustling and coffee cups draining and backpacks being kicked under chairs. And then, with a glance or a word or the slightest gesture of a hand, the students will snap to attention, open their mouths and sing. And it will sound like perfection.
Some things in life resonate like tuning forks, reverberating through the years and rippling in unexpected directions. By all accounts, the Choral Scholars program is like that: life-changing.
Robert Benda ‘94 is laughing, but he’s not kidding. “I don’t remember the last four years of my current life, but I definitely remember those fours years,” he says. “Those people are what I remember. When I reminisce about college, what I think about is my experience with the group.”
Benda, one of the inaugural members of USD’s Choral Scholars, was on campus for a reunion during Homecoming Weekend. Among the two dozen who opted to come back were those who’d sung together for years in school as well as those from different eras who’d never met one another.
Just like back in the day, they gathered for rehearsal in their familiar stomping grounds, Camino 153, and prepared to sing for the campus community. “We’re excited,” says Kim Farris-Berg ’98. “Because of the common ground, there’s this connection between us. We thought there might be little cliques, but people are gelling together really well.”
“We had heard all about these older members, we knew all about them, but this is the first time that we’re meeting them,” Gina Pavlov ‘98 says with a laugh. “They don’t know anything about us, but we know all about them.”
“For example, Kristi [Kuster] composed all the music that was passed down, so we sang those songs. I knew who Kristi was, but she’d graduated by the time I came along,” Farris-Berg recalls. “But the stories got passed down.”
Supremely self-confident, Kuster sports an effortless cool. After graduating from USD in 1995, she hit the ground sprinting: Now a renowned composer and professor of composition at the University of Michigan, she’s had a commissioned piece performed in Carnegie Hall. The New York Times said she “writes commandingly for the orchestra” and that her music “has an invitingly tart edge.” She recalls her undergraduate days at USD with fervent appreciation.
“Looking back, I can’t believe that experience,” she says. “At the age of 18, it was so incredible to be thrown into it and be singing and performing and just ‘on’ constantly. We were performing all the time — on campus, off campus, it was really remarkable.”
Kuster was tapped as a freshman to join Choral Scholars. “I had a friend that was going to audition, and he said, ‘Why don’t you audition when we’re down there?’ because I was going to accompany him on the piano. The night before the audition, the director, Rob Campbell, called me up and said his accompanist was ill and couldn’t play, so could I sight-read 20 auditions the next day. He had seen on my application that I had a lot of piano experience.” She laughs at her own youthful folly. “To this day,
I really can’t quite believe that I had the nerve at such a young age.”
She wound up being selected as the 11th member of what was originally a 10-member choir, each coupled with a full scholarship endowed by a major gift by the late music lover Agnes Crippin. Although singers aren’t required to be music majors — in fact, an unscientific poll shows a somewhat surprising number of them major in math-related fields — Kuster did ultimately elect to major in music.
“I got lucky because Stephen Sturk came in as a new conductor at the beginning of my junior year,” she recalls. “He made me the student assistant conductor, and he gave me half the rehearsals every week to just do my music. So I wrote pieces and arranged pop tunes for the group, it was like a lab.” And she reveled in the freedom to really stretch her musical wings. “I knew all of these people’s voices inside and out, so I could write something, bring it in, try it out, and if that didn’t work, bring something else. I would never have gotten that at a bigger school.“
Being selected as a Choral Scholar is quite a coup; only a few spots open up each year, and competition is fierce. “We had people from all different areas of campus,” Pavlov recalls. “We were singing all the time. We had two-hour rehearsals every day, most of us were in the university choir and in between we hung out with each other.”
There’s a definite comrade-in-arms mentality among the graduates; they’ve been through something the rest of us can’t quite comprehend. “Musically, we were held to high standards,” Pavlov says, emphatic. She’s a fast talker, which appears to be a fairly common trait among Choral Scholars, past and present. “It wasn’t just that you had to have a certain level of musicianship, it was, ‘You will do the work, you will be prepared before you come into class.’ It was also highly academic in the caliber of the music we were doing at the time.”
Katie Wilson ’94 couldn’t agree more. “There was a very high performance standard. We were there to be the face of USD. We had to take etiquette classes. They actually took us to Aromas and had us study
etiquette because we were going to be sitting with the donors.”
Nods of agreement. “They would teach us what subjects not to touch — you know, avoid politics or religion — and teach us how to gracefully bow out of those,” Farris-Berg recalls. “A lot of the people that we were sitting with were schooled in manners, so we had to be too.”
“Yes, the men were told to stand until the women sat,” Wilson says. “They covered all the bases.”
“Our job was to sing, then charm them and let them see what the students were like. I think when [former USD President] Art Hughes started it, that was his mission,” Farris-Berg remembers. “He wanted us to be ambassadors for the university.”
Ellen Johnson, who was the Choral Scholars’ first vocal coach (“I first interviewed for that job when the program was a twinkle in their eye.”) said that while all of the students loved music, some of them also loved something else. And that was okay; the beauty of the concept was that non-music majors were accepted.
“For me, the importance of that program was that it helped them no matter what they did,” she says. Johnson says she was thrilled to meet up with some of her former students during Homecoming. “It was amazing. I felt like back then they were already the essence of what they’d become, but to see them now was a delight.”
Johnson, who stayed with the program from its inception in 1989 until 1997, thinks that the Choral Scholars served a pivotal role. “They best served the university in a diplomatic way,” she says. “They showed a side of the university in a way that was artistic and professional. All of them were very good at reaching out in a more personal way. “
Katie Wilson continues to tout the program. Now director of both the drama program and glee club of Cathedral Catholic High School, Wilson has worked steadily as an actress in numerous shows throughout Southern California since graduation, as well as writing two original musicals and directing more than 100 shows. She credits much of her music/acting/teaching career to the foundation laid by Choral Scholars.
“I have had so many wonderful influences in my life,” she wrote in an e-mail lauding USD professors and benefactors a few days after the reunion. “They made my education, and ultimately my career in the arts and arts education, possible.”
Johnson recalls that first graduating class of Choral Scholars with equal fondness. “This group was really special, and I’m not saying that just to be nostalgic. I really think that this program is character-building. I really believe that it turns out genuinely good people.”
With youth’s casual, rubber-limbed flexibility, the early arrivals are splayed in implausible postures on the floor outside the classroom. As usual, Camino 153 is locked before rehearsal, but the Choral Scholars’ musical director, Ed Basilio, is expected any minute now. In the meantime, there is conversation about the upcoming weekend, inside jokes and the occasional abrupt trill of song.
Once Dr. B. arrives and unlocks the door, within 90 seconds the 13 singers have arranged themselves in their familiar two-row formation, pulled out heaps of tattered songbooks and fixed their eyes on Basilio. As the students work through some tricky phrasing, the light seems to become a hint more golden, and for an instant, the singers resemble an illustration from an illuminated medieval book.
The voices weave and dance around one another, pure and unadorned, and Basilio urges them on with whatever it takes: facial expressions, swinging arms, imploring fingers. When they finish, 13 pairs of eyes look at him, expectant. “That was great! Great!,” he enthuses. “Right up until we got to that key change.”
With a flurry of performances scheduled for the remainder of the semester — ranging from Homecoming to major donor luncheons to the inaugural Founders Gala — there’s no time to agonize over every error. “Look, if you crash and burn, you just smile and say, ‘Thank you very much,” he tells them. Of course, they won’t crash and burn, at least not so the audience will notice, but nonetheless the students nod, solemn. And then the hour is up, rehearsal is finished, and they gather up their things and scatter as quickly as they came, off to their next obligation.
“Being in the Choral Scholars really matures the students,” Basilio says. He should know: over the past five years, he’s practically become a member of their family. After all, they see one another nearly every day. “By the time they’re seniors, their musicianship gets really sharp. They leave here as high-functioning, professional musicians.” He’s a snappy dresser, and has the seemingly obligatory perfect posture. During performances, he looks at least as sharp in his tux as any of his students.
There have been a number of musical directors over the years — including founding director Robert Campbell and the much-beloved Stephen Sturk — and while the position is funded as part-time, it certainly sounds like a ton of work. There are applications to wade through, and tapes to listen to, and auditions, of course, and the accompanying decisions to be made every year as students graduate and spots open up. There are performances galore, the careful selection of the repertoire, endless rehearsals, and perhaps the meat of the matter, the actual teaching that’s involved. “Foremost, they are a Choral Scholar organization,” Basilio says. “We perform a high-quality, classical choral literature. While some of what we do is entertainment, and requires lighter pieces, the majority of our diet is classical.”
“Dr. B. is very talented, musically,” says Tony Krzmarzick, who earned a double major in Theology and Music in 2008. “He’s a great piano player, and as a director he has high expectations. He’ll push you to try and be your best.”
When new students come in, they have to get up to speed in a hurry. “Sure, they can be intimidated,” Basilio admits. “At first, they feel like they’re drowning in music.” While it can be an emotional experience
to watch the students master their craft, mature and move on, in general he says it’s reminiscent of other life experiences. “By the time they’re ready to graduate, it’s sort of like when your own child goes off to college,” he says with a rueful laugh. “You’re ready for them to leave. I’m sure they’re happy to get away from me too.”
A few days later, Shannon Cajka has managed to find time to talk, but carving out even half an hour wasn’t easy. “We have no life,” she says with a grin. Cajka’s not complaining, just explaining her day-to-day reality. Quick to smile, the fresh-faced junior speaks quickly, perhaps at least in part because of her jam-packed schedule. Or maybe she’s just permanently stuck on full throttle.
“I grew up singing in church choirs and participated in youth community theater,” she explains. “Musical theater is where I really developed my voice. In high school, I switched over to choral singing and fell in love with it. Then I auditioned for the Choral Scholars program during my senior year of high school.”
Although she says that her commitment to Choral Scholars is paramount — “All of your organizations have to know, first thing, that this is going to come first” — she’s managed to join a sorority, serve as an R.A. and be involved with the investors club. Like most of the past and present members of the group, she knows that as much as she loves singing, her career path lies elsewhere.
“We all had the dream at one point. I know when I was at the heart of my musical theater childhood, all I wanted to do was go to NYU and be on Broadway by the time I was 24.” She flashes her million-dollar smile and shakes her head ruefully.
Senior Kate Christman knows all about that dream. “I was in drama, dance, music, all of that,” she says, recalling her childhood. “I was all about character shoes and jazz hands.”
But when it comes down to it, loving music isn’t necessarily enough. “You realize that you have to make a lot of sacrifices for those types of careers,” Cajka points out. “I don’t think I’d be able to function with an artist’s kind of life. But since you’re not required to be a music major to be a Choral Scholar, it brings people together that might not have been able to continue studying music. Getting a Choral Scholarship let me continue doing something that I’m passionate about but don’t necessarily want to make into a career.”
And of course, there are other perks. “We’re like a type of family,” says senior Megan Klarich. “When I was a freshman, we went to Italy, Eastern Europe, France. We performed in Notre Dame, very impromptu, we sang Stephen Foster’s version of “Ave Maria.” Her bright smile lights up her face. “It’s on YouTube.”
Internet aside, that moment is etched deep in memory. “It was something I never, ever thought I’d do coming into college,” she says, eyes a bit dreamy. “Maybe I’d do it later in life, but it just wasn’t the typical experience you’d expect as a college student. ’”
It all translates into life lessons. “Working with these people has forced me into a leadership role,” Christman says. “As a junior, all of a sudden I was a veteran. Every year the group completely changes; it gets a new personality. And that’s the sort of thing that happens all the time, in business and in life.”
Of course, there is some fun to be had as a Choral Scholar. To hear Andy Dahl ’99 tell it, the spring of 1997 was the apex, at least for his particular era. “We were a dynamic group, we had lots of student leaders, and for our annual concert, we did Queen’s ‘Somebody to Love.’” He looks absolutely delighted at the memory. “Stephen Sturk said he’d do the Freddie Mercury solo.” His eyes have a faraway gleam. “That was one of the highlights for me. I’ll never forget it.”
The endowment initially provided recipients with full tuition, but today’s Choral Scholars have about a third of their tuition expenses covered, along with private voice instruction, advanced choral training and ongoing music theory development. While they’re in school, the commitment required of them isn’t just about time, it’s about putting themselves out there, front and center.
“No matter your skill level, once you’re in, there’s a bar level that says, ‘You’re a Choral Scholar, get on the treadmill and go,’” Cajka says. “We have performances right off the bat. My freshman year, I met the scholars, and then within the hour, I sang with them in front of my entire freshman class at convocation. Once you’re in it, you’re in it. “
Established in 1989 through a $1 million endowment from Agnes Crippen, the fair market value of the principal and its earnings has more than tripled. Although the criteria for recipients appear stringent today, alumni say that outside activities were once even more restricted.
“We couldn’t do other things,” Chris Stephens says flatly. “This was our activity.” He’s tall, broad, square-jawed, clear-eyed. Gina Pavlov nods. “Right. We couldn’t study abroad, remember? I was going to do student teaching, but I wasn’t allowed to miss days from Choral Scholars.”
“Sure, you had to make those sacrifices, but Choral Scholars was just as big a commitment as any other sort of activity on campus,” Stephens says. “There just wasn’t time to do both. I gather that’s changed now, that students even take a semester off to go abroad, but maybe they don’t have the same focus as we did.“
Now an eighth-grade algebra teacher, Stephens is — surprise! — supremely busy. Active in the local music scene, a few of his credits include being a member of the chorus of the San Diego Opera since 2000, serving as area rep for the American Guild of Musical Artists, and taking the stage in numerous performances at San Diego’s Starlight Theater and Lyric Opera San Diego.
Like most of the others, for Stephens, singing isn’t just hardwired, it’s as essential as air and sunlight: “I’ve always sung. I started with the children’s choir in church when I was seven and never really stopped. But I also always knew I wanted to work with kids.”
What about the call of bright lights, big city? “I considered a full-time singing career,” he admits. “But you just can’t do that in San Diego. My family is here, and I have no desire to live in L.A. or New York. None.” He smiles, serene that he’s made the right choice.
“Choral Scholars was an amazing experience for me,” he says, intent. “I really want everyone in the program to have the same experience that I had, and I’m worried that the current students just don’t.” He thinks that the current Choral Scholars are missing out on crucial aspects of what made belonging so special. “The group was originally formed to serve as ambassadors of the university, to talk to people, to form a connection across the years.”
Looking back, those days still shimmer. “I felt such a sense of joy and pride then,” Stephens recalls. “We were given the task of making sure that the university’s reputation was upheld. To sit and talk to people like Darlene Shiley and Agnes Crippen and share with them what the experience meant to us … “ His voice trails off. “Well, it really made me so happy. All of us, really.”
Some things never change. For example, warm-up exercises. Whether it’s the rising notes of “mee may maw” or the building scale of “I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,” or the diction-clearing thrum of “bumble bee, bumble bee, bumble bee,” Choral Scholars both past and present have internalized the routine: pay attention to breathing, to posture, to articulation, to volume.
Sure, there’s a certain amount of chatting at rehearsals — mostly between partners — and sophomore Paul Christman sports a mischievous grins when he admits that it’s not all work, all the time. “It’s easier to talk to the people who have the same voice part because you can pretend like you’re going over the music. Plus when you have the same part, you can complain about the same lines.”
But in truth, there is remarkably little complaining. Even though the students have to perform at three events in two days, and it’s the middle of midterms, and they’re trying to, you know, have some kind of social life, they show up to rehearsal on time, every time. And when it’s time to perform? Well, they show up not just at the appointed hour, but all gussied up, the men in tuxes, the women in heels and tea-length cocktail dresses. And when time is really crunched, they have been known to show up in their fancy duds to class. Hey, sometimes a Choral Scholar’s got to do what a Choral Scholar’s got to do.
The alumni have their own memories about the clothes they wore to perform. Some of the women recall unflattering, wrinkle-free sacks that were one-size-fits-all and could be easily stuffed into a backpack. There was a notorious men’s white crew sweater with blue trim and a shield on the chest with a Choral Scholars insignia, now recalled with good-humored disdain. But when Kim Farris-Berg shows up at the IPJ to sing the night of the 2009 President’s Dinner, her floor length gown from her student days still fits her like a glove. Frankly, she looks like a million bucks.
In fact, everyone cleans up nicely. In the room where they’ve gathered to wait for their cue, women have kicked off their high heels, padding about in bare feet, flip-flops, Ugg boots.
“You sound good!” enthuses Jennifer Hollar Halliburton ‘96, cheering on the students who’ve broken into an impromptu chorus. Her eyes are gleaming, lustrous auburn locks glowing. Just like the old days, she’ll be singing a solo alongside her old classmate, Robert Benda, and just like the old days, they’ll be singing Kuster’s composition “One Day.” Kuster manages to simultaneously be both proud of the piece and self-deprecating, noting that it’s been years since she wrote it. “I was very deep,” she explains to the group. “Very, very deep.”
Under Dr. B.’s direction, the two groups merge, form a large circle and introduce themselves. After deciding who will stand where on risers and rehearsing yet again the three songs they’ll be performing during the intimate Homecoming President’s Dinner, they mingle and chat, waiting to be called to perform, ready to go and happy to stay. When the female students offer up an impromptu rendition of “Ave Maria,” everyone stops talking. Some listeners are solemn, some are smiling, more than a few are crying.
“Oh my. You are so beautiful,” says Halliburton. “Oh my.”
The time has come. Hair is smoothed, shoes are swapped, a tidy line is formed, and the group walks down the corridor toward the stairway, all tuxes and taffeta, more than ready, at last, to sing.
After words are spoken — some by Basilio, some by Kuster — the lights dim and the room goes silent. A moment later, the voices meld, coming together, standing alone, breaking apart, rising and falling, returning as one. At this moment, it seems that this particular rendition of “I’ll be Seeing You” may well be the saddest version ever performed (“the children’s carousel/the chestnut trees/the wishing well”), and as the last note fades the audience sighs as one.
And just like that, it’s all over. Time now to kick off those uncomfortable shoes for good. One and all are invited to come hang out at the Mission Beach house that some of the alumni rented for the weekend, tell a few stories, play some Beatles Rock Star, and, no doubt, indulge in a little more singing and a whole lot of laughing.
On the way out of the IPJ, footsteps thunder past. It’s a student, dressed in jeans and sneakers. She’s running full-tilt, her black dress flung over one shoulder. “Got to go!” she hollers. “I’m late!”
“I remember that,” someone says. “I so remember what that felt like. There never did seem to be quite enough time to fit it all in.” Nods all around. Yes. They remember. They’ll always remember. — Julene Snyder