‘Be the Light’ with the Lower School Choir

Among the many firsts associated with the Leach Center for the Performing Arts this year, November 9 brought yet another one.

This was the first time that all of Colorado Academy’s choral groups sang at one concert. (View photos of all the performers.) The audience showed their excitement by turning out in droves—masked family and friends packed the 500-seat theater.

There were four groups directed by Dr. Kevin Padworski: the Sixth Grade Choir, the Seventh and Eighth Grade Choir, the Upper School Concert Choir, and Chanteurs, an audition-based choir for students who demonstrate superior musicianship and are devoted to choral singing. There was also the Lower School Choir, conducted by Lower School music teacher, Brenda Bartel.

Lower School Choir Conductor Brenda Bartel

Most of the student singers had performed in concerts in past years, but for Bartel’s group, this was another first. With COVID-19 protocols in place last year, these students had never had an opportunity to perform, so this was a first time on stage for them. But what they lacked in experience, they made up for in numbers and enthusiasm.

There are 58 students from Fourth and Fifth Grade in the Lower School Choir—half of the students in the two grades—an extraordinary level of participation. That number is even more remarkable when you learn that the choir did not even exist several years ago—and students have to roll out of bed early to practice before school starts.

But they are devoted, and they know why they are there. As Fifth Grader Lydia Blessing puts it with earnest foresight, “If you want to sing in a choir in college, this is where you start!”

Start small and then ‘do it even better’

Bartel was in her second year at CA when she started the Lower School Choir with 32 students—not bad, she thought at the time, especially since students had to set their alarm early to rehearse before school one day out of every six-day rotation.

By the second year of the choir’s existence, it had grown to 40 students, but those students never even had their spring performance, after CA closed down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, and singing was replaced by silence. Bartel had no idea what to expect when this school year started.

“It’s been so long, I wasn’t sure the younger kids would even remember what a Lower School Choir was,” she says. “I was nervous about what it would look like this year—and then I was very surprised.”

Surprised, because with just minimal promotion, students started pouring into rehearsals. Bartel capped the choir at 58 to ensure that students could maintain a 3-foot separation during their masked rehearsals. The students take choir seriously—they do not miss rehearsal, and they pay attention.

Bartel has a knack for choosing repertoire that is perfect for developing young voices. At the concert, the choir performed “Rattlin’ Bog,” “Seashells Tell Me your Tales” with percussion help from Combo Director & Instrumental Music Instructor Phil Jones, “Can’t Stop the Feeling” from the movie Trolls, and “Be the Light,” which is based on the poem Amanda Gorman delivered at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

Bartel makes singing fun, but she also sets the bar high and expects that students will reach it. They know that and respond to it. Just ask Fourth Grader Emmett Dunn: “I like Mrs. Bartel because when we sing, she says, ‘That was great, but I think you can do it even better.’”

An early-morning rehearsal with Dr. Kevin Padworski assisting on the piano and Phil Jones on percussion

Building a foundation

When Bartel rehearses students, she doesn’t have to worry about also providing accompaniment. Dr. Kevin Padworski assists her at the piano.

“It is huge to have Dr. Padworski as an assistant,” Bartel says. “To have his knowledge, his enthusiasm, and his love for working with students is such a positive thing. And the kids love him.”

For his part, Padworski confesses that he may be motivated by some small level of self-interest. Bartel’s students will be his in just a few years.

“This choir is building a foundation in everything—including how to read music, how to sit in rows, how to sing in parts,” he says. “It’s inspiring to me to see kids who are this passionate about singing, and it’s inspiring for the older kids to know they have to step up and be an example to these younger ones.”

For Bartel, the Fourth and Fifth Graders who race to make it to choir benefit in many ways. They build social and emotional skills by working together in a group. They discover musical strengths they may not know they have. They gain confidence performing on stage. They learn how to read a score, which is the equivalent to learning another language. They learn the basics of choral singing. They have fun—and so does she.

“I look forward to rehearsal days,” Bartel says. “I tell the kids, ‘This has been such a wonderful way to start my day,’ and I always hope that with the positive energy they have as they leave, it will be a good day for them as well.”

View and download more photos of all the performers at the Choir Concert.