On January 25, the Colorado Academy Lower School Choir performed alongside dozens of high school and college ensembles at the annual conference of the Colorado Music Educators Association (CMEA) at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. The Fourth and Fifth Grade singers from CA were among only a handful of elementary-age lineups chosen as part of the conference’s slate of Honor Performing Groups, which are selected from across the state annually. CMEA is in the 80th year of hosting its influential meetup at the Broadmoor, where educators come together to share their insight about music instruction and performance.
“This is a really big deal,” emphasizes Lower School music teacher and Lower School Choir director Brenda Bartel. “Not only were we one of the youngest ensembles to perform, but also we were one of the only non-audition groups featured at the conference.” Organizations such as the Colorado Children’s Chorale are represented at the event year after year, Bartel explains—and most admit singers only through a highly competitive audition process.
But CA’s Lower School Choir is open to every Fourth and Fifth Grader who wants to join, she goes on. “The only requirements I set out for them are that you have to show up and you have to love singing.” No surprise, then, that the ensemble has grown every year, attracting an incredible 73 students in this year’s choir. “Last year I had 68, and I thought that was a big number. But I can’t say no when more want to join.”
The CMEA judges who chose CA’s Lower Schoolers to share the stage with experienced high school- and college-age singers and musicians clearly had a hard time saying no when they listened to a recording of the group’s 2023 spring concert during the blind audition process. “We have a really unique sound, a big and bright sound,” explains Bartel. “I think we truly convey the joy and love of music.”
What’s even more remarkable than the group’s size and presence is that Bartel is able to coax so much from students with so little time to rehearse: Her singers meet at most three times in a month, for about a half an hour before their school day begins. “I have a very accomplished helper,” she says to explain her success. In addition to accompanying the students on the piano during their practice sessions, Vocal Music Director Kevin Padworski acts as Bartel’s right hand in wrangling 70-plus Fourth and Fifth Graders during those bright and early rehearsals.
(Padworski himself was recognized by CMEA this year, too: He was chosen as the guest composer and conductor of more than 700 students in the High School Tri-M honor choir and orchestra. Padworski conducted his own new work with the performers, which he wrote specifically for them.)
The two teachers split the ensemble in half most days so that they can spend more time focusing on the details of each piece. Then they come together at the end of rehearsal time so they can experience how the full choir sounds together. “The kids really love hearing those harmonies,” says Bartel, and the result is far more polished than anyone would ever expect from a roomful of 9- and 10-year-olds.
That’s not to say that technical proficiency outweighs other concerns, Bartel adds. “I’m not teaching theory; what we’re really here to do is get excited about making music and performing. I always emphasize the storytelling aspect of what we do—putting a face to the music and expressing something meaningful.”
This year, for the first time, the Lower School Choir has an official place for rehearsals in the rotating daily schedule, ensuring the program continues to be recognized as a marquee arts offering for young performers. In a world where the performing arts sometimes struggle to survive in schools, this is a sign that CA values these experiences more than ever, insists Bartel.
“The students are excited they have the choice to participate in something that’s becoming a little bit of an institution in the Lower School—something with a little prestige attached to it now.”
Like their peers in the Middle and Upper School, CA’s Lower School students love the opportunities they have to be involved—whether in Choir or Student Council, Bartel continues. And as Padworski explains, those students who raise their hand to participate now are the ones who go on in Sixth Grade and beyond to bring their experience and excitement to CA’s many performing groups for older students.
“I love working with these young musicians,” he says. “They are the future of the arts here at CA.”