Meet YMA’s Choir Directors
Anna Song and Blake Applegate are a married couple that teach and direct the choral program at YMA. They have been with the program for two years and will be returning for their third one this summer. We are very lucky to have such wonderful directors with us at YMA, so here is a Q&A with the two that gives some insight into them and the choral program at camp!
What led you to YMA?
Blake Applegate: This will be our third year at YMA. I had some experience at YMA as a kid, I wasn’t a camper but I was a CIT and a counselor so I knew about the organization when I was contacted, so I knew it was a great place and that I had a wonderful time there. Then I suggested to Galen that rather than just have me do it, it would be better if we did it together and it would really work well and our kids could also attend.
How many years have you been directing?
Anna Song: Around 25 years.
B: It’s about the same for me, and I also sing in a lot of choirs.
What is your background in choir and choir education?
A: I grew up in Southern California in the 70’s and 80’s and they sadly cut all the arts stuff, so I didn’t have music in school, no choir classes or anything. So, my background is a little odd. My first time in a choir was in college actually, my senior year, but I just fell in love with it. I was determined to pursue that after college. My background is very different from most people’s. But yeah, choir just hit home for me and I realized I had discovered what it means to sing and what it means to sing with other people and make music as a community. It was a powerful experience. Whenever I work with young people, it’s in the back of my mind to try and create that for them as well as myself because as a director you’re apart of it as well.
B: For me, it’s a little different. My father was a choral director in Portland and I grew up with music all the time, especially in church where he ran a choir that I now run called Cantores In Ecclesia, which is a choral organization that’s been around for 35 years now. I’ve been directing it for about 10 years since he retired. Before his retirement, we toured Europe together and I would direct and help with the children’s choir and give them instruction and kind of be his assistant. Music has always been apart of my life, especially choral music. Because of the type of music that we did, a lot of renaissance and very early acapella music, I just fell in love with that sound of voices together, unaccompanied, and just the purity of the choral sound.
What is so special about choir to you?
A: I think the human voice is the most beautiful and most direct way to make music. It’s the most personal. It makes me think of the saying, “if you can talk, you can sing.” It’s so inherent to who we are as a species, it’s part of our humanity. I know our society doesn’t communicate that message- it’s more about who’s “talented” and who can do this or that and that kind of thinking, and I’m really opposed to that. It’s really destructive to allowing people to express themselves and allowing people to express themselves. That’s the number one reason, just that people singing is such a powerful form of expression. But then, choral singing brings together different people from different walks of life, different experiences, and different identities to come together and sing as one. It’s something that can unite people in a very powerful way that I believe can transform not only the singer, but also the listeners. Essentially, it creates beauty to make the world a better place and to change ourselves and the world. I don’t think there’s anything more worthy to dedicate my life to.
B: To add to that, if you think about why people have sung in choirs over the ages, it’s usually about community. It’s either about your faith or your culture, it’s not necessarily about performing, it’s about coming together as a community. People do it when they’re oppressed or joyful as a community. So, I mean, that builds onto the community aspect of choral singing is unlike a lot of other musical disciplines. As a choral singer, you don’t just go into a practice room and practice, practice, practice, you have to sing with other people to make it happen. You have to have that community.
Do you think that community aspect is reflected in the YMA choral program?
A: We’re getting there. It’s a bit more of a challenge because the age range is so wide; we have fourth graders all the way through college. That’s something that we aim to foster and create.
B: It happens partially through the aspect of a family. We have different age groups and we help each other. The older people have to learn to be patient with the younger and the younger have to step up a little bit with their maturity and look towards the older for an example. We’ve got different age groups working well together. In that respect, it’s very positive. Sometimes it’s difficult, because it might be too difficult for a younger person and not advanced enough for some of the older kids, but there’s an internal mentoring that happens and it’s what we hope for and it’s something we can build on.
A: The challenge that falls upon us is to pick the right music that is interesting to all levels regardless of age and experience. It’s a different kind of challenge from most choirs because most youth choirs usually have closer ages grouped together. We both have experience working with kids of all ages in our backgrounds, so between the two of us, I think we’re learning how to do this really well at YMA and its structure with rehearsing three times a day and basically living together for two weeks.
How have you seen the YMA choral program impact kids and how have you seen kids change over the two weeks? Have there been returning campers that you’ve seen change over your two years at YMA?
B: I definitely think there’s a lot of growth you see from the kids because of the intense schedule that we have. Like Anna was saying earlier, we have rehearsal three times a day and each session is about an hour and a half long, and then we see each other in the evenings or at lunch or dinner. We can see how those people that have been there for two years have matured and it’s nice to watch that and see how they’ve grown as a singer and as an individual. The other day we saw a camper at our kid’s swim meet and she came up and said “Hey! Can’t wait until YMA, I’m so excited to be back there with you guys!” So, that’s something that’s really cool. We’ve been listening to the recording from the last year and getting really psyched!
A: We’ve definitely had kids come back from the first year to the second year and other people who’ve been telling their friends and brought friends the second year, so that’s been really exciting. It’s great to watch how someone has developed, not only vocally, but as a young person and watch them come into their own and maybe take on more leadership in the group. For instance, one baritone is coming back again this year and now he’s going to be a counselor, so we’re really excited to see him embrace that role and excited to see how he’ll help us and contribute to making the group what it will be.
What is a memory that has stuck with you from YMA?
A: There’s so many!
B: Yeah, so many things have happened outside of the work time, you know. We’re making music but also the social aspect of it is very positive always. People are helpful, people are playing games in the quad, all different kinds of people, and there’s events like the boat race which are super fun. It’s nice to have that balance between the seriousness of what we’re trying to do with the music but also a real sort of warm quality of taking part. The faculty is very positive and encouraging of one another, which is great. I can’t think of one particular memory but the whole experience and the positive vibe is so great.
A: There’s all these memories flooding into my head; I don’t know if I can choose one. There’s so many exchanges with students and so many instances of watching them perform and overcome stage fright. Before the meals, all the kids hold hands and sing, and to watch and hear how that song changes from the first day to the last day and how they don’t want to let go by the end, even though they’re really nervous in the beginning, especially the ones who don’t sing. It’s just a beautiful thing and I know that so many kids feel like they have really found a place where they can be themselves and it speaks volumes about what YMA does for the people who come- not just students but faculty as well. It’s great and in our day where everyone has cell phones and is constantly distracted, it’s nice to just be there and make music and eat and sleep. The bonds that are created are like no other and it really makes an impact on these lives, I can see that on their faces and the way they talk about it at the end.
How do you teach together and what is that like?
A: Before YMA begins, we select songs and divy up who is going to direct what pieces. Depending on the song, the other person who isn’t directing will sing. During the actual rehearsal process, we’re either doing that singing while the other person conducts or we’re splitting up into sectionals so we’re both teaching different groups. It just depends on what’s needed and it evolves. Sometimes one of us will jump on the piano; we just do whatever is needed to support the other person when they’re in front. In addition to teaching them the repertoire, we try to incorporate musicianship, sight reading, and music theory. We’re excited this year that we’re bringing in a vocal coach because when we’ve done small group voice lessons, it’s hard to do that with just the two of us, but now we’ll have one more person! She’s a Willamette University grad so that will be fun! She’s awesome. You know, students really need individual attention as well as working in a large group.
How would you describe your teaching and directing styles?
B: I think we’re both pretty adaptable and we try to listen. When we are introducing a piece, we both like to give historical perspective or go into the text and dig deep into the piece before performing it. The more they understand how the music is put together, the form of it, the history behind it, and the composer, I think it helps them appreciate it on a deeper level when there’s context with the music rather than just taking a random piece and performing it. Our goal isn’t to just have them learn 20 pieces of music, it’s to have them really dig into maybe 10 and then spend other time working on sight reading. We’ve heard from the kids every year that they want to work on being better musicians too, so maybe sight reading or we might have pieces that we don’t even perform but we just use as a tool.
A: We try to make it as collaborative as possible. Through the rehearsal process, trying to get students to feel ownership of the music is something that I try to do so that, in terms of expression or what something means or phrasing. We’ll ask them “Oh what do you think about this?” We want them to be keyed in to what we’re trying to accomplish together. Obviously a choir-conductor relationship can only be so democratic because at the end of the day someone has to make the decision. When we can, we want to incorporate their ideas and have them understand and feel that it’s what they want to accomplish and what they want to express. We definitely want them to connect the meanings of songs to their experiences, so that’s something that we definitely do, especially once a piece is learned in terms of the technical stuff. We ask, “What in your life connects you to this piece?” “How can we have an emotional connection?” Trying to unify not only our voices, but our hearts and our minds too is our goal.
What is the main piece of advice or the main thing you’d want them to take away from their time with you?
A: One of my big things is to just do your best. I know that’s so cliche but at every moment, to always be doing your best is so important. And just to sing! Just sing from your heart and to make music and believe in the power of singing and the power of singing together and just to connect and be present.
B: To be able to sing and be able to sing together as a group is a gift that we have and it’s a gift not just for ourselves but we need to share that with people. When we perform, it shouldn’t be about what we’re getting out of it because we get a lot more when we’re giving. It’s the spirit of pouring yourself into something and realizing that you’re going to be vulnerable when you’re really working hard and doing your best, but it’s such a great gift when people see you perform and they can capture that quality of giving and sincerity. Choral music communicates at so many different levels to so many different people. I think we should feel great honor that we are able to do this.
Some quotes have been edited for clarity.