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Peace & Harmony

Building traditions with American Music


"Acknowledge your applause, stand straight and smile. Do you need to wave?" Hruska says, sitting with her fingers poised over the keys of her black piano. The chorus replies "No," and Hruska's fingers tickle the opening notes of "Alexander's Ragtime Band." During the song, Hruska directs the timing and tempo, while keeping control of her talented and energetic bunch.

"All come from different backgrounds —I have to make them gel as a group," she says. Her challenge lies in creating a cohesive ensemble outside of the typically structured school atmosphere. But Hruska makes this effort appear flawless and engages the children as if they were adults. "All eyes should be on the director. You have to watch." Although the kids sometimes try to talk over her, she brings them back to focus with a quiet, "You need to know when you're singing, please."

Hruska also unites the group by taking advantage of their many talents. She incorporates accompanying instruments and basic choreography throughout the performances. During rehearsal, the kids use tambourines, blocks, triangles and an assortment of other simple instruments to accentuate certain words and verses of "Dry Bones". She finishes the rehearsal with the upbeat song, "We Go Together," and the group begins snapping, swaying, hand-jiving, clapping and shaking their hips in time with the beat.

The excitement generated from the last song keeps the kids laughing and talking about their next show as they make their way around sets and statues to leave the rehearsal area.

"It's hard to describe in words (how I feel) whenever I sing," says Libby Boswell, age 10, who signed up for the chorus last year. Although she has sung in several programs, her favorite is when the chorus entertained at the Masonic Home. "My cheeks hurt from smiling. It was nice to make them happy."

Emma Grimsdale, who will be 10 in December, agrees. Grimsdale, who also joined in the initial year after seeing an ad for auditions in the paper, says she sings to "inspire others" and express herself.

The girls affirmed that one of the best parts of the group was the positive effect that their singing has on the audience, though both admit to some stage fright.

Mary Jordan Cannon, who is almost 10, echoes that sentiment. "I usually have butterflies before a show. But they go away and everything is OK as long as I try my hardest."

Boswell agrees. "If you sing your best, no one's going to care if you mess up, because you tried." She goes on to emphasize, "And if you sing, you should sing loud."

All three of the girls are involved in several other activities from sports to art, but all enjoy singing for a variety of audiences and they plan to continue to be part of the group.

Hruska encourages her students to be involved with many activities and is forgiving when members of the chorus have previous commitments. However, she diligently expresses the importance the chorus and the theater play in the lives of her students and in the community. She sees it as her responsibility to teach kids all aspects of the arts. "We have to pass it down," she states. "If they aren't introduced to the arts, it isn't familiar. Kids need to become aware of live theatre, orchestras and operas so they can be good consumers when they are older."

After 22 years of teaching in private schools, Hruska returned to her first love, musical theater, and founded the chorus in the fall of 2001. Her extensive performance background includes involvement with touring shows and local dinner theaters. Her performances with American great Fred Waring probably helped shape the choral group's current theme of "American Music".

As Hruska looks toward the future, she believes growth in the performing and cultural arts community is of critical importance. Sitting there, after rehearsal, Hruska sighs, "I just don't want to see our audiences die."

Hruska's primary goal for the chorus was to involve the kids with local theatre and encourage awareness of the arts. She cites the program as a work in progress, but already can tout several accomplishments. Her greatest success? "To be back for a second year," she says, with a laugh, adding, "For the kids, this is an outlet for them to express themselves."

She hopes to grow the group to 30 students and to add more community performances to the repertoire. Already, the children perform at the theater at the end of their semester and have also performed for residents at the Masonic Home and in the lobby of the Empire Theatre before this fall's performance of "Charlotte's Web." Next month, Richmonders have the opportunity to see the chorus perform live at the Jefferson Hotel Tree Lighting in the Rotunda December 2 at 5:30 p.m.

The Barksdale Children's Chorus auditions children between the ages of 9-15 with unchanged voices two times per year. The next auditions are January 7 at 4 p.m. at the theater (1601 Willow Lawn Drive, Suite 301-E). For more information on the chorus call the Barksdale's business office (282-9440) or check online at www.barksdalerichmond.org. Information about shows and programs is also available online. FS

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