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2005-02-12 - 3:35 p.m.

A Teachable Moment

I recently sang the praises of the Davis High School Madrigal Choir’s 36th annual Holiday Dinner. They sang with clarity and crispness as a group; the solos for the most part were extraordinary. Costumed in exquisite traditional Renaissance velvets, beribboned and brilliant, the young men soloists doffed their hats and the lassies curtsied after each performance.

Thirty-two years ago when my son was in Madrigals, the costumes of the girls were made from the same basic pattern, a slightly scooped neck and the main part of the dress a solid color – it might have been velvet or corduroy; the sleeves were similar prints of coordinating colors. The young men wore tunics with tights. We didn’t have meetings to determine colors or patterns. No committee approved or disapproved of either colors or patterns. In fact, I don’t think there were any parent committees. Somehow, the group under Mr. Brunelle’s direction won awards, took spring tours up and down the Coast, and enjoyed performing at schools and churches along the way. They also put on the Madrigal Dinner as a fund-raiser and performed for parties and groups, who often made donations, which apparently paid for their expenses on their tours. The choir was smaller – sixteen singers in all, so expenses were fewer, I suppose. [My son, Mark, is on the far left, back row.]

This leads me to my concerns of what appears to be a recent trend the group has taken. Although quite lovely and diverse, the costumes are exorbitantly expensive. They are complicated and certainly not something the novice mother seamstress can whip up in an afternoon. The cost to have one made professionally is in excess of $1000, plus fabrics and trim. It is not unusual for the materials to run plus or minus another $1000.

As I recall, the expenses of the tour my son’s group took were minimal, since they either stayed at dorms, youth hostels, or at homes of hosts; whatever the expenses, they were, as I recall, covered by the fundraising they had done during the earlier part of the year. This year, in addition to the money the group has earned through fundraising, each student is being asked to pay an additional $1,400 for their Spring Break tour.

To help fund the Spring Break trip to Washington, D.C. and New York, where they will sing, as well as go to see an Opera and a Broadway play, the group (parents and students) sponsored a huge garage sale in the school district parking lot across from Farmers’ Market. They also raised substantial amounts of money through the silent auction at the Madrigal Dinner, as well as dinner tickets. The students have performed throughout the community in octets, double octets, or the whole choir, each performance adding to the coffers. As grandparents, we donated several items to the auction.

Families were told at the beginning of the year that there would be scholarships for any child whose family could not afford the full price of the costumes and/or tour, yet no mechanism has been forthcoming for such applications. In fact, at a recent meeting, parents were blatantly discouraged to apply for one with the admonition, “The funds we’ve earned will be divided equally between the students after scholarships have been given. So remember, if your child gets a scholarship, it will be at the sacrifice of other families in the group.”

Many of the students in the choir come from affluent families for whom $4,000 for this in-school activity may not be a hardship. My concern is for the talented student who may not even audition for this choir because of the expense that would have to be incurred. And what of the student, who needs to apply for a scholarship, but will be embarrassed because of the stigma implied. What of the family, who will have to forgo a family vacation this summer, so that their child can go on tour with the choir? What of the values that are being distorted?

I’m remembering back to Mark’s choir, and specifically, a brother and sister from the same large family, for whom $1000 a piece would have precluded their participation; they both went on to become professional musicians, both profiting from the training they got from Dick Brunelle in Madrigal Choir. I would venture to say that for over half of the choir of that year the kind of expense being incurred by this year’s choir would have been prohibitive.

I wonder if the planners of Madrigal activities and costumes are so affluent they are failing to think of the financial burden this may be for those not so well-off, perhaps for single-parent families or those who are going off to college next year or the year after. These are teachable moments. Our children learn their values from the adults who guide them. Some consideration for those values, and thus the expenses incurred, could be addressed as plans for tours are being made: youth hostels or inexpensive hotels/motels rather than top of the line hotels, for instance. What was initially a small group of talented vocal musicians, who grew under the direction of a devoted teacher, has grown into a parent-driven activity. There is glamour and glory attached to trips to New York, London, the Vatican, for certain, but they must not be magnified to the extent that fundamental values are buried, leaving common goodness and thoughtfulness behind. We live in an affluent community, but not all are as fortunate as the many. The many must be sure that the few are not left behind.

The inherent cost of being a member of the Madrigal Choir, which is a regular classroom activity, albeit one for whom a student must audition, is exorbitant. This not an after-school activity, such as football, track, water polo, etc. Once one is in the choir, they are in the class. The costume is not an option; activities are not an option. Only those who have an extra $4000-5000 they can expend for this class may enroll? Only the affluent may apply?

In the future, I will earmark for a scholarship fund any donation I make to the group. I would encourage others to join me in this enterprise, so that no child will be denied the privilege of participating, based on financial need. I would hope that a scholarship fund could be established, perhaps under the auspices of the Davis Arts Foundation, separate and apart from the Madrigal Choir. There should be no stigma attached and no idea that other students will be deprived in any way because of a stipend given to scholarship applicants. The scholarship fund would/could be apart from the regular fund-raising ventures of the group, although one would hope that a percentage of all such fundraising could be set aside for the scholarship fund.

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