Stetson University’s first children’s singing program has been another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, a former DeLand High School choir director traveling the world is leading the charge to revitalize it.
The Stetson Children’s Choir began in the 1980s and once involved enough singers aged 8 to 18 to encompass three choirs under the direction of Dr. Ann Small.
Through their involvement in choirs, generations of choir students have traveled the world, performed at prestigious concerts, and started a life of music early.
Then COVID-19 hit.
Before the virus changed everyone’s lives, DeLand High School choir director Ross Cawthon had agreed to take charge of the children’s choir. As of March 2020, it had about 25 students. That number had dropped to just two when things picked up again after a year of quarantines and COVID alerts.
As fate would have it, someone else was interested in helping revive the program, and she had just returned to Central Florida.
Former DeLand High School Choir Director, Melinda Fradley, has always had a passion for teaching. In college – at Stetson University – she studied under Dr. Small, the professor who founded the Children’s Choir in the 1980s.
Small died in 2021, and at her memorial — which featured a number of Small’s former students — Fradley realized the late professor’s program was stalling.
“I thought to myself, ‘There are no children here,'” she said The tag.
Fradley had just moved back to Central Florida after some big changes in his life. She left DeLand High School in 2019 to pursue a short-term teaching internship at Beijing City University in China. Upon her return to the United States that summer, she accepted a teaching position in Savannah, Georgia with the Savannah Children’s Choir.
With Fradley’s help, Savannah’s program grew, expanding to involve low-income children who might not have had the opportunity to sing in such a prestigious program otherwise.
When COVID-19 hit, Fradley’s life changed again and she returned to Central Florida to pursue her music teaching career in Orlando.
Now she is motivated and ready to contribute her skills to a program with which she has a personal connection. She will begin with a three-day summer camp program with help from Cawthon, Volusia County Elementary School Music Educator Angie Monahan, and others.
“At its height, there were three choirs,” Fradley said. “There’s a legacy at Stetson that just has to be there.”
It’s not just about inheritance. It’s also a health issue, she and Cawthon said.
Children’s vocal cords can be damaged by extreme voices – high or low – unless children are taught to sing properly from an early age.
“A lot of children’s music – church music, pop music – is too low.”
Yes, Fradley said, it can be fun, but trying to nail those high notes can hurt a child’s vocal chords.
The best thing for young singers, she said, is to have them sing in a range that they are able to naturally master without straining their voices. Through puberty, this range can change from year to year.
“Set them up with the fundamentals,” Cawthon said, “when they get through their voice change, they’ll have healthy habits for life.”
Not only is music a great activity for children, he added, but children can learn in ways that adults cannot.
“At that age, 8 to 12, they’re just sponges,” Cawthon said. “This is when your brain is most open to acquiring language and music. That’s why I’m very passionate about engaging young children.
The revitalized Stetson Children’s Choir will kick off this summer with the Stetson Young Singers Summer Choir Camp July 25-28. Instructors, including Fradley and Cawthon, will mentor students for three days and wrap up the program with a concert at 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 28.
The program will be split in two: Singers aged 9 and over will meet from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the three days. The cost of participation will be $150 per child. Children ages 6 to 8 will meet from 9 a.m. to noon and participation in this program will cost $100.
For students who fall in love with singing over the summer, or anyone else ages 8-18 who wants to join, the Stetson Children’s Choir will start meeting again in the fall.
For more information, visit the Stetson website, HERE, or contact Sara Scarpelli at 386-822-8962.