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The Arts

Why a capella? Why Brattleboro?

How a small town became a hub for choral music

BRATTLEBORO—The groups that joined the lineup for last Saturday night’s ninth annual Collegiate A Cappella Concert might have come from all over the county, but the event is really a local happening, the show’s producer, Dede Cummings, is eager to point out.

“Every group that is performing has a connection to Brattleboro, whether some performer or arranger originated here, or has some other local connection,” Cummings says. “Brattleboro is such a phenomenal musical town.”

Saturday night’s concert at the Latchis had long been sold out, and tickets for last Friday night’s annual High School A Cappella Show at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center were equally tough to get.

The demand to see such area singing groups such as Shoulder Narrows, Spiralia, and Renegade, along with the Brattleboro Union High School Madrigals and Leland & Gray Madrigals, illustrates the almost hysterical popularity of a cappella in this town — popularity that makes it advisable to get one’s tickets early.

A cappella has jumped up the pop-culture ladder thanks to the great success of such television programs as Glee and the The Sing-Off!

But Brattleboro has been well ahead of the curve in embracing a cappella music.

Cummings said it is no surprise that this town would so prescient.

“Brattleboro audiences are very special,” Cummings notes. “They are very sophisticated and discerning. No wonder they embraced the phenomenon of a cappella so early. Our collegiate shows have sold out for nine years.”

She believes that for a town this size, Brattleboro is unique in the diversity and complexity of its music scene. She quickly lists off the musical influence of such institutions as the Brattleboro Music Center (BMC) and the various choruses, including the Brattleboro Concert Choir and Brattleboro Women’s Chorus; plus the strong music departments in the area’s high schools and elementary schools as well as the overarching influence of Marlboro Music.

BMC has just initiated an a cappella program for teens, and Cummings herself is doing an a cappella workshop for some very eager youths at the Boys and Girls Club. New England Youth Theatre taps into this heady environment with its musical theater program, and Cummings notes that “a lot of the kids move from NEYT to many of these other musical ventures.”

In short, the music is everywhere in Brattleboro.

“From a producer’s point of view, it all makes for an audience eager to appreciate and perform a cappella music,” she said.

Cummings believes Brattleboro is filled with many unsung heroes who have contributed to this musical environment. She wants to point out a few.

“In his yearly workshops, Andy Davis, working with very young children at Green Street School from kindergarten through grades 1 and 2, is able to instill a love of music in children at a very young age and to teach them to see such expression as a vital part of their experience.

“By touching them so early, he sets them on a lifelong path of musical discovery. He also is dedicated to reaching out to the underprivileged and needy youth, for he believes music is an important resource for them.”

Cummings also singles out the legendary Mitch Davis, the former chorus director at the Brattleboro Union High School, who did so much to foster a rigorous musical environment for his students.

“He really cracked the whip, but his musical results were impressive,” Cummings said with a laugh.

Five years ago, Mitch Davis retired, yet every year he volunteered for the a cappella show.

“Except not this year,” Cummings adds. “I told him he has done enough,‘Just sit back and enjoy yourself.’”

Becky Graber not only directs the Brattleboro Woman’s Chorus, but also runs many workshops. “She is a very nurturing figure for many many people in Brattleboro,” Cummings says.

Graber particularly seems eager to reach out to children. On her website, she describes her programs for preschoolers and kindergartners as “highly participatory, with seasonal or theme-based songs, stories with join-along parts, and singing games or movement if the setting is conducive to it.”

Susan Dedell directs the Brattleboro Concert Choir out of the BMC, which performs a challenging repertoire that ranges from classic choral masterpieces to rarely heard or newly commissioned works.

Under her direction, the choir commits to a high level of performance standard and musical integrity. Working on the highest musical standards, Dedell also is committed to working with the young children of the community.

“And I must not fail to mention the late Blanche Honegger Moyse,” Cummings says. “She was such a charismatic figure who in some ways set the stage for the musical vitality of Brattleboro singing community. She touched so many people’s lives and has such influence that it would be impossible to overestimate her impact on the Brattleboro cultural scene.”

Cummings also thinks it’s impossible to overestimate the influence of the Amidons.

Peter and Mary Alice Amidon are versatile and widely respected performing and teaching artists who, for the past 20 years, have dedicated themselves to traditional song, dance, and storytelling, Cummings notes.

“New musicians are moving to the Brattleboro area because of the Amidon’s influence,” Cummings said. “Their impact is that great.”

She also adds that there are more unsung musical heroes who would rather remain unsung, people who quietly work behind the scene, guiding, challenging, and supporting the young singers of the area.

One obvious champion of the Brattleboro music scene whom Dede Cummings doesn’t point out is herself.

She was the one who dreamed up the original Collegiate A Cappalla Concert nine years ago and has been a central guiding spirit behind its success each succeeding year. As its producer, she has a hand in choosing who appears and, to some degree, what they might perform.

Cummings herself belonged to an a cappella girl group in high school, but she did not join any group as a student at Middlebury College in the 1970s.

“Only nerds were part of that scene, and I did not want any part of it,” she admits.

“It wasn’t until the 1980s when the scene revolutionized, and a cappella suddenly became hip,” she says. “Men joined, and it introduced the beatbox sound from hip-hop. A whole new world opened.”

Cummings believes that the multiracial and cultural groups of the Collegiate A Cappella Concert are important models for a primarily white place like Vermont.

“It exposes the community to the power of diversity,” she says. “Whether you are gay or straight, black or white, everyone is welcome to this celebration of singing and the human spirit.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #138 (Wednesday, February 8, 2012).

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