Leaving big impact on small voices

Western Plains creates quality experience for kids

Submitted Photo Rebecca Petrik, director, Western Plains Children’s Choirs

Rebecca Petrik’s announcement in December that she will be retiring this spring as director of the Western Plains Children’s Choirs came as sad news to the young singers who’ve blossomed under her disciplined but nurturing style.

Calling the opportunity to work with the children’s choirs “my dream come true,” Petrik invested her heart and soul into the program over the past 10 years.

“I wanted it to fly. I wanted it to thrive. It’s been my baby,” Petrik said.

She and choir sponsor, Western Plains Opera Co., hope to find a new director with a similar passion.

“She will be impossible to replace in terms of that generous, welcoming, incredible positivity she shows to everyone,” Erik Anderson, Minot State University Music Division chairman, said of Petrik.

The program needs someone at the top who is organized, can effectively critique and work with the other directors and has a desire for quality and what’s best for the choirs, and Petrik has been admirable in those areas, he said.

“She is a person that is absolutely on the side of kids. It’s definitely not about her,” Anderson said. “I admire so much the way Rebecca is dedicated to the positive experience of the kids and their growth as musicians. It’s evident she is not simply interested in the performance only – that is, teaching by rote. She’s very interested in skills, how to work together as a group, learning for future performances.”

Petrik also has embraced the choir’s larger role in the community, performing at community events and nursing homes, Anderson said.

“That’s an important part of the identity of the group and gives kids a taste of the community,” he said.

Petrik was teaching elementary music at Burlington-Des Lacs when Sandra Starr, Western Plains’ first director, asked her to help with fall auditions in 1991. The experience had Petrik burning to have a children’s choir of her own to direct.

“Right after the auditions it was proposed that all the kids who didn’t make it into her choir could be kept for a second choir. So I worked with all the kids who didn’t make it into Western Plains choir, and we called them the Junior Choir,” she said.

When she transferred to teach at Velva High School, Petrik stepped away from Western Plains for several years. She returned when she became an instructor at Minot State University in 2008.

She initially directed a small group of third graders. The next year she took over the junior and middle choirs. Jessica Graf was building a older group, and when she left, Petrik volunteered to keep that group going while continuing to work with the middle group.

Petrik said she eased herself out of the middle group, turning it over to Jonathan Clark, to focus on the oldest chorusters. That oldest group directed by Petrik now consists of about 50 youth from eighth grade through high school.

“I have kids who have been in Western Plains for 10 years, so we have kids who have been with the program and stayed with the program and I don’t have to train them. They already know how to sing. It’s been heaven. Every one of them comes because they love it so then they give everything to it,” Petrik said. “They want to make music.”

The choirs have been life changing for students influenced to pursue music degrees or who say the music saved them during times of depression. For each participant, the experience stretched them musically.

Junior choir director Jerlyn Langemo said Petrik pulls her students along with her energy and passion for a piece of music. In the same way, Langemo said she’s been motivated to spread her wings by following Petrik to educational conferences and in watching Petrik challenge herself. She recalled Petrik’s decision to teach her students to sing in eight parts.

“That’s a challenge for high school kids,” she said. “But it was musically interesting and also a piece that the meaning of the music touches the soul, and so she said yes.”

Langemo added the music brings children out of their shells. She tells of a young singer who barely could muster the confidence to complete an audition for the children’s choir. Now she enjoys performing for people and has had no hesitation to try out for community concert or talent show.

“It took so much for her to put herself out there and now she’s very comfortably at ease in sharing with adults what she’s got in mind for her little musical world,” Langemo said. “We just see that kind of growth with kids.”

The choirs will experience a double loss this spring with the departure of Langemo. Langemo is in her fourth year of directing, having been recruited by Petrik.

As an administrator, Petrik’s duties include scheduling auditions, school tours and social events held on the side to let choir members get better acquainted and have fun. The socials started when a student suggested a swimming party, and they have continued every year. Petrik also arranges for concerts, including costuming and selecting music.

“We do music that’s just all over the map. We have done very classical. We have done popular. We have done a lot of Broadway or musicals,” Petrik said. In recent years, their repertoire has included music from around the world. They performed Haitian music at a benefit concert for a Haitian orphanage.

The choirs create opportunities for music education majors at MSU to get hands-on experience working with young singers. J’Kobe Wallace, an MSU student, worked with the Western Plains Youth Ensemble last year.

“These students have completely reworked my perceptions of singing and musicality. Their honesty, vulnerability and willingness to learn is something that I find most people don’t ever get the opportunity to learn,” he said.

“Their dedication has shown me the power of a group of focused individuals who come together for a purpose bigger than any one student. They’ve taught me how to direct from the heart, and the importance of enjoying the process as much as I enjoy the performance,” he added. “Music-making teaches interpersonal skills and creativity, and I value getting the opportunity to witness this firsthand.”

Western Plains also has built strong relationships with area schools. Students come from around the region, traveling from communities an hour away for the weekly rehearsals.

“The public school teachers have truly supported this and made this program possible,” Petrik said. “They are the ones who sell our programs to the kids.”

Kim Gifford said her family enrolled after a brochure came home from their school nine years ago. She and her husband took notice that Petrik was involved, having previously known her as elementary music instructor in Burlington.

“Rebecca has a love for music and the teaching of music that just exudes from her pores,” Gifford said. “She has a passion about teaching music of all sorts to kids, to college students, to adults. You can’t help but want to learn from her.”

Gifford said her three children have stayed involved with Western Plains over the years because of the challenge of the music and the companionship of kids who share their interest. Her children also love to perform in the community, she said. Returning home from a performance at a retirement center, her children could talk only of the smiles on the faces and the thank yous of the residents.

“They just knew that they had made somebody’s night, and they love being able to do that,” she said.

Jennifer Flanagan said her whole family has benefited from two of her children participating in the choirs. They sing the songs around the house and have inspired the entire family to be more involved in music. One of her sons was inspired to take violin lessons after meeting an MSU student of Petrik’s through Western Plains.

“I was immediately impressed with Western Plains Children’s Choirs because of the quality of music and choral education the kids were clearly getting, but more than that, the relaxed yet self disciplined way the kids acted, plus you could tell they loved singing and working together as a group,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan considers Petrik to be a big part of what makes the choirs special.

“In addition to being a truly dedicated leader and bringing the very best out of children’s voices,” she said, “she truly understands and appreciates the challenges facing parents in getting their kids to rehearsals and performances; she stands up for the choir and represents its interests at MSU and all over the community.”

Wallace said learning under Petrik has been an experience he’ll cherish and lean on throughout his career.

“As I near my senior year before student teaching, I have seen the important skills that she has instilled in all of her students – lead with your heart first and foremost, then the rest will come. She truly believes every child has the innate ability to sing, and she openly gives students access to her massive heart and mind. Her strong personality and nurturing spirit has built this community to unfathomable heights, and every soul that she has touched is better because of it,” he said.

Petrik said it’s the relationships that come with supporting music in children’s lives that drive her to do what she does.

“It’s a relationship you can’t have in any other way, because you are working with this emotional material,” she said. “One of my favorite things is just being in front of the choir and looking at their faces when they are singing. When they sing, it’s like an openness to their hearts.”

Western Plains Children’s Choirs making music since 1991

In June 1987, a children’s chorus was needed for the Western Plains Opera Company’s production of the opera “Carmen.” That fall a children’s chorus was needed for “Song of Norway.” Both times, talented children were found, which planted a seed.

Sandra Starr, Joseph Hegstad and Julianne Wallin envisioned a permanent, on-going children’s choral group. Western Plains Children’s Chorus was founded under the auspices of the Minot Community Opera Company, both sustained by Minot State University.

In January 1991, a group of fourth, fifth and sixth grade children from Minot and the surrounding area were selected as the first Western Plains Children’s Chorus under the direction of Starr.

The following fall, Rebecca Petrik was supported by Paula Simonson in originating a second ensemble, the Western Plains Junior Choir.

Over the years, the choirs have been directed by many outstanding music educators, including Sharon Strube, Carmen Redding, Debbie Eraas, Cherie Collins, Laurel Livingston, Stephanie Otto, Jessica Graf, Jonathan Clark and Jerlyn Langemo.

Presently, Western Plains Children’s Choirs include three ensembles; Western Plains Youth Ensemble (eighth to 12th grades), Western Plains Children’s Choir (fifth to seventh grades), and Western Plains Junior Choir (third and fourth grades.) The choirs include more than 120 young singers.

The choirs have performed with the Minot Symphony Orchestra, Minot Chamber Chorale, WPOC opera, Norsk Hostfest, the Heritage Singers and Voices of Note and have toured Minot and area schools. WPCC performs an annual Christmas concert and a spring concert.

The program is largely funded with $200 a year tuition. Any donations taken at concerts go to scholarships.

(Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Editor Mike Sasser at 857-1959 or Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944. Either can be reached at 1-800-735-3229. You also can send email suggestions to msasser@minotdailynews.com.)