Annie Donnell (second riser, Soprano Two Section) practices with the St. Louis Children’s Choir for an upcoming concert.
Annie Donnell uses words like “joy” and “peace” and “happiness” to describe what singing with the St. Louis Children’s Choirs (an A&E Operating Grant recipient) has meant to her for the past seven years. The experience has been so rewarding that Annie wrote an essay about it as part of her college application process.
“The second riser, in the Soprano Two section, is a place and experience that has changed my life,” the 18-year old wrote in her essay. “It has given me a passion for music and an understanding of how music can affect others. Through my participation in choir, I have grown in my ability to work with others to achieve a goal – a great performance. The beauty of the music, the splendor of 70 voices in harmony, the sense of belonging – all have added meaning to my life.”
The choirs also have provided Annie with a sense of independence. The recent Ladue Horton Watkins High School graduate is visually impaired and can see only lightness and darkness. Her impairment is the result of retinopathy of prematurity – an eye disease that can affect premature babies and cause the retina to detach.
During high school, Annie explains she was assisted by a paraeducator, who translated her assignments into braille. At choir practice and performances, her friend Catherine guides Annie on and off stage by holding onto her arm.
“Choir has always been a place where I have made strong friendships. It’s always been a really inclusive environment,” said Annie, who also ran track during high school tethered to another runner. “This is especially true in the highest [choir] group, which I have been a part of for two years.”
Barbara Berner, artistic director of the St. Louis Children’s Choirs, says students often tell her how meaningful participation in the Choirs is to them.
“[They] tell us that in choir they have found a refuge from ridicule and bullying at school, problems at home, the stress of academic pressure,” Berner said. “Students say that the Children’s Choirs becomes a second family.”
Annie couldn’t agree more. “My choir family is an integral part of my life, and there is nothing better than making music with people who truly enjoy it,” she said.
“Choir is the place where I create strong friendships, learn complex songs, and gain confidence in my singing ability. It is a stress-free time, a time when thinking about anything else is nonexistent.”
Now in its 37th year, the Children’s Choirs includes 450 young people ages six to 18 from about 200 St. Louis area schools.
Berner says funding from the Arts and Education Council has made a “tremendous difference” because it has provided more than $192,000 to the Children’s Choirs over the past 12 years. A&E grants have enabled the Choirs to provide programming for 20,000 to 40,000 audience members each season and to reach out to children in 34 schools, many of which are in underserved areas. The choir awarded more than $40,000 in financial aid last season to remove barriers to any child’s participation.
This summer, Annie plans to tour Europe with the Children’s Choirs, singing in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. “I think the thing I’m looking forward to most is singing in cathedrals,” she said.
This fall, Annie will attend Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she plans to major in communications and minor in education. She says her goal is to become an elementary education teacher.
“Oh yes,” she says laughing. “I definitely plan on auditioning for their choir. I really can’t imagine my life without singing.”
The St. Louis Children’s Choirs is an A&E Operating Grant recipient. For more information, visit St. Louis Children’s Choirs.