VocalEssence’s ReMix mentorship program gives young songwriters a chance to shine

VocalEssence ReMix-Philip Brunelle and Emily FeldWEB

Emily Feld (right) a mentee from last year’s inaugural VocalEssence ReMix program // Photo by Bruce Silcox

“Some people see classical music as a dying art,” says G. Phillip Shoultz III, associate conductor of VocalEssence, a Minneapolis-based choral non-profit founded in 1969.

That, however, is a misstatement.

“It’s an ever-evolving art,” he explains. “What’s classical music now is different. It’s changing and shifting from what we’ve known it to be before.” And it’s from that new starting point that VocalEssence’s ReMix mentorship program sets its tone, pairing young songwriters with professional mentors.

The mission of ReMix is to give composers an opportunity to reach a new audience, to work with pros, and to better their work. But it’s also about invigorating the local music scene. “It’s a survival for our art form to create new art,” Shoultz summarizes.

VocalEssence ReMix-Emily Feld and Carol Barnett

Emily Feld with her ReMix mentor Carol Barnett // Photo by Bruce Silcox

The program is currently in its second year and taking applicants. Chosen participants will compose two works, which will then be performed to industry insiders. The focus of ReMix is to bolster a choral tradition no matter what a person’s musical background. Choral music, hip hop, country, or something else: everyone is welcome to apply.

“To find myself in a room with all these people I’ve heard on the radio or [who’s piece] I’ve sung in choir,” says Emily Feld, a mentee from last year’s inaugural program, “It’s all these worlds colliding that I was not expecting.”

For Feld, the experience has opened new opportunities and given her a boost of confidence in her own work. She earned a Bachelor of Music in piano performance from Concordia College in Moorhead last year, and moved to the Twin Cities after graduation. She was accepted into ReMix about the same time. Although Feld dabbled in composition, her musical focus had been split between piano and choir since roughly the age of five. She says she didn’t think of herself as a composer.

“I had only taken one composition class, which really skimmed the surface,” she says of her college experience. In ReMix, she was paired with Carol Barnett, who has been active in local choral music since 1970. She was composer-in-residence with the Dale Warland Singers from 1992 to 2001 and is a charter member of the American Composers Forum. Sharing forty years of knowledge, Barnett and Feld bounced ideas off one another regularly—“more than once per month, but less than once per week,” says Barnett.

While both Feld and Barnett describe their styles as mainstream, each brought a distinct voice to the process. The mentor’s role, Barnett says, is to guide rather than correct. “Having reached a certain venerable age, I have quite a bit of aural experience, listening to different stuff,” she says modestly. Throughout the program, the mentor-mentee relationship works at its own pace, while workshops and rehearsals take place with the larger organization at scheduled intervals.

Between ReMix’s mentoring team of Libby Larsen, Carol Barnett, J. David Moore, and Timothy Takach, and the program’s open application process for songwriters of all styles, VocalEssence wants to see where choral music can go. “It’s exciting to see what young composers come up with,” says Shoultz. “We had some really inventive compositions [in 2015]. Things we wouldn’t have expected, techniques and strategies that you don’t often ask choirs to do.”

Particularly notable pieces, he says, included an extended male falsetto piece in one work and the use of an Ezra Pound poem in another. It’s through promotion of such modern choral arrangements that VocalEssence is emphasizing that choral music is open to everyone.

To apply, entrants should submit a musical score, musical recording, or video recording to the ReMix program by July 1, 2016.

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