Elmhurst College: Vocal Heroes

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Vocal Heroes

Susan Moninger calls them her “crash-my-car moments.“

Driving around town, Moninger, director of student choral activities at Elmhurst, will suddenly come across the likeness of one of her former students looming large on a promotional billboard, or will hear the latest song by another of her successful former students on the car radio.

“I want to stop the car and yell, ‘That’s one of my kids!’” she explained recently. “It makes me so proud I almost have to cry.”

Moninger’s students in Elmhurst’s various vocal ensembles have given her plenty of cause for pride over the years. They have found success as professional opera singers (like Vienna State Opera ensemble member James Kryshak ’06), chart-topping country music stars (like Country Music Association New Artist of the Year nominee Brett Eldredge) and pop songwriters and performers (like B96 radio personality Justin Roman ’00). And Moninger’s “crash-my-car moments” may not stop anytime soon. Even by the lofty standards set by their predecessors, her current students have been on their own remarkable run of success over the past year or so.

The College’s Concert Choir performed in A Christmas Carol: The Concert, a nationally televised PBS special in December. First-year music business major and choral student Anthony Paul sang for some 12 million viewers as a contestant on NBC’s reality-TV competition The Voice. And Elmhurst’s vocal jazz ensemble, Late Night Blues, was one of just six groups selected to perform at the prestigious Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation competition in California in March.

“These are experiences of a lifetime,” Moninger said. “They are exciting opportunities for our students, and for Elmhurst, they mean national exposure.”

Moninger, in her 23rd year at Elmhurst, directs the College’s Concert Choir, Chamber Singers and Late Night Blues, three of the half-dozen student choral and vocal groups at the College, with repertories running from jazz to classical, Medieval to contemporary, sacred to swing. A co-founder of Showchoir Camps of America and a veteran singer of commercial jingles, Moninger recruited some of her students to Elmhurst after seeing them perform at vocal competitions and festivals around the country where she serves as adjudicator.

Moninger, who likes to call her students “my kids,” jokes that her true title should be Choir Mom. Her educational approach, it seems, involves not only teaching her students to be better singers, but also reminding them not to go out in the snow without their boots.

“She is like a mom to us,” said Ella Bracero, a junior music business major from Long Valley, New Jersey. “She treats us like one of her own. But she’s also the best boss you could ever have.”

Her students work hard. Alysha McElroy-Hodges, a first-year student from Rock Island, said that some of her school days begin with an 8 a.m. music theory class. On some nights, depending on her rehearsal schedule, she may not leave Irion Hall for good until after 11. Oh, and she loves it.

“It’s been amazing,” McElroy-Hodges said of her first year at Elmhurst. “I’ve worked really hard, and I’m learning so much.”

On a recent afternoon in her office on the second floor of Irion Hall, Moninger was fielding questions from and giving directions to a seemingly endless stream of students. A detour down the hall to fetch a needed piece of paperwork was interrupted by two more requests from two more students. Moninger appeared to relish the bustle.

“This is not my work,” she said. “This is my life.”

Like their teacher, Moninger’s students have learned to thrive under pressure. Last spring, the producers of A Christmas Carol: The Concert asked Moninger if her 32-member Concert Choir could perform in the show. The choir’s versatility made it an ideal choice for the job, they told her, because the show included musical styles ranging from show tunes to Gospel to classical. Previous incarnations of the choir have performed in Prague with the Czech Symphony and played Academy Award–winning composer Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings symphony at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.

There was only one problem. Taping for A Christmas Carol would happen in May, when students are already at their busiest with year-end concerts, recitals and exams.

“It seemed impossible,” Moninger recalled. “So of course I said yes.”

The experience turned out to be too good to miss. The show, with a score by Emmy-nominated composer Bob Christianson and lyrics by Alisa Hauser, aired nationally in December. But first the students got a hands-on education in professional music-making, rehearsing with the show’s composer, orchestral conductor and musical-theatre coach.

“We got to see first-hand what the professional world is like,” said Bracero. “It was a great experience.”

“No matter where those students go from here, they’ll have that experience for the rest of their lives,” Moninger said.

Many of those same students will be among the group of 65 Moninger leads to California this spring for their annual choral tour. (“I’m nuts,” she deadpans when asked about the prospect of leading so many college students on the week-long trip.) The Elmhurst choirs will perform a number of dates on the Pacific Coast, highlighted by Late Night Blues’ appearance in the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation competition at the end of March.

When Moninger received the email notifying her that the group had been selected for the competition, the students in her office screamed so loudly in celebration that one of Moninger’s colleagues came running up from the first floor, concerned that something awful had happened.

“It was the kind of screaming and crying that goes with being so thrilled,” Moninger said. “They were on top of the world.” It was just the latest honor for Late Night Blues, which had previously been selected to represent the United States in the International Festival of University Choirs in Poland.

For all her students’ successes, Moninger continues to reinforce a few key lessons: Stay humble. Work hard. Leave the attitude at home. It is a formula that has been working for her and her students for decades now.

“I tell my kids, ‘Keep your humility and remember your roots,’” Moninger laughed. “’And don’t ever change, or I will come and get you!’”

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