KellyAnn Nelson: Music Is a Superpower
KellyAnn Nelson believes in empowering people and helping them to access their superpowers through music. She is the founder and artistic director of Young Professionals’ Choral Collective of Cincinnati (YPCC), an open access nonprofit choir. YPCC has a roster of 1,100 young professionals (YPs) who sign up to sing in any or all of the organization’s three arms: 1. Non-auditioned cycles which run 6-8 weeks each; 2. Community singing, which takes place around town upon request, whether at breweries or on the steps of Music Hall; and 3. The auditioned chamber choir. KellyAnn is also the managing artistic director of the Cincinnati Boychoir. Through these dual roles, she is helping to create a community of inclusion in Cincinnati.
As a singer in YPCC, I have witnessed firsthand the energy and passion that KellyAnn brings to her craft. KellyAnn, myself, and Dyah met up days before KellyAnn left for South Africa – a trip she took with 50 members of the Cincinnati Boychoir, her husband (Christopher Eanes, artistic director and CEO of the Cincinnati Boychoir), and Zaiya, their nearly 5-year-old daughter.
How did you find your way to song and then to choral directing?
I fell in love with music early – piano lessons at age 5 and church choir. I was both an instrumentalist and a choral person.
When I fell in love with music, I sort of thought it was through the lens of a performer. And so when I went to school at Western Michigan University, I majored in vocal performance. The first time that they had me teach a class, I sat in a practice room by myself learning how to teach “Five Little Speckled Frogs,” and cried. Then I went in to teach this group of third graders, not knowing how to present this process, and totally fell in love with it. Just the idea of scanning the room for all the different superpowers and needs and bringing them all together through music – I was totally hooked.
How did you start YPCC?
Christopher was sitting on the Music Advisory Council for the World Choir Games. One of the things that kept coming up was how to engage young professionals. So he and I – with our nonprofit geek pillow talk at night over the phone – were like, “How would you engage young professionals in the arts?” Because we’re nerds. And we just kept saying over and over, “They’re talking about parties. Like, this is so dumb. This demographic wants to sing.”
We lived over at 14th and Vine, and our neighbors were these fancy YPs. They got dressed up and went to May Festival. We ran into them over champagne in the lobby at Music Hall. And they were like, “This World Choir Games thing that’s coming here... Why in the world are they bringing World Choir Games to little old Cincinnati?” They were standing in the lobby of Music Hall with May Festival, with these major choirs about to perform. And we were like, “Are you kidding?” They didn’t know the depth and breadth of the arts scene here. They both sang in middle school choir. But they didn’t have a place to sing and engage in the artmaking in Cincinnati.
I think that there’s something really special about singing because it’s so human.
So we were like, “Sure, we’ll try this!” And so I just asked any person I met where we could possibly hold a rehearsal to just see if people would show up. And Mike Boberg over at ArtsWave said, “I know this guy Nigel. He owns Below Zero. And there’s a piano up in their cabaret where they do drag shows and they don’t use it on weeknights.” And I was like, “Okay!”
So P&G guys in suits and whoever else – we had like 40 people who just did a Doodle poll – showed up the first night and sang Christmas carols. We just wanted to see if people were interested. We did it again the next week and 40 more people showed up. At that point we kind of realized it was a thing. We are now to the point where we have a real board and 1,100 singers. It’s exciting.
When you started YPCC, were you worried it was going to be bad?
Absolutely. Christopher and I ran the first rehearsal together. He played and I conducted. We said out loud, “This will probably sound bad, but it will feel good.” And about halfway through the rehearsal, we were like, “No. Shit. It sounds good!”
We have this commitment that it’s access for all. There’s no audition. And I just pray heavily before every cycle that I have enough tenors and I have enough basses and somehow it just works. We have gotten lucky.
In a cycle with 150+ singers and so many different voice parts, what’s your process for teaching a new piece of music?
The majority of musicians that I came up with made their decision that product was the be-all, end-all. That’s pretty typical in my field. So, your gesture is going to be perfect. You’re going to choose only the highest level pieces of music. You’re only going to work with the highest level singers. And that’s how you prove your worth.
I made the decision very early on that I was more interested in the process. Of course, I want the product to be good – we all do – and I think it’s one of the beautiful things of YPCC: put a bunch of young professionals in a room, and we care deeply about quality. But I feel very strongly that people are more invested in what they’re doing if, from the moment that they get a piece of music in their hand, they feel empowered.
There is an ethos in my profession that if you can’t sight read that you are not worth your salt. So that I should never teach notes in rehearsals. And I just don’t believe in that. But I also don’t want to spend the whole rehearsal [singing], “Here’s your part,” because that’s really boring and people will lose interest in what they’re doing. I spend much more time thinking about chunks we can isolate and techniques we can use in building a bag of tricks. That’s more interesting to me. I feel strongly that if the process is engaging and interesting and accessible – and yes, that means I make rehearsal tracks and yes, that means we learn some notes and that means sometimes I sing along with the thing and whatever – but hopefully the majority of the people in the room are coming along for the ride and feel good about it, and that the product will fix itself. Sometimes I’m wrong, but that’s fun, too. But most of the time, I’m right. And because I choose not to work with professionals (I work with – I hate the word “amateur” – avocational singers), it’s people who love it. I’d rather have people in the room who love it than people who are are bored but have to do it.
This last cycle I signed up to sing but ended up missing like half the rehearsals. So instead, I attended the concert at Old St. Mary’s. And it was the most incredible experience. I sat there in the audience and cried and felt all the things. What happened? What was that?
[Laughter.] I think that there’s something really special about singing because it’s so human. And there are studies about sympathetic vibrations we experience between human voice and cello – which are supposedly the two most closely related – and how we feel when we hear those two things. It resonates with us as human beings. So, the fact that we sing primarily a cappella music with very few instrumentalists – there’s this human thing. When you get to one of those big fat chords it just feels so good. And that’s what we hope to inspire in somebody who comes to the concert just because they’re dating somebody who says they have to and they hear there’s a beer afterward. Hopefully, there will be a moment where they go, “Oh my God, that took my breath away.” And they’ll understand that choral music is not always, you know, dead white guys doing the same thing all the time.
We’ll polish it at the end, but we want these boys to be proud to use their voice and to use their voice for compelling reasons and to speak up and to stand up and to be proud of the fact that they’re musicians.
I just think there was also something emotionally compelling about that “Long Live Song” concert specifically. Because you had YPCC and the Cincinnati Boychoir and the Cincinnati Symphony’s Classical Roots Choir all together, which meant there were 10-year-olds and 85-year-olds singing together and smiling at each other.
Dyah: You create these moments where people are bonding with each other. I wish I could sing. I can’t sing.
What’s the value to our community of having community choirs?
So, Dyah, you just made the comment, “I can’t sing.” I hear that 14 times a day from everywhere. There’s this whole adage that if you speak you can sing. It’s just a matter of how you sing. It’s one of the few things you can do for your whole life and it’s going to sound different for your whole life. My 2-year-old sings, and my grandparents sang.
What we hear all the time from YPCCers is that, “In college, my glee club or my a capella group was my place. And I sort of lost that place when I had to think about work or family or whatever else, so I decided to go meet people at bars.” But when they come back to singing, through YPCC, they’re like, “Oh, this is my place.”
Speaking to my involvement with the Boychoir, it was really fun for me to see people who assumed I was going to bring really cute, cherubic-looking boys wearing ruffly collars and robes, and seeing instead these [kids who are] rough around the edges, awkwardly going through puberty, and singing the snot out of what it is they do. One of the commitments we’ve made at the Boychoir is first, get them to sing. We’ll polish it at the end, but we want these boys to be proud to use their voice and to use their voice for compelling reasons and to speak up and to stand up and to be proud of the fact that they’re musicians. And because they’re musicians, they’re going to South Africa for two and a half weeks, and because they are musicians, they’re making friends. We hear all the time, “My kid is being bullied at school because he loves music and he comes to the Boychoir and he has found his family.” This group of boys plays soccer and does Taekwondo and writes stories and paints art, but is united by this singing thing.
I feel like I’m getting into the deep end here. You made the comment that you’re encouraging boys to use their voice. How are you encouraging them to have not just loud voices, but thoughtful voices that help to make our community better?
This is not deep end. We jump into the deep end and we have purposefully. I was just updating some of our words. The words we used to use for the boychoir were “proud” and “competitive,” and the words we use now are “empathetic” and “strong” and “caring” and “engaged in their community.” At the boychoir, everything we do runs through three lenses: It has to be engaged with travel – it has to take them somewhere in the world in some way. We have 3-year cultural curriculum. We’re finishing our civil rights curriculum; we’re about to jump into Spanish world.
It’s really exciting. Because we’re getting all these parents and these community members who think that they are the ruffly collared church music boys… And instead we’re like, “No. You’re still gonna sing ‘Handel’s Messiah.’ That’s worthwhile music. But you’re also gonna sing a raaga from India and you’re also gonna learn how to talk about immigration and be kind to people who don’t speak the same language as you.”
The second is: There has to be a way to engage in a community. You’re going to walk into a room with boys who don’t have the same religious beliefs; they don’t live in the same neighborhood as you; they don’t look like you; they might not speak the same language as you. How can you draw them into a conversation?
And then it has to have some element of personal growth. So we actually have goals for each of our choirs that are totally non-musical. We have an empathy study that we do at the beginning and the end of the year to track the skills that they’re learning toward empathy. So we are purposeful about it. We are a safe space for LGBTQ; we are a safe space for racial diversity; we have a strong commitment to purposefully cultivate that. And we are nowhere near where we should be, but we are steering the organization into what’s next. Because you’re right: We want young men who come out of here who are proud of being men, but are proud of being kind men.
Is there a woman in your life who’s been an inspiration to you?
Diana Spradling – who I called PS: Professor Spradling – was a big band jazz singer when she was 15. When I met her she was in her late 50s/early 60s. She ran a vocal jazz ensemble at Western Michigan University. And she was pure class. She was high heels and suits and hair and makeup and all the things. But she was a brilliant musician. She was Kelsey Grammer’s voice teacher and Vanessa Williams’ voice teacher. But the thing I loved about her was her ability to pivot. My voice teacher was a classical voice teacher who, because I could sight read, didn’t really dig into my voice. Just kind of went, “Yeah, you’re going to be a teacher; you don’t really need to learn to use your voice.” And PS heard me and was like, “I need you in my studio and you’re going to learn to sing art songs and you’re gonna sing jazz and you’re gonna sing pop and you’re going to do it all so that someday when you stand in front of a group, your voice will always come out. You will always be able to trust that you will have something to say.” She saw a human. She looked for what I needed and she gave me tools for success.