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November / December 2003

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University Singers


University Singers
A quarter-century of making music that ‘feels like a mountain stream at 10,000 feet'

About the Photo: During the first week of classes every fall, more than 100 students audition or reaudition for one of the 64 seats in the chorus. Those selected to be members of University Singers have the option of earning one academic credit for a semester of rehearsing five days a week and performing.

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Danny Williams was a zoology major when he attended a concert that changed his life.

A performance by the 64-member University Singers has that effect on people.

"I went to that concert in 1986 and walked out a different person. I decided then that I had to be part of that group," says Williams, who was a member of the select choral ensemble for six years while getting his bachelor's (ultimately in music) and master's degrees.

"It has to do with the beauty of the music and the fact that everyone on stage seems to be enjoying themselves so much. It also has to do with the director, his magic," says Williams, who works for the University of Maine Alumni Association and has "vigorously pursued" choral singing as an avocation, now directing two choral groups, co-directing a third, and singing in a quartet.

Williams is just one of hundreds of UMaine alumni and students — music and non-music majors alike — who reflect on their academic lives and cite their experiences in University Singers as the most rewarding. They talk about the camaraderie and support among members, the rehearsals and the tours, the hard work and the fun. But mostly they talk about the man and the music.

Dennis Cox, known as DC to his students, has directed the University Singers for the past quarter-century. He is described as charismatic, enthusiastic, romantic and inspiring. His high expectations for performance and respect for the music motivate those under his baton. Cox is the soul of the University Singers and the reason it is one of New England's premier choruses.

University Singers
During the first week of classes every fall, more than 100 students audition or reaudition for one of the 64 seats in the chorus. Those selected to be members of University Singers have the option of earning one academic credit for a semester of rehearsing five days a week and performing.

"He is without a doubt the best choral conductor I know," says Karen Gagliardi, choral director at Smith Middle School in Quarryville, Penn., and a former member of University Singers who has been teaching for 23 years. "Lots of people have the skill to keep the beat and the motions to indicate what they want from a choir, but there are few who can inspire members to go beyond what they're capable of to make music that touches the depth of your soul. He inspires that commitment to excellence."

Cox contends that singers are like athletes. They have innate talent, desire and motivation, and they're using their bodies in a performance.

"My job is like that of an athletic coach and the performance is the scoreboard," says Cox, the recipient of the second annual Vincent A. Hartgen Award for outstanding contributions to the advancement of the arts in the university community. "I help them to do the very best they can so that, when they emerge from the experience, they'll feel on top of the game. It can be a transforming experience."

Cox finished his doctoral degree at the University of Missouri – Kansas City in 1978 and, that year, joined the UMaine music faculty. He was 35.

At the time, University Singers was a chamber concert group without a strong singing tradition. Cox transformed it into a concert-touring ensemble with a wide repertoire. He selects music to ensure that the students get experience singing such choral master works as the requiems by Brahms, Verdi and Britten, and Beethoven's Ninth. He also includes works he's never conducted "so I'm growing all the time, musically and aesthetically," he says.

"Choral music is a powerful medium," says Cox, the son of a plumber who possessed a beautiful Irish tenor voice. "Singing songs of love and praise, Broadway tunes and spirituals, the music becomes a vehicle by which the largest number of people can have an aesthetic experience. Jabberwocky is the one song we perform on every tour. It's become our signature piece, for better or worse."

Singers does an annual, weeklong performance tour to schools and community sites throughout the Northeast; every fourth year, the ensemble tours Europe. (The next European tour is May 2004.) Such tours promote both high-quality choral performance and the University of Maine, says Cox.

"Touring the northeastern U.S. and abroad dramatically highlights the strengths of the school and the student body," he says. "It's also a challenge repeating a concert 14 times in different acoustic environments. There are multifaceted layers of experience, including singing with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra every spring, and once every four years performing at Carnegie Hall and in Europe."

In addition to directing UMaine's choral music program, made up of five groups, Cox guest conducts and judges music festivals nationwide.

It was at one such event in 1980, the All-Aroostook Music Festival Choir, that then high school junior Rick Nickerson from Houlton, Maine, heard a "full sound" from a chorus like never before. "That weekend changed everything for me," Nickerson says.

"I was all set to be a guitar major at the Berklee School of Music until that weekend," says Nickerson, director of the award-winning Windham Chamber Singers for the past 14 years. "I saw Denny's enthusiasm and ability to pull so much more from the choir."

Nickerson, who "hadn't considered going to UMaine," received his bachelor's and master's degrees under Cox's direction. He recently completed a doctorate at the University of Missouri under Eph Ehly; Cox was Ehly's first doctoral student, Nickerson his last.

In 1996, Nickerson's Windham Chamber Singers from Windham High School competed in the 25th annual International Youth and Music Festival in Vienna, Austria. The group won the "Prize of Vienna," the highest award given at the festival. The Windham Chamber Singers shared the top honor with a choral group from St. John's, Newfoundland, directed by Susan Quinn, who also received a master's degree under Cox at UMaine.

Such encounters are the norm in University Singers history. Former students are now choral directors throughout New England and beyond, often sending their best students to UMaine. Singers alumni in non-music careers say they also hold dear some of the life-lessons they learned from Cox: Positive reinforcement is important. Have fun without sacrificing quality. "Singing should feel like a mountain stream at 10,000 feet" (also known as a "DC-ism" or "analogies according to Cox" that he uses in rehearsals, many of which have been recorded for posterity by students).

Cox likes to note that as many as 30 marriages occurred in University Singers. "There have been just a couple divorces, much better than the national average," he quips.

It's Cox's collegial relationship with his students that makes the group work and helps to maintain so many strong friendships with alumni, says Mike Mirisola, a nursing major from Sanford, Maine, in the Class of '85. Today, as an Emergency Department charge nurse at Southern Maine Medical Center, Biddeford, Maine, Mirisola says the lessons learned as a Singer continue to resonate. The most important: be a colleague to your students.

"(In the hospital's Emergency Department) we always are striving for excellence in patient care, in relationships with our colleagues and in our relationship with the future of healthcare," Mirisola says. "We teach many students — medical students, nursing students, paramedic students and others — and I always remember how much that collegial relationship that Denny promoted helped us achieve excellence."

Mirisola was one of the 85 University Singers alumni who returned to campus for the group's first reunion last May. "It was like being transported back 20 years," he says. "All of the memories and feelings from being in the group came rushing back during the rehearsals."

For the reunion concert, alumni wanted to sing the songs they performed as students, but "I had to break it to them that their voices have changed," says Cox. "For instance, it's physically demanding to do a piece from Candide. So I picked materials they could sound good on for the performance experience they wanted."

The hour-long concert went on without a hitch.

"I was touched by the reunion, the heartfelt way people shared what the group had done for them, how they still use what they learned," says Cox. "They know the importance of esprit de corps and a drive for excellence."

by Margaret Nagle
November-December, 2003

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