At Saint Mary’s College, there is a stunning ensemble of young women making their voices heard in a way that has enraptured their listeners throughout the country and around the world: the Saint Mary’s College Women’s Choir.
Led by Nancy Menk, this choir of 40 women is an avenue of expression for the singers, the director and the composers. The choir regularly commissions and performs new works for women’s voices, which even has led to the publication of their own choral series and the recording of compact discs.
Saint Mary’s College is a women’s Catholic liberal arts college near South Bend, Indiana, established in 1844 by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. Being a school with an all-female student body allows unique opportunities for expression, and the choir is one of these opportunities.
The Saint Mary’s College Women’s Choir has appeared in concert at Carnegie Hall in 1999, 2001 and 2005, and at Alice Tully Hall in 2014. They also have recorded four compact discs on the Pro Organo label — “Ave, Ave!” in 1997, “Amazing Day!” in 2002, “Anima mea!” in 2004 and “Across the Bar” in 2007. They even toured and performed throughout China in 2011.
The choir also strives to make voices heard beyond the members themselves. They make a point to perform — and commission — works from women composers, who often do not get as much exposure.
Additionally, each November the choir hosts the Saint Mary’s College High School Women’s Choir Festival, in which 20 choirs from surrounding states perform.
Dr. Nancy Menk, the choir’s director, notes that music is a wonderful form of artistic expression, but choirs have a particular advantage, as they have the text to assist in that expression. “Each text resonates differently with the individual members of the choir,” Menk said, “yet we usually have to come together to agree upon a singular interpretation to try to put forward to our audience. It’s that unity of purpose which helps to strengthen our bonds as an ensemble — along with matching tone color, vowels, dynamics and all of those other technical elements.”
Capabilities of women
The choir focuses on music of the 20th and 21st centuries, as music composed specifically for women’s voices has flourished during this period. According to Menk, during this time more and more composers realized the great capacity of range that women’s voices are capable of producing, “and the subject matter of the texts expands beyond whining about lost love, pretty flowers and birds.”
Melissa Montes is a senior biology major from Orange County, California. A member of the Saint Mary’s College Women’s Choir during all four years of studies, she joined her freshman year to have a place to express herself.
“I couldn’t imagine not having a creative outlet after being so involved and invested in music before college,” Montes said.
“I had a desire to make emotional and musical connections with my classmates and my campus community, and the choir provided me with that opportunity.”
Montes feels that choir is one of the best ways there is to have your voice heard.
“Quite literally you make your voice heard through music that is able to connect with audiences and make them feel the emotions that you put into your music,” she said. It also allows an opportunity to build confidence.
“Through the music that you are able to make with others, you not only improve in your musical skills, but you also learn to work seamlessly with peers as well as express yourself,” Montes said. “All of these skills then help you to have the courage to make your voice heard outside of the choir and music worlds.”
St. Mary’s Choir performs at the Christmas at Loretto holiday concert on campus. Courtesy photo
“Being a member of Saint Mary’s choirs has given me countless ways to have my voice heard,” said Anibee Zingalis, a sophomore computing and applied mathematics major, minoring in studio art and environmental studies. Since the first semester of her freshman year, she has been a member of the choir and of Bellacapella, an a capella group at Saint Mary’s. She has made her voice heard in ways from “good conversations with new choir friends, to sharing my gifts and talents with the wider community, to even being able to develop and express new skills in arranging and composing music.”
Zingalis has been given an opportunity to have her voice heard in quite a unique way: composing the score for a video game soundtrack. She said this opportunity arose due to the skills she gained from the Saint Mary’s College Women’s Choir.
Music has always been a part of life for Emma Gettinger. Starting as an instrumentalist, in high school she decided to become a vocalist. The experience of singing in choirs provided her a new avenue for having her voice heard. “I loved singing and knew I wanted it to be part of my life forever,” she said.
A junior majoring in both Music and Business Administration, Gettinger has been in the choir for six semesters. “I think it is incredibly important for college students to have an opportunity such as this for expression,” she said. “The vast majority of college classes seem to drain the creativity out of people. They do not give students the chance to be part of something greater, something creative in and of itself.”
Whether collaborating with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra, the University of Notre Dame’s various music ensembles, or performing on their own, the Saint Mary’s College Women’s Choir provides students a unique opportunity to express themselves.
Paul Senz writes from Oregon.
Read all College Special Section 2018 articles here.