Singing Bach and Bluegrass

On Tuesday afternoons during the school year, Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York, rings with the chatter, laughter, and singing of children and young people.

Boys and girls of all ages come for friendship and fun thanks to a choral program run by Old First member Jennifer Nelson. Their parents appreciate the high quality program Nelson offers, especially since New York City public schools no longer teach music.

Music has been part of Nelson's life since she can remember, and she currently teaches K-4 and 9-12 grade music at a private school. "I've been a performer for many years, have my masters in singing, and started teaching later in life," she says. She also studied at a conservatory in France where she learned the method of "do-re-mi style" sight singing that she teaches, called solfège style, which helps students learn intervals and relative pitch.

"I've always had a choir," Nelson says, adding that she was just four when she sang in the children's choir at a Methodist church in Oklahoma. As an adult, Nelson moved to New York City and made her home in Brooklyn 17 years ago. Before long, she connected with Old First Reformed. "We did a favor for a neighbor, who thanked us by giving us a book about the old Dutch Reformed church. Our home had been the Old First parsonage." Nelson and her family decided to visit the church and began attending. Three years later she was asked by Michael Otte, Old First's pastor at the time, to start a children's choir. She was delighted to do so since she had wanted her own three kids to be able to sing with other children.

At first, just eight children came. "I needed it to be small because my life was so busy," says Nelson. Over the years the program has continued to grow. Now about 30 kids of many racial and ethnic backgrounds take part. News about the program has spread by word of mouth in the neighborhood around Old First, which Nelson calls "very child-centered." Her son Hans, now 17, and daughters Ruby, 15, and Evangeline, 10, still sing with the choirs. Other kids from the church do too, but two-thirds of those who come to sing are from families outside Old First. Even a couple of Muslim kids come. "I love that the church is very connected to a temple down the street and a mosque as well," says Nelson.

Each Tuesday, after teaching at school all day, Nelson rushes to the church to connect with her three groups of young singers. She starts at 3:30 with the Angel Choir, pre-school and young elementary kids. At 4:00 she pulls chairs around the piano to meet with the Children's Choir, kids from the higher elementary grades who sing and learn about music theory. From 4:30 to 5:15 she meets with the high school group, the Adolesaints.

Nelson teaches all kinds of music, from Bach to bluegrass, and she especially loves classic Christian hymns and spirituals. "They just did a song from The Prince of Egypt called 'When You Believe,'" she says. "They do lots of early American music a cappella. These are really cool kids. They are gung ho to try anything in any language. They learned 'Du fond de ma détresse' from the Genevan Psalter. The kids love the old hymns, and the hymns are like treasures to me; I hope they never die."

Of the 30 kids who come to the program, eight to 10 will sing on a Sunday when something is ready to present. This happens at least once a month. On the Sunday before All Saints Day all three groups sang during the worship service. "The kids put on a pageant for Advent, so we do a lot of Sundays in Advent," says Nelson. Every year the kids sing at Dutch Days, which includes a reenactment of a service from the seventeenth century. Old First was founded in 1654, and the congregation still has the original communion cup used at that time.

"The music is a great tie to history," says Nelson. In fact, she says, the song the children ask for the most is "Als een hert ghejaeght, O Heere" ("Seeking Water, Seeking Shelter").

"It's sort of our anthem. We sing it in Dutch every Dutch Days. It best represents the spirit of our choir.

"I believe there's a connection between God, spirituality, and music; it's great to feel all those things, to experience love, joy.

"This I do because I need to. I get so much back from it. It's where my heart is. It's what work should be."

Posted 3/15/12

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