Stetson University’s premiere singing program for children was yet another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, a world-traveling former DeLand High School choir director is leading the charge to revitalize it.
The Stetson Children’s Choir began in the 1980s and once involved enough singers ages 8 to 18 to encompass three choirs under the direction of Dr. Ann Small.
Through their involvement in the choirs, generations of choral students traveled the world, performed at prestigious concerts, and got an early start on a lifetime of music.
Then COVID-19 hit.
Before the virus changed everyone’s lives, DeLand High School Choir Director Ross Cawthon had agreed to take on the Children’s Choir. Going into March 2020, he had about 25 students. That number had dwindled to just two when things picked back up after a year of quarantines and COVID scares.
As fate would have it, someone else was interested in helping regrow the program, and she had just returned to Central Florida.
Former DeLand High School Choir Director Melinda Fradley has always had a passion for teaching. In college — at Stetson University — she studied under Dr. Small, the professor who had started the Children’s Choir in the 1980s.
Small died in 2021, and at her memorial — which featured a number of Small’s former students — Fradley realized the late professor’s program was stagnating.
“I thought, ‘There are no children here,’” she told The Beacon.
Fradley had just moved back to Central Florida after some big life changes. She left DeLand High School in 2019 to pursue a short-term teaching gig at Beijing City University in China. When she returned to the U.S. that summer, she took a teaching job in Savannah, Georgia, with the Savannah Children’s Choir.
With Fradley’s help, Savannah’s program grew, expanding to involve lower-income children who may not have had the opportunity to sing in such a prestigious program otherwise.
When COVID-19 struck, Fradley’s life changed again, and she moved back to Central Florida to continue her music-teaching career in Orlando.
Now she’s fired up and ready to put her skills to work for a program she has personal ties to. She’ll start with a three-day summer camp program with some assistance from Cawthon, Volusia County Schools elementary-school music educator Angie Monahan, and others.
“In its heyday, there were three choirs,” Fradley said. “There’s a legacy at Stetson that just needs to be there.”
It’s not only about legacy. It’s about health, too, she and Cawthon said.
Children’s vocal cords can be damaged by vocal extremes — high or low — unless children are taught to sing properly at an early age.
“A lot of children’s music — church music, pop music — is pitched too low,”
Yes, Fradley said, it may be fun, but trying to nail those high notes can hurt a child’s vocal cords.
The best thing for young singers, she said, is to have them singing in a range that they’re able to master naturally without straining their voices. Thanks to puberty, that range can change from year to year.
“Let’s set them up with fundamentals,” Cawthon said, “When they get through their voice change, they’ll have healthy habits for life.”
Not only is music a great activity for kids, he added, but children can learn in ways adults can’t.
“At that age, from 8 to 12, they’re just sponges,” Cawthon said. “That’s when your brain is most open to language and music acquisition. That’s why I’m very passionate about getting kids engaged young.”
The revitalized Stetson Children’s Choir will kick off this summer with the Stetson Young Singers Summer Choir Camp July 25-28. Instructors, including Fradley and Cawthon, will tutor students for four days and close out the program with a concert at 5 p.m. Thursday, July 28.
The program will be split in two: Singers age 9 and up will meet 9 a.m.-3 p.m. during the three days. The cost to participate will be $150 per child. Kids ages 6-8 will meet 9 a.m.-noon, and participation in that program will cost $100.
For students who fall in love with singing during the summer, or for anyone else ages 8-18 who wants to join, the regular Stetson Children’s Choir will begin meeting again in the fall.
For more information, visit Stetson’s website, HERE, or contact Sara Scarpelli at 386-822-8962.