Trenton Children’s Chorus director Patricia Thel sits in practice room at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Trenton. As two dozen high school students enter and take their places for a rehearsal, Thel is busy discussing the joys and challenges of running a company that is celebrating its 25th anniversary and preparing for two holiday concerts in Trenton and a private one at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton.
“This job got bigger and bigger,” she says reflectively, her voice flavored with a southern accent. “When I came on there were 60 students.” Six years later there are 140 students ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade.
Thel’s involvement in the Trenton chorus is a continuation of a life devoted to song, teaching, and worship. “For 25 years I have been teaching at Westminster Conservatory and founded and directed the children’s choir program. I also taught (full-time) at Princeton Day School,” she says.
When family circumstances required that she work part-time, she began collaborating with fellow Nassau Presbyterian Church member and choir director Sue Ellen Page who along with Marcia Woods founded the TCC (Woods later founded the Trenton Music School).
But Thel’s connection is more than just business and has many levels.
About the students who chose to attend — with some walking to the church where the chorus has its headquarters — she says, “there’s been a 100 percent high school graduation and college entrance from the kids from the program.”
The reasons are simply human. “First, I see that musicians seem to stay out of trouble. That seems like just a positive side effect, but it’s a very big thing. I also see that people who sing in choirs learn about how to form community. Think of the difference between making contact with people through Facebook and singing with them.
“But the thing that is the most fun to see is the world that opens up to students through music. They learn a musical language, can access a body of literature that they would not be able to access without training, sing in other languages and in the process learn about other cultures, connect to poetry and philosophy, and can sometimes have the same kind of euphoria that you might reach after a good run. When they are able to perform in great venues, all of that benefit seems to quadruple.”
Thel’s thoughts are echoed by a statement that one of the students recently made on the chorus’s website: “Being a chorister for nine years was much more than singing in the choir. Often choir practice was the highlight of my week because, there, I felt a sense of belonging. I’ve always been quiet and reserved, but TCC helped me to grow out of that shell and has had a tremendous effect on my life. Trenton does not always provide many opportunities for young people, but through TCC, I was able to experience and view a world that had been closed off to me.”
Thel and the student’s thoughts seem to blend when the chorus director says, “I think many people, including me, who have been in choral music a long time might say that it connects them to other people and something bigger than themselves in a very meaningful way. Practicing as a child always provided a discipline that I could transfer to other areas. It’s much easier to do a workout routine if you know how to practice and easier to memorize your multiplication tables. As a child, I learned good habits through music, and through choral music I developed a love of poetry and good writing. Something transcendent can happen in music performance.”
Thel’s life and love of song were born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where she stayed until high school graduation. “My mother was also born there, and she and my dad helped my grandfather run two furniture stores where they also sold Singer sewing machines. They would put me in the show window sewing when I was very tiny so that everyone in town could see that even a child could operate a Singer. My mom and dad met during World War II when my dad was stationed at Fort Bragg. My father was actually Norman Mailer’s drill sergeant. When my grandfather died, my parents sold the business and my mom became a bookkeeper, and my dad a social worker.”
She says that she grew up in a Baptist church where singing in “four parts happened spontaneously. When I was young, I thought families could just do that. All of my training before college came from church music and private piano instruction. Everyone in my family could sing, and many of them played the piano or the organ very well.
“Someone had told me early on that you should find something to do that you could do all day long without tiring of it, so I guess I took that to heart. We now still have a lot of musicians in our family. My son Joe is an incredible composer and oboist and my brother has two sons who are in music, one who studied composition at USC, and the other who just independently started an online guitar instruction website.”
Thel later lived in Georgia and Mississippi where she worked in the theater department at University of Oxford. When husband, Steve Thel, joined the Fordham University faculty as a law professor, the couple came north. Unsure of where to settle, they followed the advice of a colleague who lived in Yardley, Pennsylvania, and suggested the Princeton area. “Westminster was there, and I said that I would like to be there. And I thought I could a job and it was beautiful,” says the Princeton Junction resident.
Today Thel and her husband, who serves as the chair of the Fordham University School of Law and an adjunct at Columbia and New York universities, have three adult children: Betsy, a social worker in Greensboro, North Carolina; Tommy, enrolled in the program Beyond Academics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; and Joe, a recent New York University graduate who is working on an MFA in oboe and composition at California Institute for the Arts (CalArts).
She also has hundreds of other children in the capital city who are on her mind.
Responding to a question about challenges she sees for the TCC, which had originally developed as a volunteer organization and then saw the need to invest in maintaining professional support, Thel notes, “We see a great need in our program for growth in different areas, and our vision has to be matched by dollars. Watching the bottom line to cover basic salaries, materials, and transportation is a challenge every year. I sometimes don’t know whether to laugh or cry when my colleagues are raising money for European trips! I’m hoping that will happen for TCC in the future. Really all of the challenges we face are tied to fundraising. We have doubled in size in five years, and that growth spurt requires a doubling of commitment from everyone.”
The next challenge is raising the profile of Trenton Children’s Chorus within the city of Trenton itself. “It’s amazing to me that so many people in Princeton know about the choir and its accomplishments, but in the city itself, I’ve heard us referred to as ‘the best kept secret.’ Sometimes our biggest challenge can be in choosing which events to accept,” she says. “We get lots of invitations to sing, and we can’t agree to everything. Sometimes we turn on a dime to make big events like singing for an inaugural or going to the United Nations.”
To address those challenges, Thel says that the TCC has benefited from a three-year $150,000 capacity-building grant from the Trenton Funders Collaborative — Princeton Area Community Foundation, the Bunbury Company, Mary Owen Borden Foundation, and Harbourton Foundation.
Says Thel: “Funding has enabled us to put into place a more effective staff structure, the necessary systems to effectively sustain the program long-term, and to provide training for board members and staff. As enrollment has increased we’ve added choirs and hired conductors and accompanists for to staff those choirs. We’ve expanded services to better address our members’ academic needs, such as in-house SAT prep for high school students. As this special funding comes to an end, we need major gifts and an overall increase in individual donations to sustain our growth and to fuel us as we move forward. Replacing those funds will be quite a challenge.”
Thel says that the job has brought some surprising revelations, including her own awareness of running a music program outside the support structure of a larger institution such as a school or university and points to the dedication of the board and staff to make the project a reality.
“The great artistic vitality and richness that is part of Trenton was really a surprise. So many people want to make Trenton a beautiful place to be, and Trenton holds potential for a real revitalization. I have met many wonderful people in Trenton who are dedicated to the arts and want to make the city a great place for all of us. Our host landlord, Covenant Presbyterian Church, is a vital partner in our work, and they are very clear in their mission to serve the community,” she says.
A few other by comments by Thel illustrates the situation that the chorus members and other Trenton students find themselves in. “The fact that the children are so talented was not a surprise. They are an inspiration to me, and have improved my own musicianship.” Yet, she says, “It is my understanding that one of the reasons that TCC was formed was because of the cancellation of music programs in the Trenton schools. I can’t imagine how educators and politicians can’t see the value of music.”
Trenton Children’s Choir, Covenant Presbyterian Church, 471 Parkway Avenue, Trenton. Sunday, December 7, “Lessons and Carols,”4 p.m., and Friday, December 12, Winter Concert, 7 p.m. Admission: Good Will Offering.
Friday, February 6, Black History Month Concert. 6:30 p.m. and Friday, March 27, 7 p.m., Covenant Presbyterian Church, Trenton; Saturday, March 28, 25th Anniversary Concert, 7 p.m., Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary; Sunday, April 12, “Spring into Song,” Central Baptist Church, Ewing; and Friday, May 15, Spring Concert, 7 p.m. Covenant Presbyterian Church.