Since its founding in 1920, Westminster Choir College inseparably intertwines with classical music luminaries.
This December, the Westminster Symphonic Choir performed Handel’s “Messiah” with both the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York Philharmonic. The Symphonic Choir- composed of all the college’s upperclassmen – will again take the stage with the Fabulous Philadelphians in three Mozart concerts on Palm Sunday weekend.
Music fans know and revere the college, a division of Rider University.
Westminster’s Readings and Carols concerts routinely sell out Princeton University Chapel.
“The first time you do Readings and Carols, you are a freshman in the back balcony and you see the whole choir processing with the ‘Kyrie,’” said Alison Rummel, a junior soprano from Quakertown. “It’s mind blowing.”
Lesser known however, is the influence of Upper Bucks students on the college. Three sopranos – Rummel and Quakertown’s Danielle Verguldi, team with Pennridge’s Amy Brandt as integral members of the Symphonic Choir.
Rummel and Verguldi both cited Quakertown’s choir director Jonathan Lechner, a Westminster alumnus, as an influence. Brandt’s inspiration was closer to home – her mom taught instrumental music in their house.
“Growing up, there was never a quiet moment,” Brandt smiled.
“My family, thankfully, encouraged me to pursue music,” Verguildi echoed. “They saw something in me that I don’t think I saw in myself.”
Each woman came to Westminster’s Princeton campus with talent. Each has put in countless hours over the last several years to hone that craft.
“If I looked back on the first day I came here, I wouldn’t even recognize my voice,” Brandt observed. “Westminster wants you to do well in every area. They want you to know your theory. They have an emphasis on voice science. We get to know our instruments intimately and everything that goes into working with them.”
“There is a huge emphasis on music theory,” Verguildi agreed. “They hold you up to a certain standard here and it forces you to become a really hard worker. They don’t let you scrape by. It’s not an option to hide when you’re in choir and it is definitely not an option to not practice in your voice studio because you will get kicked out.”
Rummel admits that she first struggled with that work ethic. But she found her footing once she focused on improving herself. She started recording every lesson on a professor’s advice.
“Since I’ve been doing that, I’ve been able to look back and see where my hard work is getting me,” Rummel said. “It’s great to look at performers and professionals and think ‘I could (italics) be there’ but it’s also great to listen to my sophomore year recital. It’s a world of difference.
“When people focus on other people, they can think ‘I’m not as good.’
I’ve noticed that the people who can compare to themselves are a lot nicer and more supportive. Westminster is really good at teaching that, which is why we are such a supportive community.”
Although Brandt and Verguldi are seniors, the pipeline from Upper Bucks to one of the country’s premier music programs remains strong.
Quakertown soprano Chelsea Holbrook, Quakertown alto Hayley Ashe and Upper Black Eddy alto Mary-Kate Hometchko are all members of the Westminster Chapel Choir and also participants in Readings and Carols. All of the college’s freshmen comprise the Chapel Choir.
Rummel, a junior Music Education major, plans on attending a program in Vienna this summer. Verguldi and Brandt are applying their musical gifts in different ways. “I am a bachelor of arts and music major,” Verguldi explained. “My concentration is in psychology and musical concentration is voice studies. I’m applying to grad schools to study Speech Language Pathology.
“I’d like to pursue musical rehabilitation and connect different sections of the brain through music and singing,” Verguldi continued. “I’d like to work with stroke victims. Stroke can be devastating but can be helped with these kinds of therapies.”
“I’ll spend two more years studying with (voice professor) Nova Thomas,” Brandt noted. “She is amazing. I hope to continue on in vocal performance and pedagogy.” Brandt would ultimately love to be an opera singer; her favorite course at Westminster was “The Singing Actor.”
One appreciates the artistry of the Symphonic Choir when listening to the diverse stories of these area sopranos: the choir takes those different backgrounds and melds them into one beautiful, harmonious note.