The Magic of Making Music

Finding Joy, Community with the Grinnell Singers

October 18, 2023

When Zach Spindler-Krage ’25 came to Grinnell as a first-year student, he wanted to continue exploring his love of music. In high school, he had played cello and piano. At college, he was looking for something a bit different — less competitive, more collaborative.

He found exactly what he was looking for in the Grinnell Singers.

“I really enjoyed music and wanted to continue, but I also wanted to switch it up a little bit,” Spindler-Krage says. On a whim, he auditioned for the Grinnell Singers, the College’s largest vocal music ensemble, and was accepted. “I decided to try it out, at least for the fall semester,” Spindler-Krage says. “I ended up loving it.”

He’s now in his third year as a member of the Grinnell Singers.

Building Community

The Grinnell Singers rehearse with Director John Rommereim at the grand piano.
Rehearsal time is precious for the Grinnell Singers, but Director John Rommereim always takes time to help his musicians understand the context and meaning of the music.

Director John Rommereim’s leadership style is a large part of why Spindler-Krage loves the Grinnell Singers. “I really enjoy his energy and passion for the music,” he says.

Rommereim, who is also the Blanche Johnson Professor of Music, knows that practice time is precious, but he still makes space for the social, team-building activities that help turn this choir of 50+ voices into a community.

“It’s not all about studying and doing your work, but also about developing relationships,” Rommereim explains. “That is probably the most vital thing — for them to have a kind of home.”

For Sophie Noyes ’24, finding that “musical home” was key to her decision to become a member of the Grinnell Singers. “I was looking to make new friends and form community,” she says. “Joining the Grinnell Singers was a way for me to expand my social world while doing something I love.”

“I’ve learned that it doesn’t work to be so music-obsessed because you need to be attentive first and foremost to the social group,” Rommereim says. The ensemble holds elections for student leaders, sponsors picnics, and arranges for parties and social gatherings outside of regular rehearsals on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

A Musical Challenge

That doesn’t mean that Rommereim doesn’t demand a lot from his musicians. Although most of the Grinnell Singers are not music majors, the repertoire is challenging and requires commitment and focus.

As an example, Rommereim pulls out the enormous musical score for Tallis’ Spem in Alium, a 16th-century piece with 40 individual voice parts. “That has been a nice challenge for the choir,” he says. “It’s been unmatched over the centuries just for the scope of it. It’s only a nine-minute piece, but it’s a brilliant construction.”

Members of the Grinnell Singers rehearse with Director John Rommereim and composer Joel Thompson by Zoom
The Grinnell Singers rehearse with composer Joel Thompson over Zoom.

Another work in rehearsal is a piece by current composer Joel Thompson, “Love Songs from Lonely Letters,” commissioned by a consortium of colleges and professional ensembles of which Grinnell is a member. After Thompson accepted the commission, his career took off — his work is now being performed by musical organizations including the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Opera. Thompson will be on campus next semester to work with the Grinnell Singers before their performance of “Love Songs.” The consortium also commissioned a piece by Pulitzer composer Steven Stucky in 2006 and a 9/11-inspired piece by composer Mohammed Fairouz in 2013.

The Joel Thompson piece is particularly demanding, Spindler-Krage says. “It’s an incredibly challenging and equally beautiful piece, so it’s been fun. I appreciate that John is optimistic about our ability to learn difficult repertoire.”

Performing music at this level requires an understanding of its context and meaning, Spindler-Krage says. Even during a busy rehearsal schedule, when the singers are doing their best to learn the music for an upcoming concert, Rommereim never skips this step.

“He’s always adamant about taking a little bit of time each rehearsal and just talking about the pieces and the meaning of them,” Spindler-Krage says. Sometimes that means talking about the poetry that inspired the music or the composers and their life stories. “I think that improves the musical experience,” he adds.

Finding the Magic

Although the music is challenging, that doesn’t necessarily mean stressful, Spindler-Krage explains. “The vision that I had, not wanting the music that I did at Grinnell to be competitive or stressful in any regard, has absolutely been fulfilled by singers. I’ve been grateful for that.”

When the music and all of our voices really gel, when complex harmonies come together, it’s just like magic.

Sophie Noyes ’24

Would Spindler-Krage and Noyes encourage new students who love music to give the Grinnell Singers a try? “Absolutely!” says Noyes. “The group is so welcoming and it’s a great way to meet people. If a first-year finds joy in making music, they can absolutely find that joy with the Grinnell Singers.”

She adds, “When the music and all of our voices really gel, when complex harmonies come together, it’s just like magic.”

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