Practice, Practice, Practice: Jim Shepherd Takes ACC Singers to Carnegie Hall

Jim Shepherd With ACC Choir

So, a tourist asks someone in New York, ‘How do I get to Carnegie Hall?’ The New Yorker answers, ‘Practice, practice, practice.’ ” — One version of a very old joke

Long daily practices have become the norm for the Austin Community College choir since earning a chance to perform at Carnegie Hall in April.

Appearing at Carnegie is widely considered the pinnacle of a performing career, but most of the 40 ACC choir students are barely out of high school. Following a nationwide community choir audition held annually, ACC was recognized as among the best and chosen to perform at the world-renowned venue.

At age 31, Choir Director and Associate Music Professor Jim Shepherd is also young for such an honor. After just four years on the job, his first at the college level, he’s grown the choir from 14 to 70 members. On the big day, his students will be on stage with two or three other choirs under the direction of maestro Simon Carrington, director of choral music at Yale University and a founding member of the Grammy winning ensemble The King’s Singers. The event is sponsored by Manhattan Concert Productions, which is also promoting the event, and in years past has always managed to pack the 2,800-seat hall.

Carrington will lead the choir in the Faure “Requiem,” along with a professional New York City orchestra and soloists. The “Requiem” was written in Latin in 1890 by French composer Gabriel Faure, in the Impressionistic and Romantic style that prevailed during the period.

Despite the youth of the choir members, only about half of whom are music majors, Shepherd asks each of them to delve deeply into themselves for inspiration.

After reading English translations of the “Requiem,” or music for the dead, “we focus first on the lyrics, on how to bring meaning to the words, and relate it to our own lives,” he says. “We express the feelings through our diction, the dynamics, the blend and the balance.”

The Faure “Requiem,” he says, “is one of the most performed master works in the chorale world because of its significance and power.”

Along the way, the students learn of the great debt all music lovers owe to the Catholic Church, and its Latin music.

“All Western music has its basis in Catholic music: classical, jazz, rock ’n’ roll. It all started with the Catholic Church; it’s a huge part of musical history,” says Shepherd, who is not Catholic. “When Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Handel wrote music, it was often in Latin.”

Even more than learning about music, Shepherd hopes the Carnegie Hall experience will elevate the students’ lives in other ways. For him, music brought him from deep poverty in eastern Kentucky coal mine country.

“Everyone in my family played bluegrass music, but my mother wouldn’t let me go near it because of all the drinking and partying that surrounded it.”

She did, though, let him take up the trumpet when he was 8. He earned scholarships to study music at a small Kentucky college, which led to a Ph.D. in choral conducting at the University of Texas at Austin.

“It’s important for these kids to see the world,” Shepherd says. “And it’s important for other people to see that great things that are going on at community colleges. Our students need to see a community college on the same plane as the bigger universities. I hope it will inspire them to want to achieve great things in music, or whatever career they choose.”

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