On Dec. 9, the lobby of the Davenport Hotel bustled with arriving guests and the mezzanine overflowed with visitors enjoying a Christmas tree display. Suddenly, in the midst of the hubbub, the sweet sound of children’s voices rose as the members of Kinderchor began to sing a selection of Christmas carols.
Kinderchor of Spokane is a children’s choral program that evolved from the South Hill Children’s Chorus. Reorganized in 2007, this nonprofit program strives to offer opportunities for children to experience the joy of choral music regardless of economic circumstance.
For artistic director Sharon Rodkey Smith, the choir is a homecoming of sorts. Smith grew up in Spokane, and her father, John Rodkey, was the principal of North Central High School for many years. As a teen she served as an accompanist for a local group, which spawned her love for this type of music. “I knew in high school I wanted to do children’s choral music,” Smith said.
In 2006, Smith and her husband, Dennis, returned to Spokane to care for her aging parents. But after nearly four decades of working with children’s choirs, first in Tacoma and then in Omaha, Neb., Smith wasn’t ready to give up the work she so enjoyed. “I have a huge passion and love for making music with kids,” she said.
When she heard that the South Hill Children’s Chorus needed a director, she quickly applied for the position. Since that time, the group has grown in size and scope. Smith offers two semesters of instruction. “No previous music experience is needed,” Smith said. She added that she does hold auditions for prospective members simply to assess their skill levels.
Kinderchor is comprised of a 20-member “Preparatory Choir,” consisting of children in second through fifth grades, a 33-member “Concert Choir,” featuring children from fifth to 12th grade, and a select vocal ensemble.
All three groups sang for the crowds at the Davenport. Seven-year-old Celeste Page sighed with impatience as her mom attempted to apply a coat of lip gloss to her moving lips.
“I love to sing!” she said. “I’m a natural singer. I like to make up my own songs. Sometimes when I say words, my singing voice just pops out!”
Parents appreciate Smith’s skill at channeling the energy of this diverse group. Ellen Miller’s daughter, Lisa, sings with Kinderchor. “Sharon is amazing with the kids,” Miller said. “She knows how to motivate them in a positive way.”
Debbie Kutsal agreed. Her 9-year-old daughter, Rana, enjoys singing with the Preparatory Choir. “Sharon expects a lot from the kids, but she makes it fun,” Kutsal said.
As the children gathered around the piano in the hotel lobby, the little ones wiggled with anticipation while the older kids took deep breaths. Alto singer Ally Underwood, 13, said, “I like the finished product of how we sound. I feel good when I hit the right notes.”
Sacajawea student Creta Harper added, “I love the creativity of it (singing). You’re able to apply your voice in different ways.”
Nodding in agreement, 13-year-old Lisa Miller said, “Music is a great way to express yourself. You can really tell a story either with the melody or the words.”
Choir members come from across the city and include a boy with severe stuttering problems that disappear when he sings, as well as 17-year-old Catherine Parks, who is blind.
Parks’ mom, Theresa, records Kinderchor practices and Catherine memorizes the music by ear. “She gets up in the morning singing,” Parks said of her daughter.
During the Dec. 9 show, when the first strains of “Gloria” began to fill the lobby, passers-by paused to listen. The chattering noise of the busy hotel faded as the children concluded their concert with “Silent Night.”
For Smith, these concerts are a way to give back to the community. For the kids, it’s a chance to showcase their hard work.
Christen Phaneuf, 15, is one of the original members of the group. “It’s been fun to watch this grow from a group of eight,” she said. “Sharon takes people with different skills and personalities and brings it all together.”
Her mom, Jurene Phaneuf, said she “was flabbergasted by what Sharon could do. It’s a little bit mysterious to me.”
But Smith said there’s really no mystery in her work. “I get to combine my passion for kids and my passion for my art. When you get to blend those two things, it’s a joy.”