June 21, 2014

Charlotte church music director wants to build community with youth choir

In just 18 months, Rob Ridgell has become an untiring player on Charlotte’s music scene. He presides over a staff of four at Christ Episcopal and directs seven choral groups, including two at local schools.

It was August 1988 and Rob Ridgell, then a 13-year-old member of the children’s choir at Charlotte’s Christ Episcopal Church, boarded a Piedmont Airlines flight bound for New York City.

The trip got his name in the hometown paper: Ridgell, the Observer reported, was one of 30 boys across the country selected to spend a week singing in churches on Wall Street and Fifth Avenue.

It was the launch of a music career that took Ridgell around the world and landed him in top jobs at cathedrals and other grand steepled churches in Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, St. Paul, New York City, and, a year and a half ago, back home in Charlotte.

Now director of music and the arts at Christ Episcopal – the same church that paid for his life-changing trip to the Big Apple – Ridgell, 39, is working to give young people in all parts of Charlotte some of those same opportunities.

He’s only been back in town since December 2012, but already Ridgell has become a major, untiring player on Charlotte’s music scene. He plays the organ and presides over a full-time staff of four at the Myers Park church. And he directs seven choral groups: four at Christ Episcopal, a church renowned for its music; two he’s started at local schools; and one he co-directs at Southminster Retirement Community.

Now, with the blessing and financial backing of Christ Episcopal, which has a history of outreach, Ridgell wants this fall to inaugurate yet another group of singers – one he’s dubbing the Queen City Youth Chorus. Plans call for 100 or so child and teen singers from all over Charlotte to come together to perform a diverse repertoire of music, including gospel, classical, Americana, and pop.

Ridgell, whose music degrees include a doctorate in organ performance, also hopes this diverse mix of kids will offer hope to Charlotte and show the city how to break down racial, religious and cultural walls.

“I think we need it now more than ever, to bridge the social divide, to educate youth in how to make music on their own rather than just listen to it on the radio or YouTube,” said Ridgell. “I want to go deeper and build a community of rich and poor, black and white, tall and short, all singing together.”

Where will he get his young choristers?

Ridgell (pronounced Rid-GELL) has already started two spirited youth choirs: At Rama Road Elementary, a public school in southeast Charlotte whose students have roots in more than 40 countries; and at Brookstone, a Christian school in west Charlotte whose students are predominantly African-American. They all call him “Dr. Rob.”

Then there’s St. John Neumann, a Catholic parish on Idlewild Road where Ridgell’s Korean-born wife, Soo-Jin, is music director. Its congregation is mostly white and Latino.

And there are the children at Christ Episcopal, an affluent and predominantly white church on Providence Road.

“It would not be your typical church choir,” Ridgell said. “It would be open to children of all faiths, or of no faith.”

For the balding but still-boyish Ridgell, starting children’s choirs is “a ministry of presence,” in which he shows up every week to encourage these young singers to treasure and perfect their “God-given instrument” – their own voice in song.

Directing a choir “is not babysitting,” said Ridgell. “And with ears that have been tuned to the New York Philharmonic and Trinity Choir (in New York), I can only demand excellence.”

Ridgell, who wears a coat and tie to rehearsals “out of respect for the boys and girls,” said he hopes to instill that same appreciation of excellence.

“Music has a tremendous history of also helping children grow socially and educationally,” Ridgell said. “And for centuries, churches and cathedrals have picked up the tab for music education in their neighborhoods, villages and cities.”

So, while he wants children to have fun as they sing everything from Christmas carols in German to Katy Perry’s “Roar,” he also hopes to enrich their lives – and their city.

“He’s got a great vision of what can pull communities together,” said Patti Denny, principal at Rama Road Elementary, “and I’m excited about that possibility for our kids.”

A quick takeoff in New York

This isn’t Ridgell’s first experience in what he calls “a Little League choir program.”

He started one during his seven years as organist and music education director at Trinity Wall Street, an Episcopal Church in lower Manhattan founded in 1697. When Ridgell arrived at the church, where he had sung during that long-ago teen trip, its leaders asked him to start a children’s choir.

To find the members for what became the Trinity Youth Chorus, Ridgell did what he’s done in Charlotte: went to schools, most of them high-poverty public schools, a few times a week to teach the children how to sing. It took him to Chinatown, to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, and to the Battery Park area of Manhattan.

Ridgell tapped into the kids’ natural passion for music, but also managed to convince them that, like sports, it required practice. Hard work now, glory later.

“Singing is a sport,” Ridgell said. “It’s not easy. You’ve got to be able to breathe well and you use muscles you don’t always use in soccer. It’s putting on the brain and thinking strategically about the next note, just like you do before taking that next shot in basketball.”

The children of New York responded.

“What surprised us was how quickly it took off,” said the Rev. Canon Anne Mallonee, the vicar at Trinity Wall Street. “The kids responded to him immediately. The parents trusted him. And word of mouth spread.”

The Trinity Youth Chorus now has 200 members. During Ridgell’s tenure, the children performed on CBS’s “Early Show” and sang “Ubi caritas,” a Latin hymn, on the soundtrack for the movie, “Doubt,” which starred Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Can Ridgell duplicate that success here?

It could prove to be a “significant challenge,” said David Tang, former director of the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, the chorus of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.

Bringing children together from all parts of the city is “a noble thing,” said Tang, music director at Charlotte’s Sharon Presbyterian Church. “But he can only spread himself so far. And that’s much more difficult here than in New York, which has more (population) density.”

Ridgell acknowledged it’ll take support from Christ Episcopal – “they have my back” – to pursue his mission to “get off the organ bench and get into the street.” The church, for example, lets him do most of his outreach during regular work hours.

And the Rev. Chip Edens, the church’s rector, is convinced Ridgell’s got the drive and talent to empower these young singers. “He has started a movement of hope in our city that will only grow with time.”

‘A church music nerd’

Ridgell spent much of his childhood in Charlotte churches.

He went to Dilworth United Methodist, where his mother was the organist; to Christ Episcopal, where he sang in the children’s choir and played the organ; even to St. Luke’s Lutheran, where his grandmother is a member. “I was a real denominational mutt,” he said. “And a church music nerd.”

“Even at 2 years old, he would stand at the organ. Stand still. For a long time,” said his mother, Jane Ridgell Dower. “And if he had Tinker Toys, he was making a little pipe organ.”

Later, she got him a Casio keyboard and lessons. While other kids were singing along with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” he was enthralled with organ music.

Then, one day in a Kroger grocery store, his mom ran into Ben Hutto, music director at Christ Episcopal, who said Ridgell should be singing in the children’s choir at his church.

Christ Episcopal sponsored him for the New York trip. And later the college-bound Ridgell used the church’s organ to make his audition cassette tape for Indiana University’s music program.

He became a Roman Catholic in Indiana. He met his wife when they were both graduate students at Westminister Choir College in Princeton, N.J. “We were getting on a bus to go sing at Lincoln Center” in New York, he recalled.

After church stints around the country, the couple moved to Charlotte in late 2012 because Ridgell’s father, Ed, a longtime social studies teacher at McClintock Middle School, was dying. They now live in south Charlotte and have two sons, with another due in August.

Dr. Rob and the kids

Talk to people who have worked with Ridgell and they mention two things: his improvised feats on the keyboard and his dedication to teaching children.

After soul singer James Brown and former President Gerald Ford died during the same week in 2006, Ridgell, then at Trinity Wall Street, managed an organ tribute that combined “I Feel Good” with “Hail to the Chief.”

Two-plus years later, at the end of a Sunday service at Trinity, Ridgell paid homage to the just-departed Michael Jackson with an organ medley of his hits. Ridgell became a YouTube star and got a mention in The New York Times.

And on the recent Memorial Day weekend, Ridgell treated Christ Episcopal to an organ medley of armed forces anthems. “I could see all the veterans smiling,” said the Rev. Marty Hedgpeth, associate rector.

Then there’s Ridgell’s connection with kids. He’ll bang out a few bars from “Harry Potter” or “Angry Birds,” and that playfulness tickles and impresses them in a flash.

The kids rise to the occasion.

“Dr. Rob really speaks to them like they’re important little people,” said Carey Kuznar, former director of fine arts at Brookstone. “He talks to them, not at them.”

On one afternoon last month at Rama Road Elementary, Ridgell greeted the 25 or so fourth and fifth graders with, “I missed you guys!” He bounded into the school library and headed for the piano. “How’s life?”

“Good!” they chimed in, crowding the piano and waiting for his “One two ready go!”

One song after another: Katy Perry’s “Roar.” “Let it Go” from “Frozen.” A gospel hymn called “I Need You to Survive.” “Give Us Hope,” their theme song. And the finale, “The Star Spangled Banner.”

His hands racing up and down the keys, Ridgell demanded – “Sing with confidence!” – and complimented – “Awesome!”

The children auditioned to join the choir. Once chosen, they got to leave class whenever Ridgell arrived.

Deanna Chillemi, the school’s full-time volunteer coordinator, whose salary is paid by Christ Episcopal, said being a member of the choir has helped some students stay on track with attendance and homework – failure on either front could cost them their spot next to the piano.

Principal Denny said she and Ridgell have talked about respecting the fact that Rama Road is a public school. He’s responded with a variety of music. And though he’s there from a church, Denny has gotten no complaints from parents. In fact, she said, “parents have been overjoyed.”

Last year, Ridgell directed a Christmas concert at Brookstone, the Christian school where he also directs a choir. By showtime, the children dressed as shepherds and angels knew whether to go with “chest voice” or “head voice.”

The parents there are also fans of Ridgell.

He arranged for one Brookstone student, De’Jon Dash, 10, to get a part in a recent opera directed by David Tang.

“I saw how he broke down the music for the children (at Brookstone),” said De’Jon’s mother, Tasha Green. “They knew their cues and everything.”

The children at both Brookstone and Rama Road echo their parents, and sound like they’d follow Ridgell anywhere – including into the Queen City Youth Chorus.

“Dr. Rob is nice,” said Aria McKinney, a third-grader at Brookstone who wants to be a singing star someday. “I know why he’s strict on us. Because he wants us to learn it right.”

Back at Rama Road Elementary, Jaia Carmack, 11, put it this way: “It makes me think I can do anything.”

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