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Choir School offers music, life lessons

Ben Outen, the Choir School at St. Peter’s artistic director, hopes to convey his passion to his students for “that beautiful, sensory experience.”
Ben Outen, the Choir School at St. Peter’s artistic director, hopes to convey his passion to his students for “that beautiful, sensory experience.” COURTESY OF KAY JOHNSON

Thousands of people walk by St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in uptown Charlotte each day, but many are unaware that behind the red door is a renowned choir school.

“For years, we have been known as Charlotte’s best kept secret,” said Ben Outen, the Choir School at St. Peter’s artistic director.

Outen, who has a 1984 bachelor’s in music theory from Furman University and a 1986 master’s in music from Yale University, first joined St. Peter’s as the interim organist in 1993. The church’s rector asked him to start a boys’ choir, but Outen had to recruit boys from outside the church because there weren’t any in the congregation.

That first choir now has grown to five, made up of 100 children from ages 7 to 18 who represent 30 zip codes and, said Allison Elrod, the Choir School’s Director of Development and Communications, “fully reflect the diversity of the region.”

The choirs continue to be housed in St. Peter’s but are not otherwise affiliated with the church.

Choir participants must audition and rehearse an average of 10 hours per month, meeting once or twice each week for rehearsal, music theory class and individualized instruction. The choirs are single gender until they are teenagers, and each choir is progressive.

There is no tuition, but families are asked to make a fair share donation to the annual fund. The program’s diversity is both intentional and beneficial.

“I love the fact that music brings people together,” said Outen, 52. “Not just as listeners, but as performers. We can have different lives and views but we can relate on singing a song together.”

The choir school’s rigorous program teaches other life lessons as well, with choral music instruction only a piece of the larger mosaic of arts education.

“Music is a vehicle for learning big life lessons,” Outen said. “The importance of beauty, integrity to an artist’s intentions and understanding other cultures through their art.”

These lessons particularly resonate with the MasterSingers, who travel abroad every four years. This year’s choir, comprised of 32 teens, will serve as the Choir in Residence at Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, England, in July.

G.W. Yost, a graduate of the choirs, wrote of his 2007 experience singing in Cheltenham with the MasterSingers: “We were connecting music with people, music with places, and music with history. It meant so much to me to know that the music I sang in the most significant buildings in the world was the same that I sang in the small church with the red door.”

This is exactly what Outen, who began his choral conducting at age 13 when he oversaw the women’s and children’s choirs at his church in Pageland, S.C., hopes the choristers he instructs – often for a period of many years – take away from their experience.

“It is important to me to be able to provide kids who want to express themselves musically with the opportunity to do so,” he said. “To learn more about themselves and the people around them and to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

Katya Lezin is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Katya? Email her at bowserwoof@mindspring.com.

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