The Job: Christy Elsner

The Founder and Artistic Director of Allegro Choirs of Kansas City, A Community-Based Children’s Choir, Continues to Push for Excellence

“If you’re not sweating you’re not working.”

That sounds like something a spin class instructor might say, but it’s a popular phrase from Christy Elsner, founder and artistic director of Allegro Choirs of Kansas City, a community-based children’s choir.

However, laughter and enthusiasm were the two defining takeaways after talking with Elsner. “It’s always an adventure,” she said.

“We are pushing these kids to be excellent, not perfect, but to be excellent, in all aspects of their lives. Music just happens to be the vehicle that we do it with.”

Elsner founded the organization 19 years ago. As a young mother, she wanted to stay at home with her children, but to continue sharing her passion for music.

Elsner had taught middle school choir for a few years, after graduating from the University of Kansas. While student teaching with Janeal Crabb Krehbiel, Elsner assisted with the Lawrence Children’s Choir. Her experience with Krehbiel encouraged her to try out the idea in Kansas City.

The first year was experimental, offered at no fee, with the 38-member choir of third- through fifth-graders built word of mouth and practicing in rented rehearsal space.

Now, the organization averages 250 singers a year, ages 8 through 18, filling six choirs.

“It’s unique. We have the opportunity to see all these kids go through their different phases and changes and mature. We feel very fortunate to be a part of that growth,” Elsner said.

About six years ago, the organization moved into its permanent home, a refurbished car dealership in downtown Bonner Springs, Kansas. Elsner worried that attendance would suffer, but the kids were as committed as ever, coming from as far as Topeka and Atchison in Kansas, to Peculiar, Independence and Liberty on the Missouri side.

The choir boasts about 80 percent retention year to year. “They all know each other and they are from all different communities and school environments and home environments, and they come from different religions. The common denominator is that they love to sing.”

In addition to the organization’s three seasonal concerts each year, the choirs perform in the community for nursing homes, the Ronald McDonald House, the Kansas City Symphony, William Baker Festival Singers and Kansas City Chorale, along with performances across the United States and Europe.

“We try to make sure that we are singing with the same technical and lyrical artistry, whether we are singing with the Symphony or singing for an Alzheimer’s unit,” said Elsner.

“Above all and foremost, it is about character development in a singer,” said Elsner. “Of course, we want them to be lifelong musicians, but we want them to have an understanding of how important their contribution is individually as well as a whole.”

“That’s what choir is: They have to individually be superior and then together be superior to make an incredible sound.”

Togetherness happens beyond rehearsals and performances, too. The local Dairy Queen stays open late to accommodate families hanging out after rehearsal. Also, touring is an important aspect of the organization; even the younger choirs do local day trips. Elsner encourages parents to have the kids earn the money themselves, because it means more.

This past June, members traveled to Washington, D.C., performing at the National Cathedral, Mt. Vernon, and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Elsner handles the tour details for local and national trips, booking accommodations, applying for permits, scheduling transportation, etc. “I want to know exactly what we’re doing and when and where. Tour planning and budgeting is an adventure when you graduate from college with a degree in music education as they do not teach those things in any course.”

Stemming from her experience with Allegro, Elsner has also been invited to direct honor choirs, conduct clinics and lead workshops for teachers. She’s written one book, “Gadgets for Great Singing,” based on her kinesthetic, hands-on approach to learning, and is working on her second.

The choir continues to expand its reach. Next season, Allegro launches an east side rehearsal location in Kansas City, has multiple appearances with the Kansas City Symphony and prepares for a European tour during the 20th season.

“It’s been awesome because the choir has grown as my kids have, so I was able to go to all the field trips and volunteer at school and be home when I needed to,” said Elsner. “I worked weird hours so that I could do that. I’d work late at night or when they were napping. I didn’t want to miss out on either thing, so I was very fortunate.” 

For more information about Allegro Choirs of Kansas City, visit www.allegrokc.org. Auditions for singers in grades three through 12 are April through August.

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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