Agusta Arthur can still remember the first time she heard the Appalachian Children’s Chorus perform.
She was a second-grader, squeezed into a row of seats with her parents listening to the young singers perform in Charleston for New Year’s Eve.
“It was more than anything I’d ever seen in my eight years prior,” Arthur said.
Two weeks later, she auditioned for a spot. And for the next 10 years, she found a home in the ACC — a place to grow as a performer and a person, a way to see the world. It was where she formed great friendships and where she grew to love and appreciate music.
She’s still pursuing music. This year she made the drumline as a freshman at West Virginia University.
It’s keeping her very busy, and for the most part she’s OK with her crazy schedule. But during a recent phone call conversation, when realizing that her drumline responsibilities would prevent her from attending the Appalachian Children’s Chorus’ 25th anniversary celebration, Arthur sounded sad.
She holds the organization in high regard, admitting that she was more excited to receive her acceptance letter into ACC than when she received her college acceptance letter.
“It will always be a part of me,” she said. “Being in there from 8 to 18, that’s where I developed into who I was.”
The ACC is inviting alumni, past and present board members, staff, parents, donors and friends to attend the Silver Prelude cocktail party, which will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday in the University of Charleston’s ballroom.
A hall of memories will be set up to show old photos from every season. A projector will also display photos from the past. The current ACC members will even stop in for a quick performance.
The adult party is free and organizers ask that attendees sport the chorus’s colors: red and/or black. Or a silver outfit will also work, to celebrate the nonprofit’s silver anniversary.
It’s an anniversary that founder and director Selina Midkiff is still trying to wrap her head around.
“Who would have thought, seriously,” she said while reflecting on its history.
In 1990 — the chorus’s inaugural year — Midkiff was working as an adjunct professor at the University of Charleston and the chair of the Music Department. She’d been teaching music in the Kanawha Valley since 1969. She was a busy mother and wife, raising her four sons.
She never set out to start a children’s chorus. In fact, it was proposed to her. The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra wanted a children’s chorus to partner with. They were tired of having to scour the area for young singers every time they needed youth accompaniment.
The University of Charleston backed the idea. With a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music education from West Virginia University and trained as a classical singer, Midkiff, already on UC’s faculty list, was a logical choice for director.
In its first six years, the chorus was known as the University of Charleston Children’s Chorus. Midkiff was still working at the university and running the chorus part time. Membership was growing steadily from 12 “choristers” in the first year to 115 by year six. They took their first trip in 1995 to the Walt Disney World Resort.
That same year, the chorus transitioned to become a separate nonprofit organization and renamed itself as what we know today: “Appalachian Children’s Choir.”
Membership continued to rise, peaking at 245 in 2000. That same year, Midkiff took a serious leap of faith by working full-time with the chorus. A $25,000 budget digest grant from the state legislature was the push she needed, she said.
She said when making the choice, she thought, “If I screw this up, I not only lose my job, but I lose my choir.”
But she didn’t lose her choir. Fifteen years later, it’s still going strong and has remained under her leadership.
Pouring over a timeline during a recent interview, Midkiff pointed out some of the major highlights.
They took their first international trip to London in 1998. They were named the official children’s chorus of West Virginia in 2004.
They’ve performed for the United Nations General Assembly and in Carnegie Hall in New York City. The ACC was there for the groundbreaking of the Clay Center in 1996. They’ve performed at the inauguration of state governors.
Midkiff has led over 100 students and parents to perform in Ireland, Italy, Prague, Hawaii and more. The ACC now operates and oversees choirs in Raleigh, Putnam and Harrison counties.
Midkiff is wearing an ACC watch. She prefers to drink coffee out of her ACC mugs. When the small ACC tokens are pointed out to her, she laughs. She really doesn’t notice those things anymore. It’s just a part of her life.
“Of course the choir is my fifth child. I have four sons.”
On a cold, rainy Tuesday evening, the eyes of many students in the chorus’ highest, premiere choir, concert choir, are looking down at Midkiff as they stand in the tiered rows of the University of Charleston’s Keenan Hall. Their eyes are locked in on her as she’s conducting them through holiday songs that they’ll perform in upcoming shows.
They’ve been working on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” There has been a lot of starting and stopping. With one hand motion, Midkiff can halt the students and make them start again. She knows they can do better, and before they leave she challenges them to work harder.
“Everybody look at me,” she said. “Now, put your right hand in the air. I hereby solemnly swear that I will practice ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ every day this week.”
Someone lets out, “What?!”
Midkiff keeps going, “Until next Friday, so help me Mrs. Midkiff.” The students repeat her words back in unison.
Sure, it means more work for them, but most of them are still smiling.
Kayden Upton, an eighth grader at South Charleston Middle, is in the crowd.
She said even though rehearsals last for two-and-a-half hours on Tuesdays and on Saturdays go for much longer, she looks forward to it.
She said she looks forward to every Tuesday when her fellow chorusters pile into Keenan Hall. She looks forward to seeing friends that don’t go to her school.
She looks forward to singing and to just be herself.
“In school, you’re pressured to be in social groups that you don’t want to be in, to make friends with people that you don’t want to be friends with,” the 13-year-old said. “Here, ... you’re in a group where everyone loves to sing and you can relate to people and you can feel like you belong.
“You don’t have to worry about the social standards or what other people want you to be because you’re all the same here.”
Reach Anna Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4881.