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The Story of GPPC and the City Singers

As GPPC embarks upon a new round of self-examination in terms of its future, I am reminded of an earlier time in its life of which I was very much a part.  I’d like to share the story of NSA (full name later).

The year was 1993, about this time of year. Wishing to expand the church’s outreach after a very successful financial campaign, Session challenged its various committees to develop proposals toward that goal.  Learning of a program at a prominent Presbyterian church in Charlotte which had developed an eventually free-standing community wide program in music and arts for children and youth, the Worship and Music committee requested and received a $10,000 grant from the Session to explore and initiate such a program. A particular target would be families in the many apartment buildings near the church, though open to all. The executive director of the Charlotte program was brought to Richmond to consult with GPPC’s committee and help plan a summer program for the ensuing year; thus the Neighborhood School of the Arts (NSA) was born.

A tangible result of the first summer program is the banner of batik squares which hangs on the left wall near the stage in Fellowship Hall. That experience spawned a series of short-term art classes during the school year in our education building. Learning of our work, Richmond Public Schools asked if our teachers could bring their expertise to supplemental classes in elementary schools. Partial funding for these classes (I remember Fox and Ginter Park schools) came from the Community Foundation, the Jackson Foundation, and others.

From the beginning, a choral group of children and youth was an essential component of our programming; thus City Singers Children’s Choir was born, presenting its first concert in December of 1996. By the late ’90s, Neighborhood School of the Arts was serving 1,000 individuals each year, and an Executive Director was hired – part-time at first and eventually full time.  Financial aid was always available to qualifying low-income families.

For a variety of reasons, the early years of this century were not a good period for the organization, with City Singers eventually remaining as the only viable element. When in 2007 the financial situation became dismal enough to cause the board to vote to dissolve NSA, an active parents group – convinced that the musical, cultural and personal development benefits to their children could not be duplicated elsewhere – resolved that City Singers would not die. I agreed to serve as musical director on a volunteer basis while the parents group proceeded with the legal work required to register CS as a non-profit organization.

Over the years CS had a succession of musical directors. That summer of 2007 Leslie Dripps, who had developed an outstanding program at Chickahominy Middle School and was frequently engaged as choral clinician at regional festivals, volunteered to assist with our CS summer program. Her work was received so well that we hired her to be the musical director and eventually Executive Director of City Singers Youth Choirs, a title she still holds. In recent years she’s been joined by Mara Smith, who – in addition to her full time position as music teacher at Pearson’s Corner School in Hanover – became director of the grades 2-4 Neighborhood Singers.

Another important contribution to the future of music in the Richmond area was the engagement of two students in VCU’s music program as interns with CS: Kelsey Snyder, who grew up in CS, and Megan Ellenberger – both of whom are now teaching music in area public schools.

Under Leslie’s guidance, CS has expanded its footprint in the Richmond community. While its office and summer camp are both housed in the GPPC basement, rehearsals are now held at First Baptist Church. City Singers has also built partnerships with Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School, The Richmond Symphony, The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, Richmond Choral Society, and many more organizations in every corner of the city. You can hear City Singers Youth Choirs with the Richmond Symphony this December 3 & 4 at the beloved annual Richmond traditional “Let it Snow!” concert. And of course, Leslie has been heard as a soloist in our worship services in addition to bringing the touring choir members of City Singers to sing in our worship services.

All of this would not have happened without GPPC’s partnership and financial support. Now in their 20th season, City Singers has a growing endowment fund, increasing donor support, and strong community partnerships — making the way for their next 20 seasons. For all you have made possible, a huge THANK YOU to Ginter Park Presbyterian Church!

David McCormick began his service as GPPC’s music director in 1976, retiring in May 2000. Remaining a member, he has since led the music programs in several area churches. He currently serves as interim part time assistant to the minister of music at First Presbyterian. (Photo of David with Sherry, a longtime choir member and clerk of our Session.)

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