Music of her heart

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Teacher challenges herself as alto member of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir

By Marcia Ellett

A recent college grad and Geist resident, Elizabeth James is now working as choir co-director at Center Grove Middle School North. This effervescent alto with a take-on-the-world attitude has been crafting her musical story since she could walk and talk.

“She showed an interest in singing when she was very young,” recalled Cherie James, Elizabeth’s mom. “She was this tiny person with a big voice. How could you not nurture that?”

With both parents teaching music for a living (and a brother who teaches music too), perhaps it’s not surprising that Elizabeth would also have an affinity for it, but the path she has chosen to live out her love of music is decidedly of her own choosing.

Her family moved to Geist when Elizabeth was in middle school, partly to be closer to her father’s music teaching job and partly to foster her and her brother Alex’s musical interests.

“I started doing marching band in eighth grade,” said James. “We won nationals that year and got to participate in the Rose Parade and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”

James has also studied opera and dance and has been a choreographer.

James said it became clear in her junior year of high school that she wanted to do something in performing arts, which created a dilemma she still struggles with today.

Although she yearned to share her voice, she also had a desire to give children the musical experience she had growing up. So she majored in both music education and vocal performance at Michigan State University.

“I worked really hard to balance both degrees evenly,” James said. And while she admits it wasn’t easy, she said, “I’ve always lived with the idea that whatever opportunities I was supposed to take would present themselves.”

Today she teaches six choirs and around 450 middle school kids in her day job and is also helping participants in the school’s musical learn their songs. They’re doing “Beauty and the Beast” this year.

“Music is a creative art,” James said. “It forces the students to use their imagination, get out of their comfort zone — they have to make it into what it’s supposed to be.

“It also gives that student who may struggle in the math classroom the opportunity to learn a different way,” she added, “and it forces them to put their iPads down.”

James also believes it’s important to have a resource for challenging herself and continuing to grow musically.

“You never stop learning as a musician,” she said.

So James became an alto member of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, which gives her the opportunity to work on pieces she wouldn’t be able to tackle with her young students.

In April the choir is debuting the world premier of composer Mohammed Fairouz’s Oratorio “Zabur,” which speaks to the heart of the Symphonic Choir’s mission of “performing and commissioning new, bold works,” said the Choir’s Artistic Director Eric Stark.

James said, “It’s always fun to premier a new piece because you can’t go and find recordings of it. You’re all discovering it together.”

Future plans for James include going back to school someday to get a master’s degree in choir conducting or vocal performance and travel. She spent a semester abroad during school and found that “music connects you to many parts of the world — to cultures you never would have dreamt of coming across.

“It kind of opened my mind to how much history and how much future there is in the world of music. Just becoming more educated and connected to other cultures is a goal.”

With a broad smile James said, “The thing about music — it adds a little bit more to life. It’s a very full-bodied experience that I don’t think many occupations provide on a daily basis.”

And whether teaching or performing, James will continue to seek the next musical opportunity, relishing each beautiful note along the way.

About Elizabeth James

Age: 24

Resides: Geist

Family: mom (Cherie), dad (Matt), brother (Alex)

Occupation: Choir director Center Grove Middle School North

Education: Music Education and Vocal Performance, Michigan State University.

Hobbies/interests: Working out, cooking, music (of course)

Quote: “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”  – Mae West

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