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Children's Chorus of Maryland finds home in Towson

No matter where she is, 6-year-old Berlyn Wells-Huber loves to sing.

The Catonsville resident sings everything from Christmas carols and nursery rhymes to songs from the Disney movie "Frozen" in her room, in the bath and in the car.

Yet when it came time for her to audition for the Children's Chorus of Maryland and School of Music last spring, her mother, Chris Wells, said she wasn't sure she would go through with it.

"She's shy with strangers," Wells said. "… And she had never met either teacher."

Moments after Berlyn walked into the audition room, any sign of shyness disappeared, Wells said. Children's Chorus of Maryland instructors had Berlyn singing, repeating rhythms and even skipping and jumping — all with a smile on her face.

"I was amazed at what they got her to do," Wells said.

Beginning Thursday, dozens of children like Berlyn will audition for the Children's Chorus of Maryland and School of Music's fall conservatory program. And this year, for the first time in the chorus's 38-year history, spring auditions will be held at the program's first permanent home in the Cranston Building, at 320 E. Towsontown Blvd., in Towson.

"We were very anxious to find a location where we could be in one spot, have our own classrooms, our own rehearsal hall," said Tina Owens, the chorus's director of marketing. "It just seemed to be the right time."

Founded in 1976 by music educator Betty Bertaux, of Lutherville, Children's Chorus of Maryland and School of Music (CCM) is one of the oldest vocal literacy training and choral music education programs in the region. CCM uses a "play-based" model to teach more than 80 children ages 5 to 17 how to sing, read and write music, as well as perform, said Ramona Galey, CCM's general director, a Lutherville resident.

Students meet with instructors twice a week: once for a music class and once for choir rehearsal. Classes and choirs vary depending on ability levels.

CCM students have performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Annapolis Opera and at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

In addition, CCM runs an early childhood music program called "Crickets" for children ages 4 to 6.

But since its inception, CCM has never had its own home. It held classes and rehearsals at several locations, including students' homes, Towson University, Bryn Mawr School, Waldorf School of Baltimore and lastly, the former St. Timothy Lutheran Church building in Timonium. It ran its administrative offices on East Pennsylvania Avenue in Towson, about 4 miles from the church.

"We've gone on 38 years kind of being hobos," Bertaux joked.

For years, CCM searched for a place to combine classrooms and offices, Galey said.

"It was like 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears,'" she said. "Whenever I would go look at something, it was either too small or too large."

So when Henry Smith, a managing partner with Smith & Downey law firm and his wife, Donna Rae, bought the Cranston Building in December 2013, Galey said she saw an opportunity CCM just couldn't pass up.

"This one was just right," she said.

Smith is renovating the three-story building, built in 1964 and previously used by Cranston Plumbing and Heating. The Baltimore office of Smith & Downey, now based at Towson Commons., will occupy part of the first floor. The approximately 3,600-square-foot ground floor will go to CCM, an organization that Smith said combines two of his "favorite spaces: education and music."

"It's wonderful to have such an outstanding organization and community resource as the Children's Chorus of Maryland as a tenant and neighbor in the Cranston Building," said Smith, of Towson, a singer and musician himself.

The newly renovated space, designed by CCM parents who are also architects, will open this fall and include classrooms, a rehearsal hall, offices, a parents' lounge and a kitchen area.

"It's just going to be fabulous having a home," Bertaux said. "When the kids walk in, it's theirs. When the parents walk in, it's theirs."

In the interim, CCM is using the building's third floor for classrooms and offices. Already, Galey said she can see more continuity between staff members and parents.

"Parents just pop their heads in the door," she said. "It's just so much more grounded. There's much more communication and face time."

With the new space also comes the ability to accommodate more students. Galey said she would like to enroll 70 more students by the fall, bringing the total enrollment to about 150.

That's why this year's auditions are so important, CCM leaders said.

Children don't need to know how to read or write music before auditioning. They just need to enjoy singing, Owens said. During the 30-minute auditions, instructors will ask children to sing a song of their choice, as well as assess their learning style and musical aptitude.

"It's low-key, low-stress and fun," Owens said.

Parents like Wells said they are glad CCM finally has a home and are looking forward to the extra room and possibilities it will bring.

"There's an excitement in the air that when we come back in the fall, we'll be in our space that was designed for us," Wells said.

Auditions begin April 3 and run through May 29 for children who are 5 years old and entering first grade through age 11. There is a $25 fee per audition. To schedule an audition, visit http://www.ccmsings.org or call 410-494-1480.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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