Volunteer singers find joy, sing in the holidays, as members of Baltimore Choral Arts Society

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Ruth Heilman was attracted to the Baltimore Choral Arts Society's Christmas for Kids concert long before she decided to go from attending the event to performing in the annual holiday program.

The Lutherville resident delighted in taking her daughter, Katie, now 26, and son, Jim, now 21, to the annual concert when they were young.


"I was a big fan of the concert for 20 years," said Heilman, the upper school principal and director of student resources and vocal music at Concordia Preparatory School in Towson. "My daughter is home now visiting from Minnesota, and I said to her the other day, 'We used to go to the concert when you were just 3.'"

This year's Christmas for Kids concert will be held Saturday, Dec. 17, at 11 a.m. at the Kraushaar Auditorium on the campus of Goucher College.


The event, which typically lasts less than an hour to accommodate youngsters' shorter attention spans, features Pepito the Clown, a visit from Santa, a performance by the Muse 360 Art's dance group and a play written by Miranda Rose Hall, the daughter of Baltimore Choral Arts Society Music Director Tom Hall.

Miranda Rose Hall, a graduate of Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, is currently studying for a master's degree at the Yale University School of Drama. It will be her third edition of the Christmas for Kids play.

Although the 2015 version of Hall's play was called "Pepito's Christmas Doll," every year a new play narrated by Steve Aveson unfolds for the audience.

The program features the holiday-attired chorus seated on the stage singing "Hallelujah" from Handel's "Messiah" and other classical pieces, a dance performance and then the play begins in the final portion of the program. Pepito, with Aveson describing the action like someone reading a story to a child, and other actors then finish their play before a sing-along with the "Twelve Days of Christmas" wraps up the show and Santa arrives.

Tom Hall and Santa then mingle with audience members in the Kraushaar lobby.

"Some parents may worry that their kids will have to sit in place for quite a long while," Tom Hall said about the concert, snippets of which can viewed on a Pepito the Clown's website, "But nothing could be further from the truth. It's about music, theater and dance. The kids are encouraged to use their creativity."

He said that the concert is a unique way for children to get into the holiday spirit.

"What I am most proud of is that every year we have completely original material for the Christmas with Kids concert," said Tom Hall, who will be retiring as the music director of the 50-year-old nonprofit after a farewell concert March 11 at the same site. "There's nothing else like it in the area."


Hall, who has held the position for 35 years, said that the Christmas for Kids event has been held for 30 years and is "intentionally low-tech. And it's a great way to introduce classical music to kids in a fun way."

'Dedicated folks'

This year's concert will be the third for Heilman, who was urged by a friend to audition for the chorus in 2013.

What might have been a daunting process was made less stressful by Hall's low-key demeanor during the tryout.

"For an audition to go well, you have to put people at ease," Hall said. "Because you want to hear how a person would sing in the chorus."

Nevertheless, Heilman could not help being a little on edge.


"It's nerve-wracking," said the Illinois native who moved to Baltimore in 1985 to teach at the now-defunct Calvary Lutheran School in Hamilton. "I was nervous going in, but I figured if it is meant to be, it will happen."

"It was a solo audition," she said. "I had to do patterns [a sequence of notes] and scales. But Tom is such a great guy and he really put me at ease."

She did well and earned a spot as one of 80 volunteers in the 100-person chorus.

"Ruth is a wonderful example of the kind of talented people we have," said Hall, who is the host of the hour-long midday program on public radio station WYPR. "We're blessed to have people like Ruth — dedicated folks who love music. She's a talented educator and a fine musician."

As a volunteer, Heilman dedicates a great deal of time rehearsing with the chorus and practicing her craft at home.

Weekly practice sessions typically last two and a half hours, although the time commitment ramps up in busy months, particularly during the holidays when the concert season begins in earnest. During performance weeks, a dress rehearsal is often required as well.


This year's holiday slate began with the Christmas with the Choral Arts concert at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in downtown Baltimore on Dec. 6, which featured Christmas hymns in the nation's first Catholic cathedral.

The other major holiday performance is the upcoming Baltimore Choral Arts Sing-Along Messiah concert, which is scheduled for the night before the Christmas for Kids concert, Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m. at Kraushaar Auditorium.

Even though each member of the chorus devotes a considerable amount of time to the music group — the equivalent of six weeks, according to a choral arts society estimate — performing and rehearsing, it is a labor of love.

Yet all of the members, even professional singers, work full-time in many different fields.

"It restores my soul," said Jeanne Geiger-Brown, dean of Stevenson University's School of Nursing. "It's the best thing of the week for me."

She and Heilman both sing alto, but each has a different way of learning music.


"Ruth is a great sight-reader," the Ruxton Ridge resident Geiger-Brown said. "She can read music and then sing it. I have to hear it first before I can sing it."

Fellow chorus member Nerissa Paglinauan said that she and her sons, Jonah, 11, and Braeden, 9, enjoy the festive nature of the Christmas For Kids concert.

"The response from the kids when they are able to participate is great," said the Timonium resident, who is program director of the Asian Arts and Culture Center at Towson University. "It's a time when they can be noisy and engaged."

For her, being part of the chorus is a reward unto itself.

"Singing is my lifeblood," Paglinauan said. "I love to sing with all different kinds of people."

Ellen Clayton sings with the group and is also the chorus manager.


Her volunteer duties include compiling the payroll, taking attendance and coordinating travel plans for performances out of town.

Clayton said that the Christmas for Kids concert is a favorite for her as well.

"The way the stage is decorated makes it festive for the kids," said Clayton, of Phoenix. "It's just a fun time."

Christmas for Kids takes place Dec. 17, at 11 a.m., at Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Rd, Towson. General admission is $13. To reserve tickets, go to