Freeman High School Choir, under the direction of Mindee Birnstiehl, recently embarked on the opportunity of a lifetime. A group of 25 singers took on the challenge of singing John Rutter’s Magnificat on June 1 at Carnegie Hall in New York City alongside two choirs from South Korea.
The 36th annual concert was put on by MidAmerica Productions, an organization that brings musicians from the U.S. and abroad to appear and perform at New York’s top venues such as Carnegie Hall.
An email that was originally thought of as a scam turned out to be a real-life invitation. Recommended on behalf of the University of South Dakota choir director David Holdhusen, MidAmerica invited the Freeman Choir to Carnegie Hall.
The music of Rutter proved difficult for the choir, but they were up to the challenge. The ranges of the music were higher than they were used to, and singing a 40-minute piece in Latin was more than out of their comfort zone. After months of rehearsal before and after school, Birnsteihl was confident in her choir and their preparation for New York.
Traveling to the big apple wasn’t cheap, and it took nearly two years of planning and fundraising to make this dream become a reality. Luckily, Birnstiehl had a committee of parent volunteers who came along as chaperones and helped her secure funding to help the students’ out-of-pocket costs.
Each person needed roughly $2,500 to fund the trip. However, Birnstiehl didn’t want to have her students to resort to traditional door-to-door fundraising and decided to get creative with it.
During the school year, the students hosted an Italian meal night and hosted dueling pianos. On another occasion, they resorted to donkey basketball. Held in the gymnasium of the high school, people were able to ride donkeys while playing basketball at the same time.
Throughout the region, they volunteered their time at the Turner County Fair for two years directing traffic and raised $8,000. In Sioux Falls, they participated at Jazzfest where they raised $600 while volunteering with children in the Sanford Kid’s Area.
According to Birnstiehl, everyone was able to fundraise enough to cover anywhere from half to three-quarters of the initial cost.
Once the plane hit the runway in New York City, the Freeman choir was ecstatic and filled with eager excitement knowing the opportunities that awaited them. Trips to Ellen’s Stardust Diner and Rockefeller Center kept everyone busy and fresh before rehearsals began.
On Thursday, May 30, the choir was shown on the Today Show and received a shoutout from the show while a chaperone was chosen as a winner for a makeover. That afternoon, they had a four hour rehearsal with the other choirs and orchestra. To conclude their first full day in New York, the group got to see Radio City Hall and watched Wicked at the Gershwin Theater.
After a three hour rehearsal the next morning, the choir got to visit Ground Zero Memorial. Birnstiehl and the chaperones were the few that could remember the tragic event.
“ Most students weren’t even born to know 9/11 and the seniors were maybe one. As an educator, I talk about it in school, but this truly helped them to understand what a horrific thing it was,” said Birnstiehl.
Their morning on the day of the performance consisted of a trip to Central Park before a dress rehearsal in the afternoon. The concert started at 7 p.m. and had four total choir ensembles performing that night.
Their ensemble was the finale and didn’t take the stage until 9:30 p.m. Birnstiehl and the chaperones were filled with joy being able to see their students take the stage and perform.
“I was just so so proud of them and thinking about all of their hard work that they put in,” said Birnstiehl. “I’m not sure if they truly understood or could grasp how big of a deal it was. It’ll take some years for them to really understand what an honor it was.”
Singing with two Korean choirs proved to educate the Freeman choir, too. While her choir was young, the Korean choirs consisted of singers that were anywhere between 20 to 40 years old. For possibly the first time, they were in the minority of the performers.
“It was a neat thing for them to experience,” said Birnstiehl.
After the concert, everyone loaded onto a bus that took them to their afterparty: a ferry ride on the New York harbor filled with dinner and dancing. The Freeman kids were out dancing with the Korean choir members and had a good time interacting with them, exchanging emails and taking many pictures. As they sailed near the Statue of Liberty, everyone stopped what they were doing and gathered to sing God Bless America together.
“It was truly a celebration,” said Birnstiehl. “It makes your heart feel good and gives you hope. Music is the reason and brings it all together. That’s important to me as a music educator. The connections and memories that they made that night will last a lifetime.”
They didn’t get back to their hotel until 3 a.m. and had a flight to catch within hours.
Looking back at the accomplishment that her choir had and their remarkable performance, Birnstiehl still finds herself in disbelief and awe. She was nervous about taking such a large group to New York City, but her fears quickly left as they got there. Being in New York and hearing of the crime that occurs there, they knew they weren’t in South Dakota anymore.
“It was a good experience.” Birnstiehl said. “It was fun to see the students’ big eyes at different things. Traveling in general is such as educational experience in itself.”
She understands that most of her students won’t go on to become music educators like herself, but she hopes that this experience helped them to appreciate the music and to see what an honor it was to have the opportunity that they had. For Birnstiehl, it was almost surreal. She took the moments as they came and lived in the moment while she was there with her choir.
Birnstiehl is thankful for the opportunities that her and the choir were able to experience while fundraising for their trip, and JazzFest was one of those highlights. Many of the students from Freeman that volunteered had never been to–or heard of–JazzFest, but she said that many of her students stayed to listen to the performers on both stages. The experiences that JazzFest offered outside of the money raised meant a lot to Birnstiehl and her choir, and she knows that it has just as much of an impact on others in surrounding rural communities, too.
“When you live that close to Sioux Falls and opportunities like JazzFest are available, it’s an awesome source for people to be able to take in all sorts of genres of music,” Birnstiehl said.
The future is up in the air for Birnstiehl as she resigned earlier this spring from her position at Freeman High School. She went out with a bang taking her students to New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall, making it a bittersweet farewell after five years. Prior to Freeman, Birnstiehl taught band at Parkston and band and vocal at Tripp-Delmont.
Her message to others who want to make it big and are searching for that break:
“It’s a lot of hard work, but it is so worth it. Don’t give up. Do whatever you need to do to make it happen. It is so worth it in the end.”
For a small-town choir to achieve what Freeman accomplished is spectacular! The Sioux Falls Jazz and Blues Society is proud to have been able to help provide funds for the choir to chase their dreams. Thank you to Mindee Birnstiehl and the Freeman choir setting an example of what music can provide in experiences and opportunities!
Join us for a workout at Yankton Trail Park before JazzFest gets started on Saturday, July 20th! This year Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield will be sponsoring YOGA + ZUMBA + CYCLING! Register today and you could be the lucky winner of an Apple Watch!