By Casey Bemis

Contributing Writer


All children from grades four through eight are invited to join the Santa Ynez Valley Youth Ensemble that will perform with the Santa Ynez Valley Master Chorale and Orchestra at its 2017 holiday concert, “A Festival of Carols.”

Rehearsals for the youth ensemble are scheduled from 6:30 to 7:25 p.m. every Tuesday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2627 Janin Way in Solvang.

Dana Stewart, who also sings in the adult chorale, coaches and directs the youth ensemble.

During the holiday concert, the youth ensemble will sing a variety of pieces including “Fum, Fum, Fum,” “Carol of the Bells,” “Christmas Round,” “One Small Child,” and “Christmas Time is Here” (from “A Charlie Brown Christmas”).

The annual experience provides an opportunity for children to learn choral music and perform with the master chorale and a professional orchestra under the direction of Michael Eglin.

“It’s an opportunity to make new friends, build confidence in performing in front of others and, finally, present the results of rehearsals to family, friends and neighbors throughout the valley,” Stewart said.

“The rewards of working with these amazing kids are immeasurable.  I love watching a child discover his own talent, come into a position of confidence and security in her skill, and gain tremendous joy in bringing it to an audience.  The age of our kids is prime for this development, and afterwards I know we will have the joy of seeing these kids take their places in the performing world,” she added.

Stewart brings a wealth of ability and experience after teaching eighth grade for 24 years in Houston.  She moved the Santa Ynez Valley about seven years ago when her husband transitioned his career from advertising photography to lavender farming.

After she had sung with the choral for a few years, Eglin gave Stewart the opportunity to coach the children.

“He was very amenable to making use of my skills and very graciously gave me the opportunity to take a more prominent role,” she said.

And Stewart has a love of music and a host of skills to offer youth a phenomenal musical experience.

“At about 4 or 5, I told my mom I wanted to be a singer and that I needed to take voice lessons.  She said I was too little, but she admonished me that all singers need to know how to play the piano.  So, at age 6 I began taking piano lessons.”

Her teacher included instruction in music theory, which gave her a greater understanding of music.

“I continued to study piano all the way through college, but didn’t get to start voice lessons until high school,” Stewart said.

While singing in the glee club in high school, she was allowed to sing with the Rice University Chorale, whose director worked in both places.  She has a master’s degree in music education from Occidental College as well as Level II accreditation from the Orff Schulwerk Association.

While living in Huston, she said, “I studied voice with the wonderfully talented Lucy Hargis, who transformed the way I made sound.  It was after college that I began doing solo work in church and directing youth choirs.  As a school teacher, although I was the Bible teacher, I was privileged to direct the choir and the chapel worship team.”

Music can provide unforgettable experiences, she added.

“Our fifth-to-eighth-grade choir performed at a home for mentally and emotionally challenged individuals.  For several of our kids, this was their first experience in such a setting.  As they sang, one of the residents was so moved by the music that he stood up, came to stand right behind the director and in front of the kids.  He began directing his heart out.  The kids never broke stride — they just kept singing.  Our ‘new director’ took a big, flourishing bow at the end!”

Stewart works with her husband of 40 years at their lavender farm.  They have two grown daughters and, she said, “two smart, funny and all-around perfect grandchildren.”

Her family members are also involved with music.  Her oldest daughter and husband occasionally lead music at their church, and she has three cousins who are professional musicians.

In addition to coaching the youth ensemble, Stewart sings second soprano in the master chorale

“Though this section often sings the melody, we also get to exercise our ears and sight-reading in holding down a harmony part.  We are also less likely to go home light-headed from spending too much time in the stratosphere, musically speaking,” she said.

Making music brings her lots of joy, and she loves participating in a group that shares this love of music.

“I meet all kinds of wonderful people from different parts of the Valley — people who might not cross path in any other context.”

The chorale and full orchestra will present its winter concert, “Festival of Carols,” on Dec. 16 and 17.  Among many other pieces, it will include Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Fantasia on Christmas Carols.”

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