Fred Meads says it was a Tuesday in August 2017 when he heard about the closing of the internationally known but bankruptcy and low enrollment-plagued American Boychoir.
By Thursday the former ABS staff member and one of the three associate directors of the Princeton Girlchoir swung into action and resuscitated the former boys’ group as the Princeton Boychoir and made it a component of the then all-girl group, which is headquartered on Clarksville Road in Princeton Junction.
The right man at the right time, Meads simply says, “I was used to the ABS sound. The 20 former members of the ABS who transferred to the new boychoir brought that sound with them.”
Since transfers from the former ABS make up almost half of the now 50-member Princeton Boychoir, Meads says, “It was an adjustment for them and for me, but we’ve made the transition. I can’t imagine how things would have been if I tried to start a new choir out of the blue.”
The Princeton Boychoir consists of three ensembles, each with its own characteristics. The Apprentice Choir consists of boys in third to sixth grade with little or no experience as choristers. The intermediate level Treble Choir is made up of boys in fourth through eighth grade with unchanged voices. “We keep them singing treble as long as possible,” Meads says, “since returning to treble once you’ve stopped is not an option.”
The Young Man’s Ensemble is the final Boychoir category. It consists of boys whose voices have changed or are in the process of changing. This group includes boys as surprised as their listeners when they hear the sound they produce. They tend to struggle vocally, Meads says.
The culmination of the Boychoir’s inaugural season was the “New Beginnings” concert on May 6 at All Saints Church in Princeton. The Treble Choir and Young Men’s Ensemble will be performing in the Maryland State Boychoir Festival on May 18-20 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Meads contrasts the ABS, a residential ensemble drawing members from throughout the United States, and the Princeton Boychoir, whose members live at home, as much as an hour from its rehearsal space.
“The ABS had two-hour rehearsals daily,” he said. “Learning music for them was intense. The Princeton Boychoir has one rehearsal a week. Obviously the Boychoir has less time to learn and prepare new music. And less time to prepare the sound. The once-a-week pace attracts quite a few Boychoir members.”
Further, Meads believes that the long-term plan of the Princeton Boychoir offers more to the community than did the frequently absent ABS, which toured internationally.
Acceptance as a member of the Boychoir requires an audition of about 10 minutes before two members of the Boychoir staff. Typically the audition includes singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” alone, and then as a round; singing top and bottom notes of a chord played on the piano, and echoing a tonal pattern played on the piano. The next auditions take place in this month and in June. Go to princetongirlchoir.org/boychoir for more information.
Boychoir rehearsals take place Thursday nights at the Westrick Choral Academy facility at 231 Clarksville Road. The facility is named after Janet A. Westrick, who founded the Girlchoir in 1989, when she was a member of the Princeton Day School faculty. Completed in April after eight months of construction, the building includes two large rehearsal rooms, a small classroom, a reception/waiting area, conference room, and staff offices.
Both Girlchoir and Boychoir have “Bring-a-Friend” rehearsals. Both ensembles perform a cappella, as well as with accompaniment.
Meads’ current responsibilities at the Princeton Girlchoir go beyond leading the Boychoir. As education director, he covers both Girl and Boychoirs, relying on the techniques of renowned turn-of-the-century Hungarian vocal pedagogue Zoltan Kodaly—who, among other ideas, advocated teaching music to young students in a manner that is logical, expressive, and enjoyable.
An expert on Kodaly techniques, Meads, who conducts two of the Girlchoir’s seven ensembles, also teaches a summer Kodaly certification program at Westminster Choir College. He has twice led the performances of the Organization of Kodaly Educators National Children’s Honor Choruses.
Meads arrived at Princeton Girlchoir, under the artistic direction of Lynnel Joy Jenkins, in the 2010-’11 academic year for a part-time position, accompanist of its Semi-Tones, an advanced intermediate ensemble. He was already well established as a leader of choral groups
Born near Lancaster in York County, Pennsylvania, in 1964, Meads is the son of a church organist father who started in his profession at an early age. Meads began piano studies at age six and studied piano in college. While his mother is not musical, Meade has a percussionist brother.
Having majored in music education at Ithaca College, he taught middle school for three years, then earned a degree in choral conducting from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.
“I sang opera in the early 1990s for two summers, and then realized that I had to earn money,” Meads says. “I was not exclusively devoted to one thing. I was an accompanist, taught private voice lessons, directed, and conducted. I was still trying to sing solos. When I got into children’s choirs, it finally hit that I was most comfortable working with children. It was a matter of luck.”
As artistic director of the Fort Wayne, Indiana, Children’s Choir for 10 years, he led the group on national and international trips, prepared the choir for annual symphonic engagements, and commissioned works for its use. “International trips,” he says, “were normal for the choir.”
After 10 years in Fort Wayne, Meads began his stint with ABS. “It was a word-of-mouth connection, as usual,” he says. “I do not get jobs in the traditional way. I get my jobs by connections.” At ABS he directed the Training Choir, the less advanced of ABS’s two choirs. He also taught theory and voice lessons to ABS individuals. Meads is now in his eighth year at the Princeton Girlchoir. In addition, he leads a children’s choir at Christ Church United Methodist Church in New York City.
Meads, who lives in Lawrence Township, says he is single, “which allows me to focus on what I like to do—teach kids to sing. Sometimes I eat, drink and sleep music.”
Meads has already thought about the future of the fledgling Boychoir, mentioning the trip to the Baltimore Boychoir Festival.
“We’ll travel by bus as group. By next year we’ll probably have a summer tour,” he said, adding that he foresees collaborations of the new Princeton Boychoir with the Girlchoir in the future. However, definite plans do not yet exist. But right now, it’s time to celebrate the transformation of a group and the continuation of a sound.