The Helen Kemp Award

for Lifetime Commitment to Excellence in Choral Music

The Helen Kemp Award, initiated in 2010 and named in honor of its first awardee, honors an individual who, through teaching, performing, and sharing, exhibits a lifelong passion and commitment to the choral art.

2010 Awardee:  Helen Kemp

Helen Kemp

Helen Kemp receiving award.
l-r: Division President Lynn Drafall,
Helen Kemp, Deborah Mello

Helen Kemp has been training singers, teachers and conductors in the art of choral singing for seven decades. Known internationally as a specialist in the area of training young voices, she has served as guest conductor and clinician in all 50 states and around the world in school, university and church settings. A hallmark of her work is her ability to empower dedicated volunteers to be successful choir directors, and to present techniques so solid and engaging that highly trained professionals continue to learn from her. Helen Kemp’s mantra, “Body, Mind, Spirit, Voice: It takes the whole person to sing and rejoice” continues to be used by teachers and conductors for choirs of all ages.

Following is the text of an article by Deborah Mello, published in the December 2009 issue of Troubadour.

Debbie Melloby Deborah A. Mello

More than a year and a half ago, Division President Lynn Drafall and I were brainstorming ideas for Interest Sessions and clinicians for the Eastern Division Conference now known to us as “We the People…” Lynn suggested getting in touch with Helen Kemp. Knowing that Helen had recently celebrated her 90th birthday, I wasn’t sure that she would be up to “working an ACDA Conference.” I researched what Helen was up to only to find that she had conducted a children’s choir festival at Trinity Church in New York City the previous February and had a full schedule of workshops that she was presenting. Wow!

Helen KempMy first experience observing Helen was in my first years as a young music teacher. I attended a workshop that she presented for MENC at their Eastern Division Conference in Washington, DC. Helen was so knowledgeable about the young child voice. She was the first conductor I had observed who used “visual aids” to assist her teaching. I remember seeing one of my favorite childhood toys – a Slinky. I learned so much in that 90-minute session concerning the development of young children’s voices. I couldn’t wait to get back to my choirs and apply what I had learned. A few years later, I had the privilege to observe Helen teaching children in a festival choir. Her manner with the children was so nurturing that the children strove to be the best they could be for themselves and Helen. She was teaching the children not only how to sing but to love singing. It was inspirational for the children as well as for the participating choir directors.

Over the course of my teaching career in school, church and community choirs, I have observed Helen’s work and utilized many of her methods. Several of my young singers in the Junior Choir at Christ Episcopal Church in Newton had the opportunity to be in a festival choir with Helen. How exciting it was for my young singers to work with this woman who had composed several of the anthems they had sung in church. Her energy in rehearsal, her passion for the music and her love for the children were evident throughout the rehearsal.

Helen Kemp was trained as a classical singer. A lyric soprano, she was well known for her singing artistry. She did not set out to work with young voices; they found her. When asked to work with a local children’s choir, Helen found that the children needed to have a better understanding of their ability to sing and a love and knowledge of the music. Thus began her quest to help young singers find their voices through their love of singing. She and her husband, John, are founding members of Choristers Guild. Helen remains active in Choristers Guild to this day. The Kemps were on the faculty of Westminster Choir College and served churches in several states, including a long tenure at First Presbyterian Church, Oklahoma City, where the music program they developed served as a model for many other churches and choir directors.

Recently, I had the privilege to observe Helen once again, at the American Boychoir Choral Conference held on campus in Princeton this September. Her enthusiasm for sharing her love of teaching and singing is infectious still. I had forgotten what a great sense of humor Helen has, as we all enjoyed her quips throughout her presentation. She shared some of her beliefs and methods for teaching from her books, Of Primary Importance I & II, and she shared her mantra “Body, mind, spirit, voice, it takes the whole person to sing and rejoice!” Over the years, Helen continues to add to this – to ignite the spirit, to enrich the mind, to empower the positive.

Helen also made an instructional video. In it she expresses her ideas on how to capture choristers’ attention: focus on children’s eyes, establish a pattern for beginning each session, help children visualize the concept of voices full of beautiful energy, create a feeling of drama and excitement, make a plan for every rehearsal, don’t rush, rehearse kids where they will sing, and finally – love the kids. These are logical suggestions, so why didn’t I think of them? Helen lives what she says. To watch her in action is to watch a master teacher teaching so much more than music and singing. She teaches life lessons.
Helen, who is often described as “the mother of the children’s church choir movement,” was named Professor Emerita of Voice and Church Music at Westminster Choir College and has been awarded honorary doctorates from Westminster Choir College and Shenandoah University. In 2003, she was awarded The Elaine Brown Award for Choral Excellence from Pennsylvania ACDA and a lifetime membership award from the Presbyterian Association of Musicians.

If you have been a close observer of Helen’s work or are a newcomer, please make time in your schedule to attend her Interest session “Diversity in Children’s Choirs” and the Children’s Choir Roundtable . Listen to Helen share her life’s passion of working with children’s choirs while you are in Philadelphia at the Eastern Division Conference this February.

Founding and Artistic Director of the Children’s Chorus of Sussex County and a former ACDA National Chair for Children’s Choirs, Deborah Mello has conducted regional and honor choruses in several states including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Louisiana, Maine, Kentucky, Virginia, and New Mexico. She has taught numerous workshops on elementary music education and choral singing with children in the U.S. and as an Artist/Teacher for Doreen Rao’s Choral Music Education courses abroad. Recently retired as Director of Choral Activities at Randolph High School, Deborah teaches the choral methods course at Seton Hall University and is the Junior Choir director at Christ Episcopal Church in Newton, NJ.