January 15, 2020

Choral Director Patty Thel: “It’s About the Human Spirit”

“PUTTING PEOPLE TOGETHER:” Patty Thel leads the combined choral groups from Trenton Children’s Chorus and Princeton Day School Middle School at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Event at Princeton University. (Photo courtesy of Patty Thel)

By Donald Gilpin

Patty Thel’s roots in choral music go back to her childhood in the Southern Baptist church.

The Westminster Conservatory Children’s Choir program director and founder and Trenton Children’s Chorus director grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where her parents took her to church three times a week, and at home the whole family improvised at the piano and organ. “Mostly hymns — that’s where their heart was,” she said.

Thel has come a long way from the Fayetteville Baptist Church, but through many years of teaching music, she has remained devoted to choral work and literature, along with an experience that goes far beyond the words and the music.

“The thing for me with choral music over the years is about being truthful and devoted to the work as much as possible and also conveying to the students the message brought to them through the literature,” she said. “In teaching you’re trying to teach music, but also teaching young people how to be well rounded human beings and how to be sensitive to other people.

“The interesting thing about choral music is the effect that making music with other people can have, listening to other people, making a sound that transcends other people. There’s something transformative about it that I still don’t understand.”

Neither of Thel’s parents was a professional musician, but her grandparents, who lived next door, had a grand piano and an organ in the house, and “my family could stand in a quartet and sing hymns,” she said. “Nobody thought that was unusual.” 

Thel remembers taking out a hymnal once as a little girl and learning where the notes were on the staff, then learning to read hymns before taking any lessons. She went on to take piano lessons and joined the church choir. “I loved playing the piano,” she said.

As a high school student, Thel wasn’t sure she wanted to stay in music. Her parents had “some kind of a church school” in mind for college, and she knew she didn’t want to do that. They finally agreed on the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), which, according to Thel, happened to have the best music department in the state.

“Poetry Set on Fire With Music”

Thel was drawn to both choral work and literature. “I loved poetry,” she said. “And in choral work, the idea of poetry being set on fire with music was fantastic.”

She described legendary UNCG choral music professor Richard Cox, who retired in 2002 after more than 40 years at UNCG, as a role model and inspiration to her. “The experience I had in choral work at UNCG made me want to do this. It wasn’t just the fact that he was a wonderful musician and the choral music was so fantastic, but at some point I realized that I learned from him that in teaching choral music, you’re conveying something about the human spirit.”

Thel went on to talk, with characteristic humility, about her perspective on teaching. “Young people can be very affected by choral music, and sometimes I’m overwhelmed by what they give back to me. They seem to think it’s coming from me, but it’s not. I feel like the chemist who brought music to wonderful people, and then it happened. Often I feel I had very little to do with it. I just introduced two great elements.”

In her first year after graduating from UNCG, Thel taught music to every child in Red Springs, N.C., from grades K to 8, along with the high school choir. There was a widely diverse range of students, many so poor they’d never seen the inside of a movie theater, including large populations of migrant children, Lumbee Indians, African Americans, and also white students from wealthy families.

In following the example of Professor Cox, Thel taught those children the music of Persichetti, Bach, Handel, and Palestrina. “I learned that first year you could set your standards wherever you wanted. It was a matter of loving the music enough and convincing the students that it was worth doing.” Thel taught her students the chorus parts to Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love,” so that when the National Opera Company came through town they staged her students in their performances.

“I was convinced about using great materials from the get-go,” Thel said. “From having kids from such diverse backgrounds from the first year that I taught, I understood that it didn’t matter where the child came from or what their background was, I could get there from here. If I wanted to set a high standard I could do that with any child.”

The following years were rich in career, travel, and life experiences for Thel. She moved on to East Carolina University, where she earned her master’s degree, taught as a graduate assistant, and worked on weekends as a choir conductor at a local church. 

She then moved to Atlanta, where she taught music at a pilot school, sang in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus under the direction of Robert Shaw, and met her future husband, who had just gotten out of law school and was clerking for a federal judge.

They married and moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission and she worked in the Fairfax County Schools; then moved back to Atlanta where she worked as assistant conductor at the Peachtree Presbyterian Church, happily transitioning from Baptist to Presbyterian; then on to Oxford, Mississippi where her husband taught in the University of Mississippi law school and she worked for the theater department, eventually directing musicals.

To New Jersey

When her husband found his next job at Fordham University Law School in New York City, Thel decided she wanted to move to Princeton to be near Westminster Conservatory, where she wanted to work. They have lived in Princeton Junction since 1988. 

Her first Conservatory job was helping to pilot Music Together, the young children’s music program which started through Westminster, but she wanted to have a choir, and in 1990 Thel started the Westminster Conservatory Children’s Choir (WCC). A K-8 program, it quickly grew to an average of more than 100 children enrolled each year. 

Thel has three children: one son, who became a professional oboe player and is now a coder for Ticketmaster; her second son, who is enrolled in a theater program at UNCG; and her daughter, who is getting a master’s degree in social work.

Thel states that her middle son Tommy, who has a developmental disability, affected her teaching more than anything. She taught music in Tommy’s schools as he was growing up.

“I learned to respect the sensitivity and abilities of children who had disabilities. It gave me a completely new perspective on teaching.”

Thel has served as an adjunct instructor in the music education department at Westminster Choir College and has taught as middle school choral and general music instructor at Princeton Day School.

In 2009 Thel joined the Trenton Children’s Chorus (TCC). “The mission of that organization is empowering the social, academic, and spiritual lives of children through artistry and music,” she said. “If you do it right, every choir should do that. In choral music you should touch on everything. You should be able to speak about culture, history, language, spirituality, and life.”

Among the many highlights of the Thel’s career so far have been nine visits to the White House with the WCC and the TCC over the past 25 years. She remembers spending a whole day in the White House in the 1990s, meeting and performing for the Clintons; three or four visits during the Bush administration; and a performance for the Obamas, where the president pretended to conduct before speaking to every child individually.

Her recently-formed high school choir named Vox Amicus recently joined with the TCC students on Thel’s most recent trip to the White House on December 20, 2019, performing two 45-minute sessions in the East Room of the White House.

Thel talked about where the future might lead her. She mentioned her interest in working with children with disabilities and noted, “My biggest goal in life is putting people together. If there’s some way I can make that happen, I will. In particular for those students whose heads are buried in their cell phones and iPads, if they can stand together and sing, it’s a good day.”