Years ago, with no money, borrowed space and barely any customers, Northwestern University alumnus Gary Geiger chased his goal of establishing a children’s choir in Evanston. Now Geiger and his team work with more than 100 children in the Evanston Children’s Choir nearly every day at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center.
Geiger enrolled at Northwestern in the fall of 1986. “I was actually undecided as a major,” he says. “I let people convince me I couldn’t make a living as a musician so the smart thing was to not do it.”
During his freshman year, however, Geiger misssed playing the piano and began practicing to audition for Northwestern’s School of Music, now the Bienen School of Music. The school rejected Geiger on his first attempt, so the next year he decided to take lessons from a graduate student. That spring he auditioned once again and was accepted.
“The same guy auditioned me and I remember him saying ‘You must really want to do this,’” Geiger recalls. Throughout his time at Northwestern and DePaul University, where he earned his master’s in piano performance, Geiger worked at the voice studios at Northwestern to earn money. But Geiger questioned his choice of career throughout this period.
“I was being the starving artist,” he says. “In addition to doing some menial piano accompanying in which I was earning five or six bucks an hour, and doing piano teaching, I was doing messenger work in my car [and] babysitting my piano teachers’ kids. Anything I could [do] to scrape by.”
After graduating from DePaul, Geiger began to work at the Chicago Children’s Choir as an accompanying pianist. It was here that Geiger was asked to help direct. After a few years, he realized he had a knack for it.
“I didn’t go to school for [choral directing], but I found that it came naturally. After working in voice studios at Northwestern for so long, I knew what to tell vocalists,” Geiger says.
After getting the opportunity to direct a few performances with the Chicago Children’s Choir, Geiger decided he wanted to try his hand at starting his own group. “There were at least two or three performances where I directed from the piano and I just got the bug,” Geiger says. “I was so electrified by it.”
Through friend and fellow Northwestern graduate Rick Ferguson, Geiger was able to secure a practice space for the choir at Ferguson’s Evanston venue, The Musical Offering. Despite spending the first four months with an average of about five children in the choir, Geiger decided to stick with it. Soon the choir started to grow rapidly—as did its popularity in the community.
In 2009, singer-songwriter Barry Manilow’s team contacted the choir for its support on the song “Because It’s Christmas” for three nights when he played at the Rosemont Theatre. The choir also later received the Mayor’s Award for the Arts.
Geiger divides the choir into three groups: the Junior Choir, Intermezzo and the Concert Choir. All three choirs perform and develop the children’s musical skills, but they do so with varying degrees of intensity. The Concert Choir is the highest level—and thus plays at the highest profile gigs, such as performing with the Apollo Chorus of Chicago. “That’s where those I consider to be our most serious musicians go,” he says. “It is also serious in the sense that it is a place where kids can really use music and choral singing as a tool for self actualization. It’s not that they’re just doing it for fun, they’re doing it for personal achievement.”
The groups are split by ability rather than age. Geiger stresses that skill, focus and willingness to commit to the choir are the main factors in selection to the Concert Choir. “In the arts they always say age does not matter,” he says.
Northwestern students also play a role in the growth of the choir. The Concert Choir’s current pianist, Evelyn Dias, and assistant director, Madelyn Ross, are both students. Additionally, Northwestern allows the choir to use the Alice Millar Chapel for its annual Christmas shows. “The community at large has been so enthusiastic about us,” Geiger says. “In order to make it you need that grassroots support for something like this. It has been excited seeing that grow.”
Dias, a Northwestern doctoral candidate in piano performance, says, “I think it affords children the opportunity to be exposed to a very high standard of music. They are learning musical concepts and have wonderful opportunities to perform.”
Bienen senior Madelyn Ross admires Geiger’s leadership style, saying that he creates a sense of fun while still striving for musical excellence. “I’ve really seen him work on making our choir sound in tune with accurate rhythms, accurate notes, but in the most fun an energetic way possible,” Ross says. “As a result he’s created a choir that’s both really engaging for the kids and a wonderful musical experience.”