By ROBERT SCOTT, The Commercial Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — Cherry Dunn has been leading the Columbus Girlchoir for almost two decades.

However, she now has more on her plate than just leading the group. She is fighting to keep it alive.

“This has been a passion of mine for 18 years and I hate to see it die, so I am working really hard to interest girls in it,” she said. “If you’re in a good choir when you’re young, it’s an experience that stays with you your whole life.”

At its peak, the Girlchoir boasted 70 singers, but interest had already started waning before COVID-19 totally shut the group down in 2020.

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“Who would have thought that singing would have been a dangerous activity? That’s what happened. … It just completely shut us down,” Dunn said. “We had a great spring planned for 2020, and everything stopped in March.”

The choir resumed activities for the 2021-22 season, but the response was slim compared to previous years.

“We had a few girls last fall and then we had a little bit bigger group this spring – we had 19,” Dunn said. “I’d love to get it back up to 30 if possible.”

Bouncing back from the pandemic isn’t the choir’s only challenge, Dunn said. The other factors are not any easier to overcome.

“People don’t understand the value of music and the arts, but to be a well-rounded individual, you need that, and music, of course, is a universal language,” she said. “I’m concerned about getting it revived. It’s been harder because girls are doing more sports than ever before. They are doing more soccer, volleyball, softball than they did 10 years ago, and they are also in competition with things like dance and competition cheer, which meets every single day. So, it means that girls don’t have time for music in their lives.”

Social interactions and friendships built in the girlchoir also add value to the experience.

“I still have friends that I was in girlchoir with. I love my girlchoir girls,” said Christina Clark, who was a member of the choir for 10 years. “It developed me musically, but I just loved getting to know different girls. Some of them were homeschooled and stuff like that, so I wouldn’t have even known them if it wasn’t for girlchoir.”

The choir also helps the girls build confidence in themselves and their abilities.

“As a board member for several years, it is so rewarding to see the self-confidence, positive attitude and passion for music our girls display,” said Emily Moody, vice-president for the board of directors.

The choir is open for all girls ages 9-18. There is a junior choir for younger ages and a senior choir for older girls. Membership also requires an audition.

The auditions are currently underway but there has once again been a lackluster response from the community.

“Not much (response), it’s kind of scary,” Dunn said. “We would really take girls through August.”

She is also willing to work with the girls regarding safety protocols.

“I know I have one wonderful singer who won’t sing without a mask on, but that’s OK,” she said. “I’ll take them anyway.”

Historically, the choir has performed at many prestigious venues including twice at Carnegie Hall and was the featured choir at the Crescent City Choral Festival in New Orleans three times. The choir also performs a Christmas and spring concert locally each year.

Dunn, a retired voice professor from Mississippi University for Women, founded the nonprofit in 2004. It trains girls in vocal technique, choral style, vocal health and music fundamentals. It also leans on a “commitment to performing traditional music with understanding and excellence,” according to the group’s website.

The idea for the endeavor was twofold.

“When I was at The W, a colleague brought the Mississippi Girlchoir for a concert,” Dunn said. “That was probably 1998 or so, and they had such a beautiful sound and I was just entranced with it. But I didn’t think about it again until, at First Methodist Church, Sam Morris was there … and he was instrumental in helping start the Mississippi Girlchoir. He approached me about starting a girlchoir here and that’s how it came about.”

Now about to enter its 19th year, the Columbus Girlchoir still only has one goal in mind.

“Our main goal is to have a quality community choir for girls,” Dunn said.

This also means focusing on the individual as much as the group, a balancing act that Dunn has mastered over the years.

“Cherry Dunn has such a magical method of sharing her love of music which results in a true feeling of success for each girl,” Moody said. “She makes every girl feel special and (makes them) want to give 100 percent not only to girlchoir, but to excel in other activities.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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