The Choral Composers Workshop by Renae Eldridge

renae“You got in?!”

“Yeah…” I barely had breath to give my husband a better answer, as I sat staring dazedly at the email which I could hardly believe I was reading.

I remembered the “stay-at-home mom” I had been only a few short years ago, before my return to school, how I would scribble analyses all over the music I brought home from our church choir, how I would secretly write my own choral arrangements which I was never going to show to anyone, because “What if they were no good?” I remembered the girl who sat and her piano and wept because she wanted someone to teach her to write music.

Fast-forward a few years: I am very gratefully studying music composition with Dr. Kimberly Archer. I have been given the job of directing our church choir whose music I still scribble all over. In the process of choosing music for my choir, and through singing with SIUE’s concert choir, I have been exposed to lots of choral literature, and of course, I have found several favorite choral composers to fall in love with. So, when I stumbled across an advertisement for the John Ness Beck Choral Composers’ Workshop and saw that the featured composers just happened to be Craig Courtney, Dan Forrest, and Howard Helvey – some of the very favorites – the composers whose websites I stalk when looking for music for my choir to perform- I knew right away that I had to apply.

“Apply” that’s the key word. I did apply – twice. I was rejected for the 2016 study group. This was not at all unexpected, as the workshop only accepts a small number of applicants nationwide. I was therefore rather in shock when I received the email informing me that I was one of the twenty choral composers chosen to study with Courtney, Forrest, and Helvey in the 2017 workshop.

In a household consisting of a working father, a student mother, and five children, funds are extremely limited. I had no idea how I was going pay for the tuition, travel, and hotel expenses for the week-long event. I only knew that I was going – even if it meant that I had to sweep mud in the streets for a year. However, Drs. Archer and Michael Mishra were very kind in helping me to apply for school funding, which helped to ease the financial burden.

How grateful I am for this opportunity! I was able to spend the better part of a week getting to know other choral composers and learning from some of the top composers and editors in the genre that I am most interested in writing for. Along with teaching seminars covering topics including melody, form, lyrics, dealing with composer’s doubt, the business side of composing, the individual writers’ creative processes, etc., each student was allotted twenty minutes in which their own compositions were read by a group of hired singers and critiqued by Craig, Dan, and Howard. I thought my pencil would ignite as I to catch every word. Lunch breaks were spent in small groups with each composer, so that we could get to know one another, and could ask questions.

I was surprised to learn how many of the composers who have attended the John Ness Beck Workshop ended up being published by Beckenhorst Press, the company for which Craig and Dan are editors. In fact, two of the students in my own group have already signed contracts for their pieces. I think that it is not an exaggeration to say that this workshop has been life changing. I am very grateful for the opportunity to get to know and learn from some wonderful people. From the bottom of my heart, I wish to thank not only SIUE, Drs. Archer, and Mishra for their helping me to finance this trip, but I want to thank all of the wonderful professors who have and are still helping me to learn so much.


Student Testimonial: Alfredo DeLeon

DeLeon.jpgI came to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville because of its affordability and convenient location from where I live. The campus is beautiful, and the feel of it is relaxing. The positive interactions I had with the professors at various events such as the Bi-State Band festival also helped me in my decision to attend the university. In my short time here at SIUE, I’ve made some great connections, met good people, and made some incredible friends. The professors make it a point to try their hardest to help each individual succeed, and to make time to help outside of class. I’ve had many great experiences at SIUE, and I’m sure there are many more to come.

Alfredo DeLeon

Music Education
President of NAfME, SIUE Collegiate Chapter
Class of 2019

Student Testimonial: Renae Eldridge

Renae.jpgI first studied music at Lewis and Clark Community College, where I fell in love with music theory.  However, shortly after completing my associate’s degree, my husband and I started a family, and it was important to me to be at home with my children while they were small.   I therefore put my formal education on hold.

Though I continued to work on my musical skills during my sixteen-year scholastic break, I positively ached for someone to teach me more.  Once all five of my children were old enough to enter grade school, I decided it was time for me to get back to my formal education.  Words can not describe how grateful I am for the opportunity to learn that SIUE has provided me!  Sixteen years of being away from education produced in me a deep hunger to learn and to grow.  So grateful was I to be back that I literally teared up while sitting in a music theory classroom for the first time in so many years.

I am of course grateful for the opportunity to earn a degree, and to further my employment opportunities, but for me, education is not just a hoop to jump through in order to gain a career.  I am here because I positively crave to learn everything that SIUE has to offer me.  I am profoundly grateful to the wonderful teachers and staff here at SIUE.  I have found the music program at SIUE to be just what I was looking for.  The staff is full of wonderfully caring and experienced professionals. The music department is big enough to provide plenty of opportunities for growth, and the class sizes are small enough so that every student is able to receive personal attention.  I cannot say enough about how happy I am to be able to study here. 

Renae Eldridge

Music Theory/Composition

Class of 2019

Student Testimonial: Tyler Green

TylerGreen.pngMy experiences at SIUE have been incredible. The caring faculty, the challenging curriculum, and the great students have shaped me into the musician and person I am today. As a vocal performance and music business major, I have gotten a very well rounded education. The amount of experience I have gained in my undergraduate career is staggering. I have sung in 8 productions on campus and stage directed 2 full-scale operas. I would not have had those types of opportunities at most universities. SIUE is special in that way. Opportunities are abundant and the faculty want you to succeed. I am very blessed to be a part of this institution and I hope other people will get the same life-changing experiences that I have.



Student Testimonials: Robert MacPartland


At SIUE, I have been giving countless experiences to grow and improve as a musician and person both in the classroom and the professional world as well.  The faculty are incredibly knowledgable and qualified.  From a student standpoint, I have seen the instructors make my learning a priority.  The faculty and students constantly challenge me to improve far beyond where I ever imagined I would be at this point.  Another great thing I have experienced at SIUE is the connections I was able to make. I was fortunate enough to get to perform jazz outside of school ensembles as early as my first semester here, and as a sophomore, I am performing in and out of school on a regular basis.  There is a lot expected from me as a student and musician at this school, but all of it makes me better and has made me feel prepared to be a performing musician in the professional world.

Robert MacPartland

Jazz Performance, Class of 2018


Student Testimonials: Leanna Conrad


Ever since I have joined the SIUE violin studio, I have grown immensely as a violin player and performer. Before, I could barely play in front of others, but now I can confidently stand up and display my growth and improvement to the other violin students who have become family.  Through the violin studio, I have gained confidence, understanding, and support and cannot wait to see what the future holds for both my playing capabilities and the violin studio!


Leanna Conrad

Music Education, class of 2019

Student Testimonial: Magdalena Sustere

Orchestra rehearsal 12-01-14I am in my senior year studying Cello Performance with Dr. Simidtchieva. First of all, I want to thank her helping me come and be part of SIUE. I am an international student from Latvia and I know that without the faculty help and support I would not be here.

The SIUE Music Department has been a wonderful place for me to grow as a musician. Maybe one could consider SIUE a “small school” but it is remarkable how many opportunities are given to students, if one is willing to learn and take part in something unknown in order to become a better musician.

 Besides cello lessons, chamber groups, and symphony orchestra, I have taken Jazz History and an independent study for jazz cello with Prof. Haydon, been part of several musicals with Dr. Schapman, sang in a Community Choral Society with Dr. Knapp and traveled to a choir festival in Cuba, been part of pep band on my secondary instrument with Mr. Smithiger, taken composition with Dr. Archer, played in a Barok ensemble, and even in a World Music ensemble with Dr. Coan. I can stick strictly to classes that are required or explore and learn new skills. For me this is really important because I love cultures, different kind of music and I want to be prepared to be the 21st century performer.

 Besides classes, the Cello Club provides master classes with guest artists, seminars, and concerts that I have been able to take part in. I am also excited for March 2016, because Cello Club together with Flute Cub will be hosting concerts and master classes with Project Trio. What a wonderful opportunity again it is to learn more!

 Thank you, SIUE Music Department faculty members, for allowing me to explore, supporting me and encouraging me to be the best I can be. It is important for young musicians to have counselors who give advice, guidance, support, and believe in me. You have been that to me.

 Lastly, I am blessed to have schoolmates around me who are an inspiration to me. My suggestion for current students and the ones yet to come:

  • Do some research and find out what the Music Department has to offer for you
  • Use the opportunities given to you
  • Remember, music is meant to be enjoyed and shared

 I thank God that I can be part of SIUE and hopefully leave my mark here.

Magdalena Sustere

Cello performance, Class of 2016