The Frederick Flute Choir Makes Beautiful Music Together
On any given Wednesday evening from September to May, you’ll find Jennings Glenn at the historic Steiner House in Frederick. Standing before the members of the Frederick Flute Choir, a group he created a quarter of a century ago, he cues them to begin playing the Allegro movement from Eine Kleine Nachtmuski (also known as A Little Night Music) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
As the music floats through the room, Glenn conducts with one hand during the soft parts, but quickly switches to both hands during fast, challenging portions. Fingers fly across the different types of flutes in the choir—C, alto, bass, piccolo and contrabass—as Glenn adds in instructions (“Keep it going!”) and praise (“Good!”) throughout the piece.
The choir’s library has about 400 selections of music including holiday, religious, jazz, folk, classical and original compositions. The group plays an average of six shows a season, mainly in the Frederick and metropolitan areas. It has also performed five times on the grounds of the White House and twice for the Kennedy Center’s Grand Foyer Series. “People hear so little live music anymore. Almost none,” Glenn says before practice. “I think when they do, it touches them. People enjoy us and I am convinced of that and that gives me, in some ways, even greater pleasure than how much I enjoy it myself.”
When Glenn was in the sixth grade, the feeder junior high school band came to his northern Virginia elementary school to give a concert. The band director informed students that next year they could be in the band if they wished, and he encouraged them to sign up for an instrument. Both of Glenn’s best friends signed up on the spot to play the trumpet and French horn. He felt like he had to sign up, too. The only instrument he knew anything about was the flute because his sister had one. He had never played it but decided that would be his instrument of choice.
His future career began quite rocky once he started seventh grade. “I was awful,” he recalls. “Rather than learning to read the music, whatever the little girl next to me did with her fingers, I would do with mine. A month later, we had an individual playing test. Of course, I couldn’t play anything. The band director goes, ‘Mr. Glenn, you clearly aren’t doing anything in this class. I am going to re-test you in a week and if it’s not better, you will be removed.’ For some reason, providence, instinct or maybe I just knew something, I went home that week and I practiced for the first time. I could play a whole line of the same note and I played it for him the next week and he said, ‘Alright, we will let you stay.’ That was 58 years ago and I have been playing ever since.”
He received his bachelor’s degree in music education from Bethel University in Tennessee and a master’s degree in flute performance from the University of Tennessee. He has also completed everything but his dissertation for a PhD from the University of Maryland. “I’ve been very fortunate, very lucky,” Glenn says. “I was not a particularly good student in school. I was lucky to get out of high school. My mother was a part-time teacher and she was mortified by my grades. … My high school guidance counselor said I should not go to college. I wasn’t college material and when I finished my PhD I always wished I could see him, but it was OK. … I feel very fortunate that music has been a part of my life all these years. I can’t imagine my life without it. It does something for the soul I think that nothing else does.”
While working on his doctorate, he decided to permanently move back to the metropolitan area. In 1989, he was hired to teach music theory, music history and instrumental chamber music at the Arts and Communications Academy at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School. (He retired from the academy in 2009.) Glenn knew that his busy teaching schedule might cause him to stop playing the flute. “As an instrumental musician, if we don’t have something to practice for, I don’t care how dedicated we are, we don’t play and I knew it would be the end of my playing and I didn’t want it to be,” he says.
Glenn decided to form a flute choir, so he put out an advertisement asking county music teachers if they would be interested in joining. Three people responded—Vicki Crum, Linda Moss and Norma Kelsey. “I figured, well, we will get together for a couple of years, have some yuks and maybe play a concert or two.” All four of the founding members are still with the choir.
The group is open to anyone who loves to play the flute, has college or professional experience, and passes an entry audition. There are 15 members this season who range in age from 25 to 70 and work in various fields. While a majority are from the Frederick area, some drive from Baltimore, Waynesboro, Pa., and Winchester, Va., to participate.
Thurmont resident Valerie Grim always wanted to play the flute. She began in fourth grade and played until her freshman year of college. After an 11-year gap, she saw an advertisement for the flute choir and decided to join. The group “has given me a chance to develop my skills more and become a better player,” she says. “It’s just a great opportunity for us to continue our music. … It’s one of the constants in my life.
The flute choir is important to me because it’s for me. It’s not something I am doing for my family. It’s not something I am doing for anybody else. … It’s something that fulfills me as a woman and as a performer. It’s just great.”
Amy Coldren enjoys making music with the talented members of the choir. “Everybody is here for the same reason,” the Frederick resident says. “We all work together and we make beautiful music.”
She has been playing the flute since the fourth grade. While she has always played at her church, Coldren missed playing with an ensemble. While attending the Houses of Worship Tour, she heard the choir play and decided to audition. This is her fourth season. “I think a flute choir has a unique sound and I love the range of the instruments that are in the choir,” she says. “I think it’s just very unique and special and I love to be able to share that with people in the audience.”
The group is beginning the journey to become incorporated and gain nonprofit status, so they may apply for grant funding. Currently, member fees help defray the costs of rehearsal space rental, transportation and music stands purchases.
This is the first year Glenn has solely conducted the group and not played. Usually different members would cue the start of songs, but because the repertoire is quite complex this season, he felt he should just conduct. Glenn will turn 70 this month but he has no intention of slowing down. “Joseph Campbell used to say, ‘Follow your bliss,’ and I think that’s what I have done when it comes to music,” Glenn says. “I wouldn’t change a thing. … I can’t imagine anything better.”