International Choir of Prague

Choir Directors Call Prague Home, Develop International Choir Staff

Written by Staff Published on 01.04.2008 17:53:39 (updated on 01.04.2008) Reading time: 6 minutes

Written by Paul Coates
for International Choir of Prague

“In my craziest dreams, I never imagined that I would meet my future husband, and that 10 years later we’d be living in Prague and conducting a choir together” says the Co-Director of the International Choir of Prague, Sarka Coleman. At age 18, she’d gone to the United States on a whim. A life long member and soloist for acclaimed Prague choir Bambini di Praga, her director had told her sketchy details about an international choir program near the headwaters of the Mississippi in St. Paul, Minnesota. He knew almost nothing about it, but told Ms. Coleman that there was an opportunity for someone to chaperone two 11 year old Czech children who would participate. Going to the States to take part in a music program sounded good enough to her. But there was a down side: she would have to come up with her own air-fare, and the program paid nothing.

“I guess you would have to say that I really took a leap of faith. I knew nothing about the program, would have to pay my own way, and was a little uneasy with the idea of being responsible for two children far from home under who knows what kind of conditions. Still, something told me to take the chance. And so I did.”

The program, Songs of Hope, brought together children from 5-7 countries for 6 weeks each summer, to build international cross-cultural relationships through the power of song and dance. It proved to be a deeply moving experience, and recognizing her directorial, teaching and singing talents, the program immediately hired her. As the new Vocal Director, she returned for each of the next five summers.

“I had travelled all over the world with Bambini and really was interested in different people and cultures. In the U.S., living with all these different kinds of people, under stressful conditions, learning dances and songs in all the languages represented, and having to do it in such a short time, was just something special, and those of us who were involved will never forget it. And besides” she says with a grin, “I was working with my future husband”.

Brendan Coleman, a local and touring musician and church music director, was the program’s Musical Director, and as such, worked most closely with Sarka in arranging the music and preparing it for the participants. “Sarka struck me right away, at 18 years old, as a very well trained and serious young lady. So I suppose, I never had a chance” he says with a chuckle.

In 2001, the two were asked to start up the Saint Paul Children’s Choir, performing for the Mayor of St. Paul in their very first year. But Sarka’s visa expired at the end of the year, and she returned home to Prague and the long walks she loved to take in the center.

“I was eager to return to Prague, but at the same time, I was very unsure whether Brendan would follow me there, although he was promising that he would.” In the end, he did follow, coming just one month after the flood in 2002.

“We lived in Andel, and Prague was a completely different world to me. I loved the excitement and liveliness of our neighbourhood. We lived above a real Czech hospoda with live country and rock bands, and a night club playing dance music beneath that. I just thought to myself, ‘Wow, I like Prague’. And I finally learned what Sarka was talking about with the walks around the center. It soon also became my favourite pastime”

In the interim before Brendan arrived, Sarka had gotten a job at the British International School of Prague (now The Prague British School). When the director heard of her experience with Bambini, he asked her if she thought she could start a music program for the school.

“I wasn’t sure that I could start and run a music program, but I knew a musician coming to Prague who needed a job (Brendan), and so I thought, why not” The students were from all over the world, and it started to look like that fateful decision to go to Minnesota all those years before had set her on a course she would continue following years later.

The two had only 3 students at their first rehearsal, but soon were performing for the British Chamber of Commerce, the British Council, at Smetana Hall before 1000 European educators, and other events around Prague. In their last year at the school, they had 50 members from 20 countries, and were singing in 15 different languages.

Brendan & Sarka Coleman

After four years, they decided to start their own choir, the International Choir of Prague. They returned to Prague 5, renting space in Gymnazium na Zatlance.

Now finishing their second season, the couple feel that they finally have a chance to run a program the way they want to.

The program is tiered, with a Developmental Choir for youngsters 6-8; a Concert Choir ages 9-18; and an Adult Choir. In total, 55 people from 20 different countries are now participating, and they hope to build on that number substantially.

The Choir rehearses twice weekly, and each year produces two major concerts using some of Prague’s best know and most respected jazz musicians for accompaniment. They also perform at events like the Christmas Fair in Old Town Square.

The Colemans have developed a total program, with an on staff Dance and movement teacher, weekly music theory lessons, instruction in drama and presentation, and retreats and workshops specializing in things such as vocal improvisation and African dance and drumming. These workshops are led by some of Prague’s most talented artists, such as African drum and dance troupe Tidetade. “Performing the kind of music we do, it’s important to have a concept of all the different disciplines that go into a performance” Sarka states.

Says Brendan: “We really don’t perform any classical music at this point. We specialize in contemporary world music, American popular music, Mowtown (Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye), Soul and Gospel (Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin), African and Carribean music, Reggae and Soca and Calypso, and even traditional cultural music from all different countries. Really, we love any beautiful music and songs. But in general, it has to be very uplifting and fun, energizing, or if not that, then it should be deeply spiritual. We want our audience to walk away from our concerts feeling renewed in their faith in the world and the future.”

About 30 percent of the choir is made up of Czechs, who besides their love for the music and singing, look at the choir, conducted in English and using many songs with English lyrics, as a great way to brush up on their English language skills.

They are currently preparing for their Spring Concert to be held Saturday, June 14th, at 5:00 P.M. in the City Library Theatre. The Concert Choir will also compete in June in one of Europe’s largest choir competitions in Olomouc, and will perform with the International School of Music and Fine Arts’ junior Orchestra in May.

As the choir continues to grow, organizational work such as recruitment, and raising funds to finance the shows, retreats, trips and competitions is beginning to take more and more time, and the Coleman’s will soon have to hire additional staff. Sarka says “We need to grow, we are growing, and that’s great. But you don’t want to get into a situation where the music comes last. We’ll definitely be looking for help.”

As for the future, Brendan sees it this way: “What we’d like to do, is build up our numbers and our art, become great performers, and bring joy and inspiration to all those who hear us. But day to day, the people in our choir, and their families, are the ones we come in contact with the most, and with whom we have the most impact. We’d like to think that we will bring a certain love of music and singing in general, and give them an idea of the power of music which they will carry with them for their entire lives. If we do that, then we’ll feel successful”.

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