Watching Jeff Gemmell rehearse with the Millersville University Choir feels a bit like drinking a triple espresso that’s been stirred with a candy cane.
Gemmell, Millersville’s choral instructor and conductor, doesn’t give the young singers a moment to lose focus during a recent Wednesday afternoon rehearsal in Millersville’s Biemesderfer Concert Hall. The group is one of many involved in the university’s Glorious Sounds of the Season holiday concert.
The choir is rehearsing the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah, the showstopper that concludes the concert each year. But Gemmell wants a little more bounce in the song’s second stanza — literally.
Gemmell leads the choir in rhythmic jumping jacks on the second and fourth beats. They bob as they sing, “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneith,” enthusiastic but seemingly not fazed by the exercise.
It’s a fitting preparation for a show that requires a hefty amount of musical athleticism. Glorious Sounds of the Season features more than 250 students in 30 musical acts. Its momentum is speedy, with just a breath in between each performance. Audiences are asked to hold their applause until the end. Student performers might appear on stage, in the pit or in the aisles of the Clair Performance Hall.
“You’re going to feel like you’re right in the middle of the action sometimes,” Gemmell says.
The Millersville University Tell School of Music will present Glorious Sounds of the Season on Dec. 1 and Dec. 2 at Clair Performance Hall in the Winter Center. The group performs for Willow Valley Communities residents on Nov. 30.
Proceeds from the concert go to a scholarship fund for current and prospective Millersville students. Glorious Sounds of the Season raises $15,000 to $20,000 annually, after production costs. Micheal Houlahan, chair of Millersville’s Tell School of Music, says the scholarship fund is indispensable for attracting talent. There’s also the hope that students will stay in the area after graduation.
“It helps Millersville stay competitive, but if you think about it, it also helps the community stay competitive,” Houlahan says.
The show is directed by Gemmell and Keith Wiley, associate professor of trumpet and coordinator of brass and jazz studies at Millersville.
Tickets routinely sell out, as the concert has gained a fanbase made up of Lancaster residents outside of the Millersville University community.
“Some people are really proud that they’ve been to every Glorious Sounds since it started, and it becomes their Christmas tradition,” says Gemmell, who first brought the concert to Millersville in 2006.
The show is credited with inspiring Lancaster County entrepreneur and philanthropist Patrick Tell with gifting the school $2 million, the largest donation in the school’s history.
“The student performances at Glorious Sounds were amazing,” Tell said in a statement to the university. “That wonderful experience started me on a path to attend many other performances at the university and I thought, ‘These students and their success is something that I should support.’ ”
Millersville announced the name change to its music school in April.
Gemmell says recognition, like Tell’s support, from outside the Millersville community, was an objective of bringing the show to Millersville in 2006.
Prior to the show’s life in Millersville, Gemmell had participated in a similar show while earning his doctorate at University of Colorado Boulder. He formally began Glorious Sounds of the Season while employed at California State University, Chico, in 1999. Chico State will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its Glorious Sounds of the Season concert this year.
The 1999 performance only included pieces that had the words “glory” or “Gloria” in their titles, hence the “glorious” part of the name. The theme wasn’t a requirement in following years, but the name stuck.
“I came up with this idea of having so many performing areas around the hall and then controlling it all through lights so there’s a continuous flow, like in your iPod,” Gemmell says, referencing the device’s “shuffle” feature.
During the show’s second year at Chico State, a scholarship fundraising element was added.
When Gemmell was first hired by Millersville in 2006, faculty members asked him if he had any fundraising ideas. He suggested Glorious Sounds of the Season, and described its fast-moving style.
“I just said, ‘This sounds great,’ ” Wiley says. “He’s done it. Trust the guy.”
Gemmell left Millersville in 2009 to work at University of Colorado Boulder. He later came back to Lancaster County during a research leave, and returned to Millersville when a job opened in 2013.
Gemmell begins preparing for Glorious Sounds of the Season in the summer, combing through music and looking for pieces that are upbeat and energetic to propel the show’s momentum.
Student-led groups, like the vocal jazz ensemble Chromatic Expansion, audition for the show in October. The final show is a mix between choral numbers conducted by Gemmell and performances by the school’s orchestra, instrumental ensembles, student-led groups, and even a rock band from the school’s commercial music program.
This year will mark the third year that senior music education students Melody Stahl and Tyler Smith perform a piano duet together. They have performed pieces by other composers in the past, but for their last Glorious Sounds of the Season, Smith created an original arrangement weaving together elements from “The Nutcracker.”
“It is excellent,” Gemmell says. “It is really cool. It is one of the cleverest things I’ve heard.”
Stahl recalls her first taste of the production as a freshman.
“It was a little intimidating at first, but going through the practices and stuff was a lot of fun,” Stahl says.
Smith enjoyed learning how the show came together.
“It was really neat to see kind of the behind-the-scenes of how it works, and then to see the show itself in kind of the rapid-fire performance setting of how it is is really interesting,” Smith says.
Perhaps the most grueling chapter in the show’s preparation is the Thursday of production week, when students first do a dry run to make sure they’re hitting their marks on time, only playing the last four bars of their piece to get a feel for the show’s order. Once the students have that down, they run the show in full. The rehearsal can last as long as five hours.
“You’re in there for the long haul,” says Amber Balch, a senior music education member.
But Smith is already finding something to look forward to in 2019’s production.
“I’m actually excited for next year to come back and actually watch the performance as an audience member,” Smith says.
All three students say their families will attend the concert, and knowing it’s their last is bittersweet.
“It’s good because we’re going on to new things,” Stahl says. “But it is sad because we’re leaving something really exciting behind, and there’s no other experience we’re going to have like this.”