The experience maker

Music professor Valerie Bullock breaks out in laughter while working with her concert singers during a recent rehearsal at Charleston Southern University.

It’s not “feel it tin ...,” Valerie Bullock tells her singers. It’s “feel it in ...” A tiny stop in the throat must separate the two words.

Don’t push, she gently admonishes.

“Never sing more loudly than we can sing beautifully,” Bullock says, repeating an oft-used phrase that, by its end, has all the students speaking in unison.

The all-female choir at Charleston Southern University, Bel Canto, surrounds Bullock and staff accompanist Jacquie Jones as they rehearse the spiritual “Music Down in My Soul” and “Psalm 23” by Z. Randall Stroope.

The voices ring clear with little vibrato and excellent intonation. The benevolent rapport between Bullock, who chairs the Horton School of Music and serves as its director of choral activities, and her students is tangible in the room. She tweaks and prods and suggests with energy and enthusiasm, and the students respond in kind.

“She truly cares,” says sophomore Tierrhane Huff. “It’s not just class to her.”

Bullock landed at Charleston Southern in 1993. She had finished her doctorate in choral music education at Florida State University two years earlier then took a job as a choral director at the University of Mississippi before returning home to the Charleston area.

She wanted to come home, she says.

In 1993, there were five full-time faculty at the Horton School. Today there are 14. The school serves 100 students majoring in music and another 100 with music minors or just a simple passion. Bullock oversees four vocal groups: Bel Canto, the all-male Singing Buccaneers (conducted by colleague Ricard Bordas), the auditioned Concert Choir and the contemporary Christian ensemble New Vision. She also oversees the Lyric Theatre, marching band and pep band, the voice and piano programs and the many small student ensembles that form each year.

Bullock says she is most pleased with the growth of the Horton School, and how music has become central to campus life. April is the busiest month.

“There is something almost every day, including senior recitals,” Bullock says. She makes an effort to attend almost every performance.

Her constant presence and generous leadership is appreciated by her colleagues.

“She has always been a strong supporter,” says Eugene Koester, a piano teacher who, at 83, is retiring from CSU after a 40-year tenure. “She does a great job of running the music school.”

Bullock studied piano growing up, majored in English as an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina and took some history courses, too.

“But I liked sitting at the piano and playing,” she says. One day, a teacher asked her why she wasn’t a music major. She thought about it for a second, then changed the course of her life.

She concentrated on piano at first, then switched to vocal studies, singing in opera and musical theater productions and soon landing a teaching job at a high school before heading off to Florida State.

Among her favorite experiences are trips to Europe with the Concert Singers, she says.

“Travel abroad has opened eyes,” she says. It’s introduced students to a world of possibility and musical enrichment.

The Concert Singers were “choir in residence” three times in England: twice at York Minster (2004 and 2006) and once at Canterbury Cathedral (2012). Each time they spent a week in church that required their full attention to Anglican liturgy and music repertoire and had them singing multiple daily services, each with a new Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis to learn.

It was a challenging and breathtaking experience, she says.

In 2014, she conducted the Concert Singers throughout Catalonia, Spain, performing concerts in Barcelona, Girona and Palafrugel.

Another favorite moment came when she conducted the Concert Singers in a 2004 performance of Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah,” and again in 2008 when the group performed Brahms’ Requiem.

“Being able to conduct major works definitely is a highlight,” she said.

Most recently, she and the Concert Singers worked with famed choral expert Edward Higgenbottom, who was visiting last month from England. And in May, she and the choir will travel to New York City to perform at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and at St. Paul’s Chapel (part of Trinity Church Wall Street), two famous sanctuaries with fine acoustics.

But she doesn’t limit herself to CSU activities. Bullock also conducts the Singers of Summerville, a community ensemble that rehearses at Bethany United Methodist Church and performs a variety of repertoire.

CSU music professor Ricard Bordas, who is from Barcelona, says he remembers fondly the Concert Singers’ performance in his hometown last year. Spanish colleagues told him the choir sang with heart, communicating the meaning of the words. It made him very proud, he says.

And working with Bullock is easy.

“She is always open to ideas,” Bordas says. “It’s great to work with her. She doesn’t impose anything. She’s very clear what she wants.”

One of things she wants is to fulfill the mission of Charleston Southern University, integrating faith into the classroom. Choral singers, of course, have an advantage here: The sacred music repertoire is vast and beautiful and important.

“We’re always talking about the text and what it means,” Bordas says. “It reflects in the results, because we mean what we say.”

Back in the choir room, the Concert Singers are now warming up with extended vocalization on vowels, shifting from “ee” to “eh” to “ah,” “oh” and “oo.”

Mimicking Bullock, the singers gesture with one hand before their mouths as if to represent the sound with physical movement, thereby reinforcing the technique their conductor has taught them.

Then they sing a dense chord and move up and down chromatically, practicing intonation and blend. The objective is for many singers, each with fine voices, to sound like a single voice.

When they get to the motet “Laudate nomin,” Bullock has them sing through a phrase staccato, separating each note to reinforce the intervals. The basses struggle a little, so she has them repeat certain phrases.

“Don’t slow it down,” she pleads. “It keeps going right on through.”

So goes the rehearsal, each student attentive, polite, engaged. They are focused on their teacher, whose energy never seems to flag.

After this there are meetings, paperwork, recitals and concerts, community outreach and more. Eventually she will get home. But never mind the hectic daily schedule.

“I’m happiest when I’m really busy,” Bullock says.

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