Rachel Vanderbloemen had one word to describe her Wednesday night: “Nostalgia.”
The 2015 La Follette High School graduate, who made choir and musicals a significant part of her high school experience, was back on the stage she knew well for a joint concert with the school’s choirs and the Madison ARTS for ALL Wisconsin choir, of which she is a member.
“It felt so good to be back here,” Vanderbloemen said in the choir room after the concert.
ARTS for ALL Wisconsin offers opportunities for youth and adults with disabilities to practice their passions, like choir. La Follette choir director Courtney Lindl first heard about the organization a few years ago during professional development training, but the pandemic prevented an opportunity to collaborate.
“We do choir concerts every year and the basic premise of the event is, if you are fortunate enough to get a mic, then you should use it to amplify the good,” Lindl said. “I was incredibly excited that we made it happen this year.”
On Tuesday night, the La Follette students and their ARTS for ALL peers met for the first time for a rehearsal, where they got to know each other before singing.
“Everyone has a different type of ability,” La Follette senior Aniya Embry said. “We got to see other people and we got to sing with them and just bring joy.”
On Wednesday, after each choir group sang songs of their own, they took the stage together for two songs: “Give Light” and “I Think I’ll Be an Artist.” Both Vanderbloemen and Heidi Schey, another ARTS for ALL Wisconsin choir member, cited the latter as their favorite song of the event.
First meeting the night before the concert allowed them to have an even better experience on Wednesday, Embry said, adding that it was an opportunity for her to “connect with more people and to put myself out there.”
“It was just so much love,” she said. “We got to be in the moment and share what we learned with everyone else.”
Vanderbloemen’s mother, Anne, is the director of the Madison ARTS for ALL choir. Before the concert, she said groups like a choir are “perfect places for people with disabilities to find that community" that they may have had in choral or other music programming during school.
Schey said she enjoyed the opportunity to work with the La Follette choir because she “was standing next to the sopranos and I can blend in with them.”
Lindl said it was an important opportunity for her students to get to know people with different abilities who they might not interact with often.
“It sheds light and educates our students on a lot of important issues,” Lindl said. “When (Anne) and Rachel came (to visit the choir class), they talked about how people with differing ability levels still need to be treated as adults and how in the community that’s something they really strive for.
“A lot of my students just hadn’t thought about that as something that was talked about within that community.”
That message came through to La Follette senior Emmanuel Furlow, who called the concert “very fun.”
“Bringing joy and spreading love is what I’ve always liked doing in my life,” he said. “I feel like (singing) is very welcoming, I felt like I was welcoming them into my heart.”
Rachel Vanderbloemen taught some of the students how to use sign language for the lyrics of their joint songs, which Anne Vanderbloemen said is an important part of the ARTS for ALL Wisconsin choir, allowing various members to participate however is best for them. As Furlow sat next to one of those members on stage, he began signing, but she grabbed his hand and instead they sang together while holding hands.
“It felt like I just know them,” he said. “By being with them, trying to have fun with them and learning their ways of what they love to do and trying to have fun with it.”
Another important message the partnership highlighted for Lindl’s students was that “when you’re an adult, you can still be in choir.”
“Rachel has been such a good role model in the sense that Rachel had this really great experience of choir at the secondary (school) level, and as an adult she also has this great experience with a choir,” Lindl said. “That’s a universal lesson that I hope the students learn.”
Embry hopes that the school continues the partnership in future years.
“I’m not going to be here to see it,” she acknowledged. “So hopefully I’ll come back and get to watch another one of their concerts.”