To Top

Rising Stars: Meet Andy Jensen of Belleville

Today we’d like to introduce you to Andy Jensen.

Hi Andy, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for sharing your story with us – to start, maybe you can share some of your backstories with our readers.
I initially landed in the greater St. Louis area in 2011 when I accepted a music teaching position at SWIC. By 2014, it became clear that aspects of musical ambition didn’t satisfy my artistic appetite in quite the same way as the school and my students. I set out on a quest for a different kind of fulfillment to create room for expression and exploration of music that went beyond what I could accomplish with my (albeit highly capable) students. My first step in this journey was to start a group informally known as No-Name Chorale. No-Name was organized with a relatively low-key aim at first. My goal was to create a choral performance opportunity during the summer season, consisting of a group of volunteer singers who had participated in the St. Louis Chamber Chorus (SLCC) with me between 2011 and 2014 and other musically-inclined friends in the area. I initially wasn’t confident that this group would get as much out of the group as I was, in the sense that I knew I’d feel fulfilled in directing the group, but I didn’t (yet) have evidence that it would pay off for the performers. To motivate my colleagues and friends to participate and to avoid asking volunteer singers to donate too much of their time, I decided to arrange concerts under the conditions of a short timeframe. I essentially banked on the idea that we could put on a show in two and a half focused rehearsals and, after testing it, found out that it worked!

One key element of No-Name Chorale’s development was this idea of giving back, or sharing, as a core component of the experience for both singers and our small initial audience. Our first concerts included a community dinner beforehand. We paid courtesy of my wonderful wife, Kathy, and all expenses. This model went well, and by year 2, as we approached the summer, the prior year’s volunteers reached out to see if we’d be putting on another concert. At that point, it became recurring as it turned out, people wanted to join! The group continued to grow from 2014 through 2017, and participation blossomed. Our first concert had 25 singers; by 2016, we had over 50 in the ensemble. I recall thinking, “there is an appetite for this” people talked openly about what they liked and how the structure was different than what they had experienced with traditional ensembles, with months’ worth of rehearsals leading up to each concert. The idea of No-Name Chorale being an entity with a community mission hadn’t yet taken shape, but I was starting to realize that other people found real and unique value in their involvement. It wasn’t just me benefitting. I began to see promise in our little group as something worth planning around, with a market and appetite for it in the greater St. Louis area.

In 2017, we held our first non-summer concerts, one in the fall in St. Louis and one in the spring at our home base in Belleville, IL, with a smaller group, and by this point, it was clear to the group and me that we could create a thriving program beyond just the summer months. The following year, in 2018, we continued to plan one at a time but successfully held a series of concerts, including an all-men’s ensemble in the spring that was very well received. We submitted for that concert’s repertoire to be performed as part of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA)’s State Conference, and we were selected! This progress created the impetus for us to properly get organized as an entity, including raising funds to send that group to Chicago to perform. At this point, I reached out to our now-Treasurer, Rachel Robison, and our Vice President, Chip Belpedio, for support in getting us incorporated and registered as a non-profit organization. Before this, we had collected free-will offerings at some concerts but always directed funds toward a charity partner (e.g., a local food pantry in Belleville). We also held a show focused on mental health in 2017, which included a collection of donations for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. While we have shifted toward raising funds to keep our group sustained, which consists of the cost of securing sheet music and promotional materials. We have maintained it as part of our mission to incorporate an annual donation component as part of our core mission of giving back and creating shared experiences in service of those around us. It took three years to secure ourselves as a 5o1(c)3, with delays sustained during the pandemic, and we finally achieved this status earlier this year.

February 2020 was our first in-person concert, entitled Fruit of Silence, and I recall this concert going exceptionally well. It was then that it became clear that this group is the future that I and others want for their music experience. Unfortunately, as we all know, the pandemic hit our group especially hard, given the in-person nature of our performances. Coming back from that in the 2021-22 season, I initially thought it would be wise to spend a year discerning what my involvement in the more excellent St. Louis music scene would look like overall and what I would like to pursue. Personally, my strongest motivation and most valuable reward is having a chance to be in the middle of making excellent music. It can be a blessing and a curse that we’ve attracted fantastic skill, so much so that we’ve had to limit participation at times. However, overall I’m incredibly proud of the group as it exists today still entirely volunteer and what we’re capable of creating and sharing with the community in such a short timeframe. I’m excited to announce that the 2022-23 season represents our most established schedule, with 7 performances around the area, from Belleville to St. Charles!

Can you talk to us about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Our greatest obstacle today was figuring out how to responsibly re-engage or start back up amid the pandemic. Our first concert back in person consisted of juggling everyone’s fears, expectations, wants, and hope. This threading of the needle taught me much about commitment and leadership during challenging times. One major lesson from this experience was that I couldn’t lose sight of the fact that people are more important than the product. As a music director and participant, I’ve been in many situations in the past where participants have had to back out or couldn’t honor their commitment. I’ve developed a more dynamic perspective through leading this group, where members don’t have a financial or regulated obligation to participate.

Realistically, with No-Name Chorale, I’ve been on a mission to attract people to a somewhat unproven model, which has meant being creative, sensitive, and aware and, above all, proving that you care about and are equally committed to the people involved, more than to what the group produces. At one of the first in-person concerts, we held after pandemic restrictions were relaxed. There were some members who, at the last minute, expressed that they didn’t think they were ready to be back in an intimate environment with others and that they felt like it exceeded their capacity for risk. I had to maintain a rational perspective that that was okay, that we’d be alright, and that I wanted that person to feel comfortable. That ability is something I’m still developing, as are many in the music space where it’s easy to become so focused on the group and on perfection that you lose sight of people’s humanity. Being in a posture of authority feels excellent and productive at times. Still, I’ve always kept front and center the fact that each singer in our ensemble is a real human being and that I’m responsible for recognizing and upholding that baseline understanding. All in all, No-Name Chorale has granted me so many opportunities to be compassionate and cultivate that in others, and this sense of mutual respect has helped us thrive as a collective.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
No-Name Chorale is a volunteer-led, community-oriented performance group dedicated to creating meaningful shared experiences through the art of singing—and cultivating an appreciation of choral music across all audiences—by presenting fine-art music in an approachable, welcoming manner. As a firmly established part of the St. Louis choral scene, No-Name continues to fulfill our mission by offering an entire season of free concerts designed to share the joy of inspired choral singing and St. Louis, Metro East, and Western Illinois communities. As a project-based ensemble, there’s no set roster of singers, and our concerts are entirely driven by a general concept and associated repertoire (set of music). Since each project is different, we have done projects ranging from chamber concerts with 16 SATB (soprano, alto, tenor & bass) singers, larger choruses of 50+, and even a men’s glee club ensemble.

As an organization, No-Name Chorale is built around a mission to present fine art and choral music in a way that’s accessible and welcoming to everyone. As the artistic director, I try to balance selecting repertoire that will challenge our singers (both musically and aesthetically) and music that requires something of you as a performer. To convey emotion and tell a story with my perceived needs of an audience that includes people who may have never been to a choir concert outside of a K-12 scenario and have no expectations. Or they fear it is being bored, or they don’t like this kind of thing anyway but are forced to attend.

To that end, we perform a somewhat eclectic repertoire that spans the history of western choral music. For example, for our concert in September, one piece is a Gregorian chant, and others were written in the later 20th century. We perform some music in foreign languages, including Latin, but that’s not the norm; a good deal of our music is conducted in English. In part as a function of speaking to an audience that speaks English. But also since, realistically, with our short rehearsal span, it’s challenging to learn a piece in another language. More than half of the music we perform has been written in the last 50 years. This approach, on my part, is intentional, given my experience that a more modern idiom or style is more likely to appeal to a broader audience. That said, we also try to sprinkle in as few historical pieces as possible!

Our concerts are typically themed, sometimes around morality or ethics. But sometimes with looser associations than that, and our objective is to present the audience with sounds and feelings that are interesting and valuable, that the group can be passionate about, and that help convince the audience (and the singers!) that the experience is worth sharing, and worth their time. Above all, we don’t perform any particular piece of music simply because it’s essential or because we feel obligated to cultivate our audience’s taste; instead, we perform music that serves the occasion.

I’m most proud of the group for becoming an organization where new people can immediately come to their first rehearsal and feel included. We have a culture of warmth, kindness, and inclusivity that, in my experience, is not universally found in musical groups. Particularly in those that perform at our pace and skill level, wherein there are no “assigned seats” to speak of, and members are naturally supportive, engaging, and disarming with each other. There’s often an inverse relationship between the caliber of music performed and the degree of inclusivity or welcoming sentiment, and I don’t see very often if ever, that sense of competition playing out between No-Name members or sections of the ensemble. I’m most proud of this camaraderie and loving support because it’s an element I believe is unique and not commonly experienced in other organizations.

I’d also like to mention that as we strive to forge even deeper connections and share our passion for music with the greater St. Louis and Western Illinois region in the coming years. We’ve recently added a dimension to our offerings in the form of programs for children and young adults! This past summer, we hosted a No-Name Children’s Choir Camp spearheaded by our choir member, Jenny Rea. The program consisted of a multi-day “camp” format where children rehearsed together for several days and ultimately performed three songs (from memory!) for their family and friends. We folded this performance in as part of our broader concert. With the objective of helping children connect to the joy that music can bring and inviting their families to participate in a performance actively and to get a more immediate sense of what it’s all about and what it can mean for their kids.

We’re planning to host another official “No-Name Chorale Children’s Choir.” This time in conjunction with a “High School All-Stars” program at the same time, both are geared toward K 12 students and will offer a similar, multi-day “camp” approach culminating in a shared concert for families and friends. We’re considering this a first step toward broadening our mission of making music an experience worth sharing throughout our community, particularly by reducing barriers to entry whether age, finances, or proximity, and children can participate even if they’re not already karaoke superstars! We’re excited about how this method of giving back can positively impact the youth community, and we look forward to seeing these enrichment activities take hold!

What quality or characteristic do you feel is most important to your success?
I’d say figuring out how to get things done with little to no budget! Keeping No-Name up and running has taken quite a bit of hustling, but I generally try not to let a lack of resources hinder our output or progress. Any time our group wants to perform a new piece of music, that involves paying publishers for the music in advance. In many cases, we’ve only had as much funding available as what we were personally willing to spend. In turn, this has meant a lot of networking, as well as (thankfully) coordinating with SWIC to source music and secure rehearsal space (and chairs!).

I’m blessed to have a wife who has been willing to commit to this project with me financially and in terms of donated time and seemingly endless energy, and that’s truly made all the difference; none of this would be possible without Kathy! Additionally, and especially at first, to create that initial momentum and give No-Name its legs, it’s meant sacrifice on the part of my family. Even among No-Name’s members, I know some struggle to figure out how to include their family in this aspect of life that’s very important to them. Our group seems to balance members feeling artistically fulfilled and socially fulfilled. Still, we also strive to make these performance experiences accessible so that they can invite their family and they won’t consider it too esoteric or dispassionate.

I also lend tons of credit to the culture of volunteerism that keeps us going and that our group is willing to dedicate dense bursts of their time to quick, focused rehearsals. This is an unconventional practice for a choir and leads us to function more like an orchestra than a choir. We do differ from instrumental groups in that there’s a culture of “performing because you love it” that, from my perspective, is a bit more ingrained in the singing culture than in the instrumental culture. But also, this short-term approach is appealing because everyone lives busy and allows us to immediately jump into the momentum that usually arises at the end of a long series of rehearsals. We eliminate most of the tediousness and bask in the exciting part, where we all carry an internalized understanding that there’s a looming public performance, which serves as a motivator. Members leave the first rehearsal and come back better prepared for rehearsal number two. If we had several weeks in a row to rehearse, it’s easy to hold ourselves to a lower standard, with an undertone of, “I’ll pick it up as we go on” our unique approach keeps us on our toes leading up to the concert but also turns our shows into a moment of truth. No one can go through the motions or be complacent!

Generally speaking, this group is not for the faint of heart, in the sense that it’s a challenging approach but what I’ve tried to avoid is a culture of fear, wherein members perform and are motivated by a fear of making a mistake or messing up. I had an “aha moment” after college where I realized that pursuing perfection is a fool’s errand, leaving you exhausted and disappointed more often than not. And as it pertains to music, if we were to try to establish a standard of perfection, it wouldn’t necessarily satisfy someone else because it’s an art and inherently subjective. Nothing is ever definitively perfect, even if it’s performed exactly as we intended or the score says it should be.

Rather than rehearsing or performing to eliminate every last error, I’m more interested in seeking artistry. Naturally, we need to be on the same page as far as the core elements of the music, but hunting and killing errors end up not being very satisfying that’s rehearsing with a negative frame of mind. It’s an ongoing practice as a leader. Still, I try to create circumstances in which singers can exercise their artistry and seek out and find ways to be expressive and passionate. Practice being unified and attentive to one another throughout. To me, that’s a very different approach than running through each piece of music top-to-bottom and stopping to correct each mistake. And again, this is another way of viewing choral music. There are better options if you think things could be made perfect with just one more run-through or rehearsal!

All in all, it’s this collective understanding that I believe powers our success from a performing perspective. We go through every concert with some level of uncertainty. Some things we thought would be perfect ended up in trouble, and some areas in which we struggled in rehearsals come together beautifully, and that’s all part of the experience. The value that the group and I derived from the trial is the same value from the performance. If we go into it to communicate with others, feeling heard, seeing and hearing others, that’s ultimately what it’s all about. It’s not about just the music; I’ve never been about corralling people into just “doing” a book of predetermined music in a controlled way. My goal is to use music to bring people together and to help people (myself included) feel more alive and connected with their humanity. Sometimes this means straying from the original intention of a piece to generate that result. Still, I care more about what happens in the room with these wonderful people and our engaged community than rigidly honoring Mozart’s legacy. That would make me a pariah in certain classical circles. Still, it’s an approach that’s been received well by the group. And they (and the audience) appreciate the variety and flexibility in how it all comes together at the end. I also want to reiterate that this philosophy of music as an experience, and my striving for shared creative experiences over perfection and rigor, isn’t just my own. My wife, Kathy, has been the #1 person to encourage this perspective, primarily as a participant herself, and she’s steadfastly supported my attempts to lead this group without pretentiousness or over-refinement. We’re lucky to have our own distinct identity as an organization, and there’s value in being ourselves, showing up with our talents, and seeing what happens. That sentiment has empowered me to pursue this path for No-Name, which lets us create and share something wonderful and new at every performance.

Kathy was the first to articulate our tagline, “No-Name is an experience worth sharing.” Our group’s performance style generates a desire to bring others into the positive experience you’re having, whether as a singer or an audience member. There’s also a sharing element in that members get their friends, family, and broader community involved, looping them into the value they’ve found in the time they’ve spent doing this with us and inviting them to listen, whether in person or online.

The essential quality that No-Name Chorale embodies is this dedication to sharing, especially given we’ve flourished through generosity by literally giving things to each other in ways that keep us sustained. This started with Kathy and me giving out meals and putting funds toward group initiatives and our group’s singers giving back their time and talent. We’ve done such good work by sharing what we do with our audience, and we invite them to share what they can if inclined. When you have something valuable, you can multiply it by giving it away for free. That’s the essential ingredient: generosity.

In that sense, success is shared. It’s not the presentation, reputation, or competition that arises from it. It’s giving a musical experience to our community and each other. That’s the essential quality that offers value and meaning to the time we all spend getting organized because every action, rehearsal, and dollar becomes a part of the ultimate shared experience. You may never feel fully refunded for what you put out if it’s done for self-aggrandizement or self-promotion alone. I’ve felt the most reimbursed for my efforts, not when I’ve tried to do things alone or for the credit, but rather when I’ve taken action to share with others.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Jonathan Cole, Rene Zajner

Suggest a Story: VoyageSTL is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More in Local Stories