By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
College students Heidi and Jeremy Bennett did some singing over Christmas break, but not much caroling.
The Edmonds siblings came home from Tennessee’s Lee University with homework. They practiced “This Land is Your Land,” “God Bless America,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and other songs that will soon put them in the national spotlight.
Heidi Bennett, 21, and her 19-year-old brother are part of the Lee University Festival Choir. Created from seven smaller ensembles, the choir will perform just before President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony Jan. 21.
Before returning Thursday to their campus in Cleveland, Tenn., they stopped by The Herald with their father, Rusty Bennett. They have known since before the election that the Lee choir would make the inauguration trip to Washington, D.C.
On Nov. 1, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander made an appearance and a surprise announcement at Lee University.
“We do not yet know who will be inaugurated president in January, but we do know who will be singing that day — the Lee University choir,” the Tennessee Republican told students that day. Alexander is on the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.
“We were excited just to sing for the senator,” Heidi Bennett said Wednesday. Several weeks after the announcement, she and Jeremy learned they had both made the cut for the festival choir.
It meant practicing over vacation and long rehearsals now that they’re back at school. They’ll have a huge audience. The Associated Press reported Thursday that District of Columbia officials expect crowds of 600,000 to 800,000 people on the National Mall for Inauguration Day, which is also the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Kendra Gray, secretary for Lee University’s director of public information, said Thursday there are 200 students in the festival choir. Choir members will board five buses at 8 a.m. Jan. 18, a Friday, and arrive about 12 hours later, she said. They’ll stay in Silver Springs, Md., and have the Saturday before the inauguration free for sightseeing. That Sunday, they’ll rehearse.
Professor William Green, the choir director and dean of the university’s school of music, told The Chattanooga Times Free Press that the choir has prepared a half-hour of music, but he expects they will only perform 15 to 20 minutes.
Green said a repertoire of about nine songs was selected, evoking spirituality, patriotism and regional flavor. The inauguration theme, announced by congressional organizers in November, is “Faith in America’s Future.”
Among songs approved by organizers, Green said, are Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” which Glenn Miller’s orchestra made into a big-band standard.
The Edmonds students have also been practicing “A Song of Peace,” “Saints Bound for Heaven,” “How Can I Keep from Singing?” and “All that Hath Life and Breath Praise Ye the Lord.”
The arrangements are “definitely college level,” said Jeremy Bennett, whose voice is a first bass. At home, he practiced using Apple’s GarageBand on his Mac computer. “Heidi sits at the piano,” Rusty Bennett said. She is a second soprano.
Jeremy Bennett lives in Medlin Hall, where he said evangelist Billy Graham lived when what is now Lee University was Bob Jones College. The liberal arts school, with about 4,500 students, has historically been affiliated with the Church of God.
The Bennetts, who attended Cedar Park Christian School before college, are following in the footsteps of their pastor at Westgate Chapel in Edmonds. Pastor Alec Rowlands, they said, attended Lee University. “He was in the Lee singers,” Heidi Bennett said.
Both siblings have traveled with choirs, including to New Orleans to help after Hurricane Katrina. The inauguration is a performance opportunity like no other. Years from now, they may be telling grandchildren about their once-in-a-lifetime day in Washington, D.C.
“We’re just really excited to represent our state and our university,” Heidi Bennett said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.