Helen Kemp, a lyric soprano, was well known in her early career for oratorio and recital performances. It was her love for the art of singing that propelled her into the field of children’s choirs, which she regarded as the seed-bed for musical, artistic and personal growth of young choristers.
Helen Kemp has been training children and their teachers in the art of choral singing for more than six decades. Known internationally as a specialist in the area of training young voices, she has served as guest conductor and clinician in all 50 states as well as in countries around the world in both university and church settings. A hallmark of her work is her ability to empower dedicated volunteers to be successful choir directors, as well as to present techniques so solid and engaging that highly-trained professionals continue to learn from her.
She has guided and shaped successful children’s choirs in churches, schools and communities in North American and beyond, as evidenced in a new documentary video, A Helen Kemp Portrait (Choristers Guild). Her books and prepared instructional materials have become standard resources, and church choir directors around the world use her text,Of Primary Importance, and its Volume II sequel. Her choral compositions for children are widely performed. She is also the subject of a doctoral dissertation by Christine Farrier entitledBody, Mind, Spirit, Voice: Helen Kemp and the Development of the Children’s Choir Movement (Univ. of N. Carolina, Greensboro, 1992).
Helen and her late husband John Kemp served as founding members and leaders of Choristers Guild, the international organization for children’s choirs. The Kemps served two tenures on the faculty of Westminster Choir College, Princeton, NJ, and held church positions in several states, including one at First Presbyterian Church, Oklahoma City, where they spent 20 years developing an acclaimed church music program. Upon her retirement from Westminster Choir College, Kemp was named Professor Emerita of Voice and Church Music, and has been awarded honorary Doctorates from Westminster Choir College and Shenandoah University. In 2003, she was awarded The Elaine Brown Award for Choral Excellence from the Pennsylvania ACDA, and a lifetime membership award from the Presbyterian Association of Musicians.
The moment you knew you’d dedicate your life to music
After a young life spent in athletics, playing basketball, a new young choral teacher came to school. She loved working with him. He took her to Westminster Choir School (before it was a college) for a visit and a lesson with Mrs. LoRean Hodapp. Once she left that day, she knew she wanted to BE Mrs. Hodapp! And her high school team ended up winning the Bux-Mont basketball championship that year too!
Worst musical moment
In her second year at Westminster Choir School during the Great Depression, money ran short. Her spirit shined so brightly that Dr. Williamson heard that young Dr. Kemp could not come up with the tuition, so he allowed her to study the whole second semester “on the house”.
The proudest musical moment
Directing 700 kids at Princeton University Chapel in 1983 and 1987, Dr. Kemp felt extreme gratitude for the gift she had been given to affect children in this way.
Early on, it was the ability to sing through her oratorio performances.
Then, it became teaching.
Later: Conducting Children’s Choirs, but ultimately it became the giving of her talents to churches that didn’t have professionally trained directors; reaching out to thousands and giving them the professional choir training they deserve.
Most excited about right now
A commission for the Southwest American Guild of Organists, that she accepted reluctantly, but is SO glad she did! At 97 to boot… The piece is called Morning Stars Singing Together.
Helen Kemp Special: What’s the secret to live a happy life to age 97?
Feed your soul. Read. Give. And surround yourself with others who are passionate about their gifts.
What was your favorite concert to attend?
A Christmas concert at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw with the family.
The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron
The Art Spirit, by Robert Henri
– quote from The Art Spirit: “The mind is a tool. It is either clogged, bound, rusty, or it clear way to the soul.”
Hymn Text Discussed
When the Morning Stars Together
When the morning stars together
their creator’s glory sang,
and the angel host all shouted
till with joy the heavens rang,
then your wisdom and your greatness
their exultant music told,
all the beauty and the splendor
which your mighty works unfold.
Voice and instrument, in union
through the ages, spoke thy praise.
Plainsong, tuneful hymns, and anthems
told your faithful, gracious ways.
Choir and orchestra and organ
each a sacred offering brought,
while, inspired by your own Spirit,
poet and composer wrought.
Lord, we bring our gift of music;
touch our lips and fire our hearts,
teach our minds and train our senses,
fit us for this sacred art.
Then with skill and consecration
we would serve you, Lord, and give
all our powers to glorify you,
and in serving fully live.