Concert Funds Scholarship in Memory of Lori Geis
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Music and memory played out in harmony earlier this fall at the Seward County Community College Showcase Theater when the Lori Geis Choir Alumni presented a benefit concert "Honoring Lori's Legacy." The event was free to the public with a free will donation to the SCCC/ATS Foundation for music scholarships in Geis' memory.
An accomplished vocalist, beloved choir director and dedicated educator, Geis died in 2013 after a battle with cancer. Prompted by longtime friend and adopted grandmother Barbara Hanson of Liberal, friends, former students and colleagues have contributed to a memorial scholarship for vocal music at SCCC/ATS in Geis' name.
The concert featured a broad spectrum of music, from the National Anthem and the Battle Hymn of the Republic to favorites like Bridge Over Troubled Water, You Are My Sunshine, hymns, gospel standards, show tunes and classical selections. Former choir members from Liberal and out-of-town locations will sing with accompaniment by area pianist Becky Robison. Former student Derek Bridenstine directed the concert.
Geis was "a huge influence not only in my personal life but in my music career also," Bridenstine said. "Throughout the 11 years that I was involved with her groups, she helped me become more confident as a singer, and also a better teacher."
To prepare for the concert, Bridenstine drew on the knowledge of music and organizational skills he first learned from Geis.
"I have tried to follow in her footsteps to plan a concert that she would be proud of," he said.
Robison said many of the songs on the program served as finale or encore pieces for Geis' SCCC/ATS choir and Sound Express show choir.
"It's a big set full of songs that were favorites of the choir and audiences during her time at the college," Robison said.
In addition to honoring the memory of Geis, the concert participants hoped to "pay it forward" by helping new students pursue music with the same passion Geis shared with her own choir members and protégés.
Lindsey Carter was one of the students who Geis influenced to persist in the pursuit of music. A Forgan native, Carter came to SCCC/ATS to earn an associate in pre-veterinary studies. Carter joined the choir as a way to earn a book scholarship and a means to make room for music in her demanding schedule of pre-veterinary coursework.
"It was my creative outlet, something I considered fun," she said. "Lori made us work; she required perfection, but she also made it fun. It was a very good outlet for me."
Later, as Carter completed a bachelor's and master's degrees, she continued to sing in university choral groups. Because of Geis, she said, "it was easy to see how passion for music can translate to all aspects of life. When I was studying and working in the labs, I was using that ability to work hard and focus just like I did in choir," she said.
Though Geis was well-known for her high standards, she was also warm and encouraging, said longtime friend and adopted grandmother Barbara Hanson.
Hanson and Geis met through their involvement in the music team at First Christian Church of Liberal. In addition to her job as choir instructor at SCCC/ATS, Geis also directed worship at the church.
"I applied for the job of organist in 2000, and I was scared to death of her, to put it frankly," recalled Hanson. "Lori was very authoritative. She was never mean, she had a heart of gold and she wouldn't hurt your feelings for all the tea in China. But when it came down to music, she meant what she said."
Geis quickly put the new organist at ease.
"She would tell me, 'Oh, you play that the way you want to; you've been doing it longer than me,'" Hanson said, "and that girl had accomplished so much, she had won contests and she had attended Oklahoma City College - they call that the Juilliard of the Midwest. But she wasn't proud, and she didn't tell you all these things about herself."
Geis' students shared that sense of deep admiration.
"Lori was a huge part of my experiences at SCCC/ATS," said J.J. Widener. A former member of the Redskin Singers ensemble at Liberal High School, Widener was dazzled by Geis' ambition and expectations.
"She was just a very motivated person, and she had us do things we never imagined we could do," he said. "We went to Branson, we sang at a Rockies game in Denver ... it was unforgettable."
"She was an excellent teacher," recalled Hanson. "Working at Seward County Community College was her first job out of school and she made a lot of friends here. The kids that were in her class - well, they're not kids now - but they just think the world of her. They just worshiped her and then she was friends with them after they got out of school."
Geis thrived at SCCC/ATS. She pushed her students to higher performance levels, organized fund raisers, and took the SCCC/ATS choir to perform in Carnegie Hall, at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City and Victoria Island, British Columbia. Her Sound Express Show Choir traveled to Branson, Mo., to perform.
"Those were amazing shows," Hanson recalled. "They did a lot of dancing and performing, and it was an honor to be in the show choir." Geis demanded professionalism from her students and once sent the entire group out of ht choir room when she realized they hadn't yet memorized music for a performance three days ahead.
"She told them to get out and come back when they could get the music right," Hanson said with a chuckle, "and you know what, those kids came back the next day with everything memorized."
Like most of Geis' students, Christina Chavez describes her as "amazing."
"The thing about Lori was that she lived for her music," Chavez said. "It wasn't something she did, it was part of who she was. One of my favorite pictures of her was taken when we all went to perform at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake, City. She was watching us perform, and tears were rolling down her cheeks. It was a moment of pride for her. You could see it all over her face. She loved her music, and she loved her students and we loved her."
After 13 years at SCCC/ATS, Geis moved back to Oklahoma with the goal of earning a doctorate degree in music. In order to live closer to Oklahoma University, she accepted a job in Marlow, Okla., as choir director for junior high and high school students.
"You know, it was just the same down there," Hanson said. "Those children loved her. They worked so hard, and when you heard them sing, you didn't know they were still in junior high and high school. You couldn't believe how good they were."
Geis, who was born and raised in Okeene, Okla., returned to Liberal to visit family, friends, former students and current ones as well, through private lessons. During those visits, she stayed with Hanson.
"She was like family," Hanson said. "She had a room at my house, we shopped together, we vacationed together. She called me 'Grandma.'"
Near the end of Geis' life, Hanson set aside her reserve to voice her admiration.
"I told her, 'Lori, you have dealt with all this so well. You are a lesson to someone for patience.' I was proud of her," said Hanson. "And I miss her. She had the most gorgeous voice you ever heard in your entire life. She could sing tenor in the same range as what the men did, or she could go up and hit that real high C. It was effortless for her."
Robison, too, recalls Geis' voice.
"I can still hear her angelic voice even today," said the pianist. "I can't believe she's gone but she did accomplish a lot in her time here on earth. And this concert will honor that legacy. I wish we could have done something like this while she was alive. We can't change the past but we affect our future."