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Curtain Call: Cantor is in demand as a soprano soloist

Shelly Cox-Thornhill rehearses with the Rogue Valley Chorale. The mezzo-soprano will be a featured soloist Dec. 4-5 in the Chorale's production of "Christmas Messiah," and will perform with Southern Oregon Repertory Singers at the group's annual holiday concert Dec. 18-19. Photo by Michael D. Davis.

What would Jesus sing?

If someone had asked that question, the answer might have been a description of what Shelly Cox-Thornhill and her fellow cantors do every week at Trinity Episcopal Church in Ashland: lead the liturgical singing of Psalms, canticles and anthems.

The practice in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, a part of Anglican Communion, can be traced to its roots in the English Reformation and traditions of the Church of England.

When performing alone or as part of the Trinity quartet of cantors, Cox-Thornhill helps lead the musical part of worship, chants Psalms, and supports the church choir.

The quartet at Trinity includes a soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Cox-Thornhill, a mezzo-soprano, sings alto.

“During the pandemic, we took turns or just had a couple people singing,” she said. “We have recently come back to having the quartet sing weekly. We all sing the choral parts of the service and take turns chanting Psalms each week.”

They also perform from the Episcopalian hymnal and choral works from a wide range of composers and eras.

“A lot of our music is written or arranged by the inimitable Jodi French,” Cox-Thornhill said. French is the organist at Trinity and her husband, Paul French, is choir director.

A Medford resident, born and raised in Talent, Cox-Thornhill doesn’t confine her singing to Sundays at church. The 37-year-old is one of Southern Oregon Repertory Singers’ core singers, has sung with the Rogue Valley Chorale and Siskiyou Singers, and is in demand as a soloist.

She will be a featured soloist in RV Chorale’s production of “Christmas Messiah,” Dec. 4-5, at the Craterian Theater, and will perform with the Rep Singers, Dec. 18-19, in their annual holiday concert at the SOU Music Recital Hall.

Anyone curious about how it works and sounds can check out Trinity’s livestream on Facebook Sundays at 10 a.m. For information about the choral concerts, go to repsingers.org or roguevalleychorale.org.

Although Cox-Thornhill classifies herself as a mezzo-soprano, she always has sung alto in choir. “I think singing alto has helped develop my ear and tuning skills,” she said.

She started singing in the fifth grade at Talent Middle School. A friend joined the choir and that gave her the courage to join, too. Later, she sang in the choirs at Phoenix High School and SOU.

Her family was supportive and encouraging.

“Neither of my parents are musicians, per se,” she said. “They both have beautiful voices and always supported my love of art and music.”

Cox-Thornhill was not an extrovert, by any stretch.

“I was painfully shy and didn’t really find my voice until I started taking acting and musical theater classes,” she said. “The voice teacher at one of those classes, Ellie Holt-Murray, approached me and asked if I’d like to start taking private lessons. My career just took off from there.”

Like many accomplished artists, she finds auditions can be a bit stressful.

“I am pretty much a hot mess any time I have to audition,” she said.

How does she overcome the anxiety? “I try to really know the material, and just try to have fun with it.”

Theater training can enhance a singer’s ability to communicate through song with the audience.

“With anything I am asked to sing, I look for ways to connect and make it feel as real as possible,” Cox-Thornhill said. “When I can find a way to relate to a piece, it feels very natural. Other times, I really have to stretch my imagination and ‘act’ and it can be difficult.”

Her prep process involves a lot of practice and listening.

“First, I play or sing through the piece and try to get a feel for it,” she said. “Then I listen to recordings of folks who have similar voice types for inspiration. Finally, it’s all about repetition and getting comfortable with the piece.”

Her warm-up is minimal. “Just enough to wake up my voice and get my mind and body ready to sing.”

She gains confidence by fully understanding and relating to whatever she sings.

“My goal is to portray the mood or story so that the audience can feel it along with me.”

Her biggest challenge is letting go and enjoying herself.

“I sometimes can get too wrapped up in the technicalities of singing, and that can make it hard to show artistic interpretation.”

She has many works on her favorites list, but two stand out: Brahms’ “Alto Rhapsody” and Britten’s “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” both of which she performed with Rep Singers.

“The ‘Alto Rhapsody’ is so dramatic and luscious and rich,” she said, “and I love when the men’s chorus joins in at the end. The ‘Hymn to St. Cecilia’ is utterly beautiful and strange — two of my favorite things! I was inspired to name my first-born Cecilia, in part because of that work.”

The best advice she’s ever been given by a teacher or mentor is “Don’t overthink it.” Perhaps that was the operative principle in her making a pivotal decision when she was a college student.

“I was invited to join Rep Singers by Dr. French after singing in his choir at SOU,” she said. “I accepted the invitation because I longed to sing with the group ever since hearing them perform when I was in high school. I joined Rep Singers in 2006.”

She has had many day jobs while building her performing career. Currently, she is office manager at her family’s business, Affordable Pump Service.

“I plan to remain in the Rogue Valley, raise my children, and continue to sing with Rep Singers and anyone else who will have me,” she said.

What about the future?

“I don’t predict too many changes for me in the next 10 years. But ask me again once my kids have grown.”

Stay tuned.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.