.Why Cheryl Anderson is Santa Cruz Artist of the Year

Cheryl Anderson knows how to work a room. Rehearsals of Cabrillo’s Symphonic Chorus plunge her singers into a full-body workout that can include whoops, cries, shrieks, yoga poses, neck rolls, clapping, counting, jumping, swaying, stomping, and endless solfège drilling. To sing with her is to engage in an emotional contact sport that borders on the aerobic. Years of singing with her can change a performer’s life.

Anderson is known for her charismatic smile and firm directing style—and for her eye-catching footwear, be it the spiky 4-inch heels she favors for conducting, or the more sensible pointy-toed stilettos she wears to rehearsal.

First coming to Cabrillo College in 1991 as conductor of the Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus, Anderson has been the school’s Director of Choral and Vocal Studies for 27 years. Even after nearly three decades, the passionate teacher has kept her attitude fresh.

“I love it so much—making sound that’s beautiful, and building relationships in music,” she says. “It’s what drives me.”

Also the director of music at Santa Cruz’s Peace United Church, she recently served as president of the Western Division of the American Choral Directors Association. And on June 1, Anderson will be honored as Santa Cruz Artist of the Year.

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No one who has sung with her doubts that she deserves it.

Her success as a director is directly linked to her success as a teacher,” says Sherrie DeWitt, who has sung with her since the beginning of Anderson’s Cabrillo career. “She believes she can learn and she can teach almost anyone how to sing and interpret music—and I have watched her do it.”

Infectious Energy

In rehearsal, Anderson never raises her voice. Her signature sparkle is usually enough to grab everyone’s attention, and those pointy shoes probably pack some magic of their own. If more is required, Anderson invites the group to “put buttissimos in seats.” Sitting at the piano, she begins a series of exuberant warm-up exercises that amount to a boot camp of growls, buzzes, trills, and arpeggios—up and up the scale, then down and down again—until the entire room is vibrating with kinetic energy. No one is having more fun than Anderson herself—and it’s infectious.

Full disclosure: I sing with the Symphonic Chorus. In a recent rehearsal, at the end of almost four hours of work, Anderson passed around a sheaf of new music. Before we even had time to groan, she had the group working through complex rhythm and key changes. When things didn’t work, she stopped us, made us clap the timing, then try singing through it again on a single vowel. If we didn’t get it one way, she tried another. By the second run-through of the music, it was almost perfect. I was watching nothing short of magic by a teacher who enjoyed the results as much as we did.

Strict enunciation of consonants, especially at the end of a word, is expected—and astonishingly, Anderson gets results early in rehearsal schedules. Notes and text are learned by the second rehearsal, and then the detailing begins. Nuanced volume control, exact timing, are all cultivated in the service of her favored musical goals—joy, love, and when possible, redemption. Swooping is not tolerated and every note is given respect. Vocal dynamics—the loudness or softness of a musical phrase—those dynamics are rehearsed, again and again, until merely by raising her eyebrows she can work a roomful of singers through a flawless crescendo, from extreme pianissimo to full-on triple forté.

JOYFUL NOISEMAKER Cheryl Anderson has been Cabrillo's Director of Choral and Vocal Studies for 27 years. She will be honored on June 1 as Santa Cruz Artist of the Year. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER
JOYFUL NOISEMAKER Cheryl Anderson has been Cabrillo’s Director of Choral and Vocal Studies for 27 years. She will be honored on June 1 as Santa Cruz Artist of the Year. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

Raising Her Voice

When I ask her about her famously coordinated look, she admits, “I just love shoes.” Her clothes are chosen to match them, be they the jewel-toned sweaters and skirts—plus sparkly earrings and necklaces—she favors for rehearsal, or the long Oscar-worthy gowns she wears for concerts.

And she is candid about a deeper aspect of her celebrated dress code.

“I was raised really poor,” she says. “And when you were out in public, you always had to represent your family. So it was important to look my best.”

Anderson grew up in a large Pennsylvania family without the expectation of going to college.

“It wasn’t encouraged,” she admits. “There was never an expectation of anything. It became clear to me that I needed a career if I was going to go anywhere.”

Singing with an honor choir in high school opened her eyes. “I realized that you could do music as a career. What an incredible insight. And I just never looked back.”

Her choral music career was nurtured as an undergraduate at West Liberty University in West Virginia, where she met her mentor and friend Alfred deJaager.

“He taught me to be meticulous, patient, and unrelentingly tenacious,” she says. “His work with vowels and phrasing formed the basis of my choices when preparing choirs.”

The pivotal moment in Anderson’s career came thanks to legendary chorale director Robert Shaw. “I was doing doctoral work at the University of Cincinnati. My teacher was a protegé of Shaw’s, and we went to Atlanta to sing with him. It was a life-changing experience,” she says.

Shaw’s legacy is alive and well with Anderson. “I’ve gotten copies of his masterwork scores. I have notes, I have all of his books. Many of us who sang with him still collaborate on Mr. Shaw’s legacy. There was nothing like him,” she recalls with something close to reverence. Her rehearsal techniques—count singing, the refinement of pitch, rhythm drills, emphasis on enunciation—“that’s all Shaw,” she freely admits.

Another key strategy was derived from Shaw, who would move singers around like pieces on a chessboard, not according to vocal parts or height, but in terms of the quality of vocal timbres. In essence “tuning” the chorus to enhance the overall mix. This technique produces distinct and often powerful results, as many of Anderson’s veteran choral members will testify.

Meri Pezzoni, longtime director of Choral Activities at Aptos High School, has performed with Anderson’s Cantiamo group over the past 25 years. “How she trains and mentors her teaching assistants always impressed me. Many of them go on to become choral directors, soloists, and music industry people,” says Pezzoni. “She has an incredible knowledge of choral repertoire and its historical significance.”

Anderson has a clear and supple soprano voice, but insists that she did not have ambitions to be a solo performer. “I always loved to sing, and I did a lot of solo singing, but when I began at the colleges my job was to teach, to prepare others to sing,” she says. Solo singing was “not something I burned to do. I just thought that we were doing this together. And I got to be the one who made the opportunity for the singers.” She considers this work to be an honor and a sacred trust.

“She is a model of very professional behavior,” says DeWitt. “She is always very prepared, courteous to everyone—and she remembers names and faces.”


The Miracle Worker

Music weaves its way into the heart of Cheryl Anderson’s private life as well. Anderson met her husband while she was teaching in Virginia Beach.  “He was Commandant of the Army School of Music based at Norfolk’s Navy Amphibious Base. And they needed a soprano for a production of the HMS Pinafore. So we met singing Gilbert and Sullivan,” she says with a chuckle. “We dated for a long time. I had a lot of projects and he was busy with his job.”

After three years, they married. When he moved back to Los Angeles for graduate work at UCLA, Cheryl went with him.

“It took one concert for me to realize that Cheryl was extraordinary,” says her husband, John Anderson, who is now artistic director of Ensemble Monterey. “When we were first dating, it was her first year of teaching at Shelton Park Elementary School in Virginia Beach. She had these little elementary school children singing in three-part harmony and it was wonderfully musical. That’s just about impossible, and that’s when I knew.”

Calling him “a great husband,” Cheryl describes him as the most resilient human being she can imagine. “There’s no friction,” says John, who also heads up Creative Arts at Monterey Peninsula College. “As a team, I think we are our best critics and best teachers. Cheryl is definitely a brilliant and gifted conductor, but what sets her apart from all the rest is her spirit of kindness, empathy, good humor and love both for the music and the people who make it. Groups sense this immediately—they know at once that they are singing with a one-of-a-kind master.

BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU HEAR Anderson in rehearsal with Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus. She has been roundly praised for her precise but personable directing style, and her ability to teach and mentor. PHOTO KEANA PARKER
BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU HEAR Anderson in rehearsal with Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus. She has been roundly praised for her precise but personable directing style, and her ability to teach and mentor. PHOTO KEANA PARKER

Master Class

Those who have sung with her for years know that Anderson always favors the classical masterworks. “I try to program music with deep integrity,” she says. “If it’s fluffy and has integrity, that’s okay. If it’s just fluffy, then I hate it.”

And she does have favorites. “Bach. Always Bach,” she admits. “The St. Matthew Passion. The B Minor Mass. And The Messiah—it always works. Haydn’s Creation. Monteverdi Vespers. Everything emanates from the great masters. They have it all—structure, harmony, passion, harmonic resonance, the essence of storytelling. You never get tired of it.”

Once they are trained and fine-tuned, Anderson’s choirs have toured all over the world from Cuba to Russia, performed at Carnegie Hall, and collaborated on operatic works at the Carmel Bach Festival. Each season, the community joins her choirs and Ensemble Monterey orchestra members in a not-to-miss performance of Handel’s Messiah, which she describes as “bone-chilling.” Earlier this month, Anderson’s Symphonic Chorus joined the Santa Cruz County Symphony performing Symphony No. 2 by Gustav Mahler.

Anderson also selects contemporary masterworks, and is known for highlighting expressionistic choral pieces by composer Morten Lauridsen, whose friendship with Anderson has brought him for workshops with her students and appearances in Cabrillo concerts. She fearlessly forges into the most ambitious modern repertoire—a new Eric Whitacre opera, Hindemith’s setting of Walt Whitman, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, Britten’s War Requiem. All guaranteed game-changers, as she would put it.

Working the Room

One might think the transition from singing with Robert Shaw to working with community members and beginning students could prove frustrating to even the most patient educator. But Anderson won’t hear of it.

“One of my undergraduate teachers taught me that a student failure is a teacher failure,” she says. “It’s my responsibility to get them there. It challenges me to figure out ways to work the interior language of the music.” She arms her choral groups with fundamental musical principles, harmonic language, historical context, and concert etiquette—everything that distinguishes a polished choral ensemble from a collection of enthusiasts.

“She loves the challenge of performing masterworks and brings these works to the chorus with a passion,” says tenor Tom Ellison, who’s sung with the Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus for 21 years. “She expects every choral member to understand the text and story being told. Her standards are very high and she is willing to spend the time to do what needs to be done.”

Toward that end, Anderson can turn herself, and her choral groups inside out learning exact foreign language pronunciations. No vocal sloppiness allowed.

“She dreams big, and then goes for it,” says Deborah Bronstein, a 20-year Anderson veteran. “She has a knack for inspiring people to believe in her vision, and do the work needed to make the vision happen, be it Carnegie Hall or singing in the Vatican or creating a Children’s Choir program.  She also has a strong commitment to developing people to be better singers, teachers, and people.”


Game Changing

Anderson’s goal is to shape a memorable performance. To her, that is “the one that moves the singers, and moves the audiences.” She fiercely believes that “the arts change the world.”

The music director is easily moved just recounting a musical experience—such as her recent visit to LA’s Disney Hall to listen to a choir made up of local homeless singers.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” she says, blinking back her own tears. She also remembers a Mozart Requiem she led to commemorate 9/11.

“We’d never practiced for it,” she remembers. “I just put out a call for singers to come with their music and we all sang. At the end, no on applauded. There was silence. And tears.”

Anderson attributes her success to her unlimited belief in what her students are capable of. “I believe in people more than they believe in themselves,” she says “I want everybody to continue to grow.”

And if they don’t, she’ll teach them how it’s done.


In a box: Santa Cruz Artist of the Year

To honor Cheryl Anderson as Santa Cruz Artist of the Year, the public is invited to a free gala Profile Performance of Anderson’s favorite music, performed by six of her choral groups: Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus, Cabrillo Chorale, Cantiamo!, Cabrillo Youth Choruses, Il Dolce Suono and Peace Chancel Choir. The performance will be presented at 7-9 p.m. on Friday, June 1, at Cabrillo College, Samper Recital Hall. For more information, go to scparks.com/Home/ArtsCulturalPrograms/ArtistoftheYear.


  1. Christina, until I have more time. I’ll just say you are amazing. Thank you with all my being.


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