Douglas Cox has always loved music and, through a circuitous route, ended up a year and a half ago as director of the Frederick Chorale.
A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Cox credited the public school system’s emphasis on music and arts for enhancing his interest.
“We always had music in the house,” Cox said during an interview at Mount St. Mary’s University. The chorale was rehearsing for “Love Is Where You Find It,” to be performed Saturday at the Knott Auditorium. It will be the first joint appearance of the chorale with the Mount’s chorus.
“We always had music in the house,” Cox said, but it was his grandmother who played and sang. His grandmother had been an elementary school teacher. When she studied for her teaching degree at that time, teachers had to be able to sing and play, usually the piano, as well as do the academic part of teaching.
Cox, 59, played in his high school band — the saxophone — and the guitar.
“I imagined myself as a folk artist,” he said, smiling.
But he preferred voice to instruments. “My high school music teacher, James Kimmel, who I still keep in touch with, introduced me to what my potential was.”
Cox spent a year at Northern Iowa University, but switched to Wichita State University to complete his undergraduate and graduate degrees and worked for two years as a graduate assistant. He then taught in public schools in Kansas and Iowa.
“In 1975, I saw the Army Chorus, and it just blew everybody away,” Cox said. “Thirty-two men, all professional singers. I missed the singing experience.”
On a whim, he talked to an Army recruiter, which led Cox through basic training, but as part of the Army Chorus at Ford Meade. “I was 28 years old, 10 years older than the other recruits going through basic training,” Cox said.
In six weeks, Cox went from a private to staff sergeant, which is the system used for some other military musical groups. “I’m sure anyone who was in the military and worked their way up to that rank might bristle at that. But we still had to stay physically fit. If you were out of shape, overweight, you might not be allowed to re-enlist.”
Cox describes the Army Chorus as a public relations tool for the Army. In nearly 28 years of service, rising to the top enlisted rank — sergeant major — Cox performed in every state except Hawaii. Performances were coordinated with other military bands to ensure the Army Band and Air Force Band or others were not in the same area of the country at the same time.
“We played the same places, including the Weinberg Center, at different times. There are a lot of familiar places, theaters, restaurants and hotels I remember,” Cox said. “We were on the road 120 days a year.”
After retirement, Cox and his wife, Janet Hjelmgren — who also retired as a sergeant major with the Army Chorus — lived in Catonsville. He was the director of the Chester River Chorale in Chestertown, where he is still the artistic director.
A media interview brought Cox to the Frederick Chorale. He was interviewed by a reporter for the Chestertown Spy who was also the sister of Nancy Roblin, the founder of the Frederick Chorale, who was retiring. She told him about the opening.
Cox was impressed, not only with the singers in Frederick, but also the in-depth audition and interviews he went through before being chosen to lead the group.
“There is a great spirit in this group. They are very devoted. We have young adults to seniors,” Cox said. The chorale has about 50 members.
Coordinating the “Love Is Where You Find It” program has been enjoyable, Cox said. Working with Andrew Rosenfeld, chairman of the fine arts department at the Mount, has been a pleasure.
Melodie Charles has been with the Frederick Chorale for 12 years. An English major who loves music, she finds singing exciting.
“He makes us sound really good,” Charles said of Cox. “He has the ability to hear us and tell us how to do better. It’s not the same sound every time you open your mouth, he know what we should sound like. It is rigorous and can be difficult, but satisfying to sing well together.”