Brick Ingle '19
On any given day, Elliott Assistant Professor of Fine Arts and Director of Choral Programing Helena von Rueden can be found hard at work fostering the musical education of Hampden-Sydney’s students in the Viar-Christ Center for the Arts in the newly renovated Brinkley Hall. Whether it be instructing a class, working with students in the Hampden-Sydney Chorus, or coordinating the million little details that coincide with a musical ensemble and program, Dr. von Rueden, or DvR as her students sometimes refer to her, is always engaged in supporting the education of Hampden-Sydney men.
Von Rueden’s background is not what one might expect of an accomplished musician. An active high school musician who pursued a dual degree in music and biology in her first undergraduate year at Harvard University, she eventually dropped the music major to focus on biology “for the practicality.” After graduating from Harvard, she worked as an environmental consultant, helping to restore the salmon habitat in the Northwest and educate the public about water conservation in California. But she recalls, “There was always a little voice saying, ‘You know you never really gave music a shot, and you’re going to regret not trying.’ My grandfather once told me, ‘I’ve met people who regret not taking risks, but none who regret risks they decided to take.’”
So, she took a leap. Von Rueden landed at UC-Santa Barbara and completed a master’s degree in vocal performance and a doctoral degree in choral conducting. When asked how she manages an undergraduate music program without an undergraduate music experience, she answers, “Between some academic instruction at Harvard, a lot of self-study, graduate school, and performance all along the way, I ended up with the equivalent experience. Plus, I didn’t need to unlearn bad vocal habits, which undergraduate voice majors often have to do.” It was also at UC-Santa Barbara that she first experienced conducting a men’s chorus. “It’s a lot of fun,” she explains, “because men can hit the high range that women can while also having this really rich lower register. It’s a very unique sound.”
When her husband received a professorship at the University of Richmond, von Rueden took on a grab bag of gigs as a professional vocalist, adjunct vocal instructor, and teacher at a private girls school until the position at Hampden-Sydney opened. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she recalls about coming to Hampden-Sydney. “I’d never worked at an all-male institution—there are only three of them after all!”
However, the College quickly made her feel welcome. “I get to work with the best students,” she says, “who are hardworking, social, and want to be here. That’s the great thing about a voluntary choir—no one has to be there. The guys in the Chorus are there because they want to sing. It’s an exciting teaching experience.” She says of the fine arts department, “Working in such a small department was initially overwhelming. At larger schools there is a lot of oversight and structure, but I’ve found it very liberating here. I can implement new ideas and people support me.”