2-27-18

Skones inspires Bottens with an idea; the result is Kapellmeister Choir Stools

by Howard Meharg, (based on an interview with Bernie Bottens)

 
 


The late Dr. Maurice Skones provided the inspiration for the individual riser concept which resulted in Kapellmeister Choirstools. This, according to Bernie Bottens, owner of Kapellmeister Enterprises, who tells us he is now ready to retire and to place the choir stools part of the company up for sale.

Bernie Bottens directed the choral program in the St. Helens, Oregon schools from 1975 to 1996. Bernie is a Choir of the West (PLU) alumni. “Something I am very proud of,” he says. He goes on to say, “My two years on campus were a wonderful experience and the things I learned there have impacted my life tremendously.”

Skones, of course was director of the Choir of the West at Pacific Lutheran University from 1964-1983, establishing the choir’s international reputation with tours covering many of the lower 48 states as well as European tours in 1970 and 1977, highlighted by a performance for the King of Norway in Oslo.

In the earlier tour of Norway, as Bernie recounts the story, “in spite of having brought along enough timber and plywood to build just about anything, they couldn’t fit their traditional riser arrangement into a church in which they were to sing.” So, instead of using the traditional three-step risers, Skones placed the choir in a two-row configuration. It worked. The singers loved it. Skones was a bit more conservative in his response and Bernie says "he wasn't going to jump into it head first, but experience showed that the three-tiered risers were going away and he, too, came to see the benefit of this new idea." Unless circumstances demanded otherwise, the Choir of the West sang in a two-row setup from that point on.

Bernie says that during his days at PLU, choirs most often sang in two rows either in sections or in a mixed arrangement. They used long, single step risers. After 1975, Skones had some folding “stools” made that were bigger than the Rubbermaid stools that were sometimes used by a few groups attempting the “individual riser” approach.

Maurice Skones was named the Director of Choral Activities at the University of Arizona in 1983. He returned to PLU in the summer of 1992 for a workshop which Bernie Bottens attended. “I stayed in the dorm, as did Dr. and Mrs. Skones,” Bernie said. This afforded him a chance “to hear what he had to say during the day and the opportunity to hang out with him in the evenings and talk over any subject that we wanted.”

As one might guess, the subject of the frustrations of singing on three tiered risers came up. Bernie had the distinct feeling they didn’t allow his high school choir to excel. So, he and Skones discussed individual stools as an alternative. Dr. Skones was clear that he wished he had the time to develop one of the correct size and height and that he wasn’t quite satisfied with the stools he had had built at PLU a few years earlier. An idea was born.

Bernie went home to St. Helens and with the help of a woodworker friend, who (coincidentally) was a COW alum, spent a weekend making prototypes. After some trial and error, they built a prototype set that went on to serve St. Helens choirs for many years.

This project also became the beginning Kapellmeister Enterprises. The name of the company “jumped off the page” at Bernie one day as he was reading a biography of J. S. Bach, the most famous Kapellmeister of them all.

Bottens waxes eloquent about the advantages of the individual risers. He says the singers hear each other better. He and his singers came up with the phrase, “be responsible to fill up your space with the sound of your own voice.” He says singers tend to lose their “timidity” and create a bigger sound. No one was standing in their “personal space” and masking the sound of their own voice.

One doesn’t stick with such an enterprise for over 25 years without being a true believer. Bernie speaks of the flexibility the stools give as to the radius of arc. He points out how easy it is to arrange for the shorter person to have his or her ears at the same level as the tall singer, among other advantages as compared to the heavier and less flexible set of three-tiered risers.

After twenty years as director of choirs at St. Helens High School, he left teaching to become an apprentice in the exhibits trade, earning his journeyman’s certificate. He then opened his own shop specializing in building trade show exhibits, choirstools, and digital organ consoles.

Kapellmeister Choirstools was not and is still not a full-time job. Orders come and go as school budgets are funded.
The Bottens moved to La Center, Washington (north of Vancouver) about five years ago. Bernie says, “I have had big spaces to work in and I have had small.” His early stools were built in his garage in St. Helens, before moving to a much larger structure that allowed for several projects at a time.

Currently, he operates again out of his garage and sends the stools to a commercial finisher to apply the durable finish he specifies. The spraying of lacquers calls for a safe space and is best out-sourced, he says. He and his wife, Carol, operate the business, though he occasionally hires part-time help as the workload demands.

While “it’s time for us to retire,” he says the business is becoming known across the country through their exhibiting at conventions at the divisional and national levels of ACDA and at Chorus America…among other promotional efforts.

When asked if one could make a living at the business, he replied “Maybe some day you can…we have been steadily increasing our profits each year.”

Check Kapellmeister Enterprises Facebook page for more photos and information about the business, including contact info.