Best friends forever

Music connects three singers who followed different paths.

Hallie Reed Slettengren works in Sweden, Courtney Rizzo works in Los Angeles, and Sara MacKimmie Tomlin works in Washington, DC. That doesn't stop them from getting together whenever they can, such as this meeting at the Seattle Opera.
Sara, Hallie and Courtney at their last MSU choral concert in 2008.
Sara, Courtney and Hallie (from left, with another choir friend) met as part of the MSU Children's Choir and have stayed friends ever since.
The three friends have maintained a strong bond in several ways including standing up in each other's weddings. Here they are on Sara's wedding day.
“What started off as a friendship between quirky pre-teens morphed into a sisterhood,” said Hallie. Sara, Courtney and Hallie (from left) say they'll always be best friends who value what MSU has meant in their lives.

One lives on the West Coast. The other on the East. The third makes her home in Northern Europe.

Despite the physical distance, three alumni from the MSU College of Music remain in close touch, their friendships and careers forged by their love of singing and MSU.

Sara MacKimmie Tomlin, Hallie Reed Slettengren, and Courtney Rizzo met more than 20 years ago on the risers of church, community, and youth choirs. The three became fast friends through the MSU Children’s Choir, and later strengthened their bonds as Spartan undergrads. Each supported and inspired one another as they navigated college, careers and relationships.

“What started off as a friendship between quirky pre-teens morphed into a sisterhood,” said Hallie.

“We have the kind of friendship where we’ll always be best friends even though we literally live on opposite sides of the world,” said Sara.

“Our moms still make us sing old choir songs when we get together in Michigan,” said Courtney. “We also have a particular tradition to celebrate big life moments that we continue to this day—but that’s a secret.”

Singing toward success

As Greater Lansing kids in the 1990s, Sara, Hallie and Courtney discovered musical opportunities at their schools and churches, and through the fledging MSU Community Music School. The MSU Children’s Choir offered young singers the chance to develop their expressive talents through advanced repertoire and unique performance opportunities. The choir also nurtured strong bonds and feelings of belonging as each member contributed to a collective, artistic experience.

“The Children’s Choir was definitely the foundation of our friendship, and the roots of the tree of our musical careers,” said Sara. “Now we’ve all branched out.”

That branching out included academics, performance opportunities, and career preparation through the MSU College of Music. And while the three hadn’t planned to go to the same college after high school, each perceived that the path to their musical futures started right in their own backyard.

“All three women were fine singers and forces for good in the College of Music,” said Anne Nispel, MSU instructor of voice. “They were all interested in bettering themselves. The seeds of that tenaciousness—which is so necessary in the field of music—were already quite evident in their personalities.”

Today, Sara has leveraged her bachelor’s in voice performance (BM 2008) to a choral management post at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. She is also a freelance singer. Courtney, in turn, is applying her dual major in music (BM 2008) and business (BA 2008) as the director of financial planning at the LA Opera in Los Angeles. Across the globe in Stockholm, Sweden, Hallie calls on her skills from her bachelor’s in music education (BM 2009) as the head of music and aesthetics at the International English School.

Mary Alice Stollak was not surprised that Sara, Courtney and Hallie had gone on to secure fruitful careers in music. As the founding director of the MSU Children’s Choir, Stollak remarked that the three were among some of her earliest members of the children’s choir in the 1990s. She recalled how they stood out for their reliability as well as for the tone and warmth of their voices.

“What I remember most was their enthusiasm and their eagerness to do their best,” Stollak said. “Looking at each of their accomplishments, it is easy to see that as mature adults, they continue to bring joy to others and make meaningful contributions to their communities—just as they did when singing in the MSU Children’s Choir.”

Stollak said the friendship shared by Sara, Courtney and Hallie illustrates how being in choir can significantly impact a young person’s life. For many children, she said, singing in a choir can be among the most important experiences of their week. For others, a choir can become a caring family and a place where they feel welcome, appreciated and accepted.

“The last time I saw Sara, Hallie and Courtney was at the wedding of one of their fellow Children’s Choir singers,” she said. “What a joy it was for me to see that their friendship endured and blossomed throughout these years.”

Beyond the dreams

MSU Director of Choral Studies David Rayl says he first noticed Sara, Hallie and Courtney when they were members of the Stollak’s choir. He recalls how their passions, intensity and commitment followed them to MSU, and how they each made significant contributions as members of the MSU Chorale. 

“Hallie was a born teacher. Sara always loved early music, and Courtney was highly-organized and a real leader,” Rayl recalled. “I’m fascinated by the different career paths they’ve taken. Each has chosen a less-than-traditional professional focus that utilizes their passion for music in a different way. Yet each career makes perfect sense when you know them.”

For Sara, a career in choral music is a dream made possible through her experiences and education at MSU. As an undergrad, Sara and her two life-long friends were among the first members of the MSU Women’s Chamber Ensemble founded by Sandra Snow, MSU professor of choral conducting and music education. Sara also sang solos and learned complex repertoire in the University Chorale and explored different performance opportunities through the College’s opera program.

“The skills and experiences I gained at MSU prepared me very well and set me up for the success in the performance career I have now,” Sara said. “And as for the children’s choir, I don’t think any of us really realized the quality of what we were creating until we got a little older. It just felt natural to be creating music at such a high level even when we were so young.”

Hallie commented that even though she and her friends embarked on different paths in music, all found careers built on their passion. That, she said, reflects her key take-away from MSU: Every student has the right to express themselves, and for many, music is the venue to do so.

“As a teacher, you realize very early on that bigger societal problems begin on a small, local, personal level,” she said. “I reflect on what I learned at MSU and believe to this day: If we focus on instilling young people with a love of music, they will take those tools onward in their futures.”

Courtney said the combination of skills she learned at MSU—ranging from music theory to history to vocal technique to stage production management—led to her work as a stage manager and now a finance officer for performing arts organizations. Having two best friends with her every step of the way didn’t hurt either.

“I’m getting teary thinking about all the moments we’ve shared from laughing at silly inside jokes when we were kids, to trying to figure out life in college, to being each other’s bridesmaids in the past couple years,” she said. “We haven’t lived in the same city since being in college at MSU, but we always know we have each other no matter what.”

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