Exuberant Voices

High school choral festivals engage teens, produce powerful music, and leave a lasting impact.

A broad smile on his face, conductor Grant Gershon stands front and center in the Eva and Marc Stern Grand Hall of Los Angeles’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, surrounded by a throng of high schoolers. They’re singing “Zion’s Walls” from Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs, bodies leaning into the repeated phrase, “We’ll shout and go round.” It’s April 5, 2014, the first mass rehearsal for the 25th annual Los Angeles Master Chorale (LAMC) High School Choir Festival. In a reflective moment backstage, Gershon tells a videographer documenting the event, “This is the program that I’m most proud of—of anything that we do at the Master Chorale.”

Gershon believes the festival can be life-changing for the 900 young singers who prepare at least six months for the opportunity to perform at Walt Disney Concert Hall. “Most of the students have never been inside a beautiful concert venue like this,” says Grace Sheldon-Williams, vocal music director at Glendale High School, just north of Los Angeles. “When you get together with other groups and sing as part of a huge choir, it’s sort of magical.”

Over the last 10 to 15 years, a handful of American choruses have been following the LAMC’s lead, launching high school choral festivals that offer noncompetitive educational experiences at low cost to participants. Among them are Chanticleer’s Bay Area and National Youth Choral Festivals, begun in 2000 and 2010, respectively, and Chicago a cappella’s (CAC) Youth Choral Festival, which started in 2011–12. In addition, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute has involved school choral programs in its Creative Learning Projects since 2007 and in its National Choral Festival from 2003 to 2013.

Grant Gershon (Photo Credit: David Johnston)

These festivals share similar approaches. Each year they offer from 5 to 25 schools the chance to participate. LAMC and CAC accept applications, Chanticleer invites schools based on established relationships, and Weill works with the New York City Department of Education to identify participants. Festival organizers supply music for students and teachers to rehearse on their own. They visit the schools to check in, and in some cases they send singers or conductors to lead master classes or rehearsals. The planning and workshopping culminates in a day- or weekend-long event where the singers and their directors gather for rehearsals, clinics, and a public performance alongside professional musicians in a high-profile concert venue, such as Disney Hall, Carnegie Hall in New York, or Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.

Why Are Choruses Creating Festivals?

Gershon says he still treasures the memory of his first festival experience, the season before he took over in 2001 as LAMC’s Kiki and David Gindler Artistic Director. Watching from the audience as his predecessor, Paul Salamunovich, worked with the students, he found himself singing along. “What I really got right away was the spirit of building a community of singers. Every demographic and region around LA is represented, so we’re no longer looking at a student as being from the West Side or the East Side or South LA. Soprano, alto, tenor, and bass are the only divisions we look at on festival day.”

Sharing that outlook, CAC decided to organize its festival as its 15th-anniversary year approached. “Our concertizing is our core mission, but it was time for us to extend ourselves in a different way,” says founder and artistic director Jonathan Miller. A product of Chicago’s public school system at a time when “there was a lot of money for music,” Miller looked on with regret as those programs were “decimated over the past decade or two.” While the festival also includes well-established suburban choral programs, he is especially keen to serve kids in city schools that lack music resources.

What executive director Matt Greenberg describes as a “windfall contribution” from an individual donor enabled CAC to hire one of its singers, Susan Schober, as education outreach coordinator in 2011. As the driving force behind the festival and a companion internship program, she found it especially challenging at first to make the community aware of the new education efforts. Schober says an initial grassroots approach and positive participant experiences built “slow but steady word-of-mouth awareness about Chicago a cappella and its outreach programs.”

"Every demographic and region around LA is represented, so we’re no longer looking at a student as being from the West Side or the East Side or South LA. Soprano, alto, tenor, and bass are the only divisions we look at on festival day.” - Grant Gershon

As far as Chanticleer’s president and general director Christine Bullin is concerned, choruses are naturally suited for educational outreach because participation in choral music is a common experience. As a result, she says, “there’s no barrier to jump over when you say to your choral singers, ‘We’re going to spend a day singing with high school choirs.’ It goes without saying here that we will involve ourselves with kids who sing because we were all kids who sing. There’s nothing artificial about it. It’s organic.”

What Makes A Festival Successful?

Before participating in Chanticleer’s first national festival in 2010, music educator Jennifer Srisamai says her chorus had never gone far from its home base, Bishop Amat Memorial High School in La Puente, California. A longtime Chanticleer fan and a veteran of their workshops, Srisamai told stories that sparked her singers’ excitement. “And as each new music packet Chanticleer sent us got harder and harder, they began to understand this is a big deal,” she says.

As a vocal major at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria, Queens, Carolina Campero participated in Carnegie Hall’s two most recent Creative Learning Projects. She found Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos to be exceptionally difficult, requiring dozens of rehearsals, but “I was ecstatic that I would get to work on such a challenging piece. At the end of the year I remember my vocal teacher telling us how proud she was.” Says Gershon, “I ask for as much artistically from [high school students] as I would ask from any professional singer.”

No one at these gatherings is judging which choir responds best. Former Chanticleer artistic director Joseph Jennings wanted to keep competition out of the festival because, Bullin recalls, he felt kids face enough of that in other parts of their school lives. In its early years, the LAMC festival featured three to five “showcase choirs” selected through an audition process, but organizers dropped the approach because the process favored better-resourced programs. “That was not our goal,” says education programs manager Lesili Beard. “For us, it’s more about how do we bring all these tribes together?” In CAC’s experience, inclusiveness has been a real bonus, agrees Susan Schober. “We can bring established programs together with a brand-new magnet high school whose choral program is only two years old. You can’t achieve that in a competitive environment.”

And you would miss out on unique learning opportunities, argues Chanticleer’s director of education (and former group member) Ben Johns. “In our festival, we’re exhibiting the strengths of all these choirs, so we see participants figuring out ways to incorporate what they like about the other groups in their own choirs.” Anand Lal-Tabak, an Evanston Township High School senior who participated in CAC’s festival, admits he was worried at first that mixing skill levels could be awkward. But after they’d rehearsed as an ensemble of 100, “they were able to make it work very well. The large performance was a cool experience.”

That mix would not work for Carnegie Hall’s Creative Learning Projects (CLP). “The program requires schools to have a robust music program in place,” says Sarah Johnson, who has directed the Weill Music Institute since 2007. Other Weill initiatives assist fledgling music efforts in New York City schools, but in this case it made sense to tailor the program for young musicians who aim to work at the professional level.

Unlike the other festivals, CLP focuses intensively on a culminating Carnegie Hall performance that features a large-scale composition or theme, such as Duke Ellington’s sacred music (2014) or Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos (2013). A unique initiative complementing CAC’s festival is its internship program, which gives eight high school students firsthand exposure to the music business and trains them as a musical ensemble.

Common to all of these festivals is the chance for students to work closely with highly accomplished musicians. They all offer master classes and professional-level rehearsal and concert experience. Some include workshops on individual and ensemble technique or small-group discussions about making a career in music.

"There’s nothing like the reaction you get from students, regardless of how much you’re working as professional. It’s these kinds of moments that touch your heart, knowing you have that kind of impact.” - Lesili Beard 

Emilio Tello, one of Srisamai’s students in La Puente, recalls Chanticleer singers as “incredibly enthusiastic and encouraging to our young sound. They helped us connect to the meaning of a piece.” According to more than one observer, the professionals sometimes take on rock star status. Johns has seen participant surveys that describe the thrill of standing next to Chanticleer’s mustachioed low bass Eric Alatorre and simply hearing him utter a few words. The adulation doesn’t seem to go to the professionals’ heads. “Beyond being excellent musical role models, [CAC members] were models of kindness,” says Casey Fuess, a choral music teacher at Chicago’s Lindblom Math and Science Academy. “I think that reflects how music isn’t just about making the most refined product. It’s about connecting with other people.”

Consistent with their own performance practices, both CAC and Chanticleer encourage young choirs to work without accompaniment. “It forces them to pay attention to tuning and to take responsibility for the way the music goes together,” says Johns. And sometimes they take a bigger leap. “One year, an amazing thing happened,” remembers Miller. “A choir was having communication issues having to do with tempo. The choir members told their director, ‘We can do this without you.’ She gulped and said, ‘Sure, why not?’ Their faces lit up, and they did a great job. And that made her feel good, too.”

Leading up to the festival performances, students also experience a professional rehearsal process. For the CLP, Lisa Gwasda of Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music says her singers had to commit extra hours to rehearsals and individual practice, be off book with a huge score, be responsible for showing up on time, and observe professional rehearsal etiquette.

For their part, high school choir directors appreciate the chance to enhance their own skills as musicians, encounter new repertoire, and have another set of ears listen to what they’re doing. “The outside person can say the exact thing you’ve been saying for weeks, but the kids hear it differently,” Grace Sheldon-Williams has noticed. “Or they say, ‘Oh, she does know what she’s talking about!’” As Fuess observes, being a choir director can be an isolating experience. At his school, no one else teaches his subject. “I have to make decisions wondering if they’re arbitrary.” CAC’s Youth Choral Festival “reaffirms the direction I’m steering the choral program.”

Gershon sees these high school directors as his heroes. “What they do is 100 times harder than what I do, inspiring students, dealing with complications I can’t even imagine. So I try to provide tools that’ll help them accomplish what they want to accomplish in the classroom. We come together to create a unified approach for the festival concert. I hope they appreciate that this is not a dictatorship.”

And Gershon’s adult singers, many of whom are teachers themselves, consider the festival one of their favorite events of the year. Beard, herself a LAMC member, finds “there’s nothing like the reaction you get from students, regardless of how much you’re working as professional. It’s these kinds of moments that touch your heart, knowing you have that kind of impact.” They also help professional singers see outside their bubble, adds Johns. “We operate in a far corner of the choral world. The interaction stretches us to put into words and communicate how we do what we do.”

It’s the time and attention spent on preparation that distinguishes festivals like these, as far as Francisco Núñez is concerned. The artistic director of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, Núñez guest conducted at the 2014 LAMC Festival. “The students had made a real connection with the teachers and conductors prior to the event, and as a result, every group came highly, beautifully ready. The artistry was at such a high level, one that I have not seen.”

After months of preparation, the young singers experience the thrill of performing in a celebrated concert hall. As her students anticipated their Carnegie Hall debut, Gwasda gave them this advice: “Once you walk out on stage, look out and look up.” At the dress rehearsal, she watched as three young singers quickly retreated in tears, overwhelmed at the chance to take those big steps. Disney Hall has its own kind of cool factor. “The moment I walked in the doors, it hit me all of a sudden,” says Auston Ferrarer, a Glendora High School student who sang in the 2013 and 2014 LAMC festivals. “It’s huge inside. And the experience of singing the same song together with so many other high schools added to the sound of the organ. . . . The volume of noise we made was fantastic.”

Chicago a capella's founder and artistic director Jonathan Miller coaches students during the 2014 Youth Choral Festival. (Photo Credit: Jennifer Girard)

What’s the Lasting Impact?

When asked how they benefit from running high school choral festivals, chorus leaders admit they have one eye on the bottom line. “I’m also a businessman,” says Miller. “You can’t anymore just put on nice classical music concerts for nice people and expect that’s going to cut it.” For sponsoring choruses, each festival establishes a meaningful connection to hundreds, even thousands of people who might not normally come to their concerts. It’s a way to build audiences. This kind of engagement also gives choruses a powerful message to take to donors. “When I talk to people I’ve never met and tell them about our chorus, they might scratch their heads at our repertoire. It’s a little out there,” admits Miller. But he’s found that “when they hear we’re serving inner-city youth with an a cappella choral festival, they are impressed. They get that.”

Christine Bullin

Bullin agrees that bottom-line concerns weigh on music organizations now more than ever. “But you’ve got to be pure of heart about it. The first thing is to question your own motivations and sincerity. Is it about you or is it about the kids?” For Chanticleer, Chicago a cappella, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and the Weill Music Institute, the answer is: both. These organizations share the mission of promoting lifelong singing and the appreciation of music, and high school music festivals give them a way to do that. “Music for music’s sake is our reason for existence in the world, but as the organization matured and our capacity grew, it was clear to us that this was the other role we should take,” says Greenberg. “It’s about relevance. Are we providing something that’s interesting and inspiring and useful in people’s lives?”

For the four students interviewed, the impact is significant. Anand Lal-Tabak intends to continue pursuing music as he starts college next year. Carolina Campero, who attends college in Pennsylvania, plans to major in music education. Emilio Tello, now studying in the conservatory at California State University, Long Beach, wants to audition for Chanticleer when he is older. Auston Ferrarer says that his festival experiences with high-level professionals showed him “music has the potential to change lives.”

That thought brings the eager, tuneful shouts of Ferrarer and his fellow LA-area high schoolers back to mind, and soon the notes and rhythms of “Zion’s Walls” have the listener murmuring another text Copland attached to that tune, the aspiration librettist Horace Everett expressed in “The Promise of Living,” the finale of The Tender Land:

The promise of growing
Is born of our singing.

Don Lee is a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. At NPR in Washington DC, he was the executive producer of Performance Today.

This article was adapted from The Voice, Spring 2015.

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