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Letís Sing!

by Gaby Pryer

Cesar canít wait to go to camp. "The bus leaves at 7:15 in the morning next Saturday?" he yells. "Goody, Iíll be there at 6:30 in the morning!"

"I like it because I have good experiences," says Jennie. "I get to know friends Ė and I canít wait to go to England."

Andrea likes it because "there are different ages of kids, and I love the challenge Ė we are grouped by ability and we learn different languages."

What are these kids talking about, anyway? Scouts? Soccer? Summer Camp?

No, theyíre talking about their chorus Ė about singing in a choir.

Throughout the world, childrenís choruses rival sports, scouts and supervised goofing around as a popular way to meet friends, experience new things and stretch body, mind and soul. But how does a parent know whether or not a child would like to sing in a choir and how does a parent find a suitable chorus?

Most children like to sing, and some start singing before they can talk. Many a surprised parent has heard the tune to the "Barney Song" from mouths that can barely manage "mama" and "dada" and has wondered what to make of this gift.

The answer for the 18 month to 8 year old group is easy Ė keep listening to music and keep them singing! Folk songs, hymns, and endless renditions of "Twinkle, Twinkle," "Row, Row, Row Your Board," and "Iíve Been Working on the Railroad" while driving along in the car will firm up good pitch (even if the driver is a little off!) and good rhythm. Clapping songs is a way to get kids to notice differences in note values and a pretend (or real) marching band is a good, fun way to instill a firm and precise beat.

Young children donít need to sing loudly and vocal damage results from too much screaming and shouting. Itís not a good idea to try to have young singers imitate pop or even musical theater styles of singing because itís too easy to "belt," or, in other words, to sing using the throat muscles in order to get a loud sound in a low or mid-range that will carry to the back of an auditorium. The result is a forced, strained, "chesty" sound.

Instead, parents can encourage a childlike, light, airy tone and can try to get the very young singer to make the sound "come out your eyes," or "make your head buzz." This is the so-called "head tone" that a good childrenís chorus will treasure and develop in the young singer. When boysí voices change at age 13 or so, and girlsí (less dramatically!) at 14 or 15, the child will be well prepared to begin to train the sturdy adult voice.

Listening to good music is a must. Good music, of course, comes in all styles Ė folk music and barbershop donít need paying audiences or fancy dress and live performances are fun and accessible. Some children love opera and "Hansel and Gretel" and "Carmen" CDís are a good place to start. Hearing the best worldís best singers sing catchy tunes from these operas (and kids like to hear them again, and again, and again) will prepare a child for a local not-so-great production. Parents are often astonished when a very young child will prefer the singer on the CD to an amateur - in spite of fancy costumes and swordfights. The child has become a discriminating listener.

And, of course, instrumental music is important, too. Enough renditions of "White Silver Bells" will have accustomed the child to a good tune, so classical music by Carl Orff ("Carmina Burana"), Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikowsky and perhaps Beethoven for a little drama are good places to start. For rhythmic drive, Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi and Bartok canít be beat. And Brittenís "Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra" and Saint Saens "Carnival of the Animals" are must haves for the childís CD collection.

Now the eight year old is ready to start singing in a choir or chorus. Where should he or she go? Where does a parent start?

Itís important to evaluate existing resources to see if thereís a choir or chorus that will help the child become a lifelong singer and fan of good music.

Choral music and the sacred have been close companions since antiquity and churches and temples often have youth choirs worth investigating. Some denominations still use children (usually boys, but lately girls are included) to sing treble parts for service music. Itís still possible to find an advanced choral experience for very young children in large city Roman Catholic and Anglican (Episcopalian) churches. Some denominations, especially those of German origin, such as Lutheran, Moravian, Evangelical, and Methodist Evangelical have very strong musical traditions and the whole family can be involved in the choir. Eastern Orthodox churches often donít allow instruments, so children and adults learn early to sing "a cappella," or unaccompanied, which is a wonderful way to develop good pitch. Jewish synagogues often have childrenís choirs that offer instruction in service music based on very early modes and on works of Jewish composers from the Renaissance to the present. And certainly the hymns and anthems of Presbyterian, LDS (Mormon), United Church of Christ, and American Methodist Episcopal churches, to name just a few, are sturdy foundations for the young singer.

But sometimes there is no childrenís choir director, or special program for children, or the family attends a church or synagogue where thereís not enough money or resources for a music program. What then? Here are a few ideas:

Homeschooling groups can start choruses. Andrea Beasom, 13, is a member of the Los Angeles Childrenís Chorus and has also belonged to a homeschool choir for two years. She loves it. "Itís a youth choir," she explains, "with changed voices (tenors and basses) so there is a very challenging repertoire with pieces in Italian and French, and a lot of a cappella music."

Stephen Grimm, the groupís conductor, rehearses the choristers for an hour or so every Friday in Monrovia, California. He has three choirs grouped by age and ability and his youth choir competes Ė and wins top spots Ė in choir festivals.

Public and private schools may have very fine choruses. Although public money for the arts has dried up in many states, some public schools support music and art instruction through booster groups which raise substantial amounts of money for teachers and supplies. Homeschoolers may be very welcome in a school chorus, especially one that meets before or after school, and parent support will be most appreciated.

School choruses have some advantages. Teachers tend to be well trained and there is generally a good place to rehearse. Larger schools with a good music staff will want to have advanced choirs so expectations of the singers will be high and auditions may be required. A chorister in an advanced choir (with, perhaps, an advanced student orchestra accompanying) will be able to enjoy a wide repertoire that includes oratorios, masses and cantatas.

There are disadvantages to a school chorus, too. The school may have an "everybody sings" policy (this can happen in churches, too) and the competent teacher will have to manage too many children who need help to stay focused, to sing on pitch, and to follow music. Public schools may hesitate to program sacred works although many chorus conductors have learned to balance programs with an interesting variety of beautiful pieces from many faiths.

A local parks and recreation department or community college or university music department might already have, or be persuaded to start, a childrenís chorus (all treble voices) or youth choir (treble voices plus changed male voices). A talented, determined conductor, or "artistic director" or a determined "administrator" parent or, better yet, both together, can petition the local city recreation department to start a chorus. A similar plea could also be made to the local YMCA or Boys and Girls Club. The advantage is that while the artistic and support "team" is allowed to create the curriculum and determine standards, the umbrella organization takes responsibility for the rehearsal space, fee collection, liability and workerís comp insurance, heat, light, chairs, office equipment, etc.

Potential disadvantages to working under an "umbrella" organization include the possibility of having a city commission or board of non-artistic folks make decisions about who will sing in the choir and what kinds of music will be performed. Advantages include the low cost to participants because overhead costs will be subsidized by the umbrella organization.

Finally, parents may want to start an independent childrenís chorus. Independent childrenís choruses have become important musical training institutions for children throughout the world in the last twenty years. Led by such excellent choirs as the Toronto Childrenís Chorus and Illinoisí Glen Ellyn Childrenís Chorus (which started in a parks and recreation department, by the way), hundreds of choirs now provide opportunities for thousands of children to learn the basics of music theory and performance, travel and sing together, become disciplined performers, and make lifelong friends.

Starting an independent chorus requires a committed, enthusiastic conductor and a supportive parent group, the future Board of Directors, who will work together to form a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization which can function efficiently to manage 100-300 children and be able to accept tax deductible donations to supplement the budget.

The advantages of an independent chorus are many. Parents and community volunteers are responsible for running the organization which includes hiring employees, preparing and managing a budget, raising the necessary funds, finding places to rehearse and perform, and publicizing the chorus. The conductor, or artistic director, is hired by the Board to select repertoire, hire assistant conductors and accompanists, set standards for training and admission to the chorus, audition choristers and book performances.

The Los Angeles Childrenís Chorus, now in its fifteenth year, was founded by two church choir directors who were asked to provide children to sing the childrenís chorus part for an adult choraleís production of Brittenís "War Requiem." Extra children were recruited, parents sprang into action and the Chorus won instant recognition. Those involved decided to keep going and fifteen years later, LACC provides choristers for the Los Angeles Opera, produces two or three concerts each year, tours nationally and internationally, sponsors workshops for treble choir directors, and sings with such outstanding ensembles as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

When he was a kid, former LACC chorister Shannon Mack told the Los Angeles Times exactly what itís like to experience a childrenís chorus: "Youíre in rehearsal and youíre singing the same little chunk of music forever and growing sick of it. But then Iíve sung a part of music that gets to me and chills run up and down my body and Iím like, whoa, that was cool!í

Shannon is now a sophomore at USC, heís a conductor and composer, and heís still singing.

Church choir, homeschool choir, school chorus, independent chorus, any chorus Ė childrenís choruses are an education for a lifetime of cool.

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media