Choirs strike a chord with Charlotte students

Sports may grab most students' attention, but to a vocal segment of Charlotte's kids and teens, choral singing is where the action is.

Even before hit TV shows "Glee" and "The Sing-Off," choral singing was on solid ground, say music educators. But these shows have solidified choirs' popularity.

"It's cool to sing again," said Matt Hinson, who teaches musical theater at Northwest School of the Arts. "Before these shows, marching bands got much of the glory and choirs were secondary. And what I love about 'Glee' is that they acknowledge the 'nerdiness' other people might associate with being in a glee club. But the writers say, 'Yeah, it's dorky, but who cares? We're having fun.' "

A quick glance around town at a few youth choral activities reveals that Hinson may be preaching to the choir.

Charlotte Children's Choir, started in 1986 for children ages 8-18, has maintained a steady enrollment of around 236 for several years. The Choir School at St. Peter's, based at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, maintains a maximum enrollment of 100. Charlotte Home Educators Association offers a choral program for 250.

Sandy Holland, artistic director for Charlotte Children's Choir, says the upswing in choral singing began five or six years ago with Disney's "High School Musical."

"I liken it to the Harry Potter series and what those books did for reading," Holland said. "We really never felt a decline in interest, but our kids are talking about 'Glee,' '(American) Idol' and other shows, and it validates what they're doing in choir."

Whatever "Glee" effect Holland's choirs have felt comes more from choice of repertoire than style of performance, which is more formal than the Broadway-style, dance-oriented numbers performed on the Fox show.

Ben Outen, executive director at St. Peter's, agrees that choirs have been popular in Charlotte long before they were popular on TV.

"The interest has been consistent," Outen said. " 'Glee' is great because it reinforces how unifying music can be."

Committed to choir

Carey Cannon conducts Cantare, one of Charlotte Children's Choir's six choirs, comprising 24 boys in grades eight-12 whose voices are changing or have already changed. The group has gone on tour to Italy, Ireland and, most recently, Scotland. Later this spring they'll perform at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, and in 2013 they'll head to Costa Rica.

"My singers watch these shows, but I don't think they're influenced all that much by them," Cannon said. "As far as their commitment to choral music goes, they're already there. They're driven and they're honored to be a part of this group. But from TV they can see that choral music is not stagnant; it can be another way to tap into popular culture. We might do a Katy Perry song, for example.

"Choral singing will always be there 'when two or more are gathered,' " said Cannon. "It's that need to connect and how better to do that than by singing?"

Choral conductors often draw parallels between singing and sports. "I expect my guys to come in on day one with the attitude, maturity and work ethic they'll need for the championship game," Cannon said. "Except in our case, it's not the playing field or basketball court on which they'll be performing, it's the stage. But the preparation, the attention and focus they'll need is the same."

Cantare rehearses two hours every Monday throughout the school year. The atmosphere is high-energy and congenial. But once Cannon takes the podium, the laughing and joking subside and they buckle down to work. Physical warm-ups include stretching, breathing exercises and vocalizing before the singers pick up a single piece of music.

"I like to think of choral singing as a unification of voices, and rehearsals involve the corporate recognition of that," Cannon said. "It's a great opportunity to perfect our own instrument, but it's also about finding the best way to contribute to the rich tapestry of the choir as a whole. Just like on a sports team, sometimes you carry your teammate, and sometimes your teammate carries you. And preparing for a concert takes just as much time and dedication."

Enthusiasm for singing

Cantare's members love singing.

Jesse Borower, 17, of South Mecklenburg High School, says he's never had a negative reaction from fellow students regarding his participation in choir.

"They might go, 'Huh? Really?' But it's more curiosity, and when people find out how much camaraderie there is in choir, they're enthused."

James Porzenski, 17, of Providence High School, says, "I love the satisfaction of being with people who willingly get together to do something beautiful."

Only Alex Griffith, 15, of Myers Park High, admits to being reluctant. "My dad dragged me into the audition. I hated it at first, but now it's my favorite thing to do," he said.

Joseph Kelly, 15, is home-schooled and loves playing soccer as well as singing. But when a big varsity soccer game conflicted with a choral retreat last fall, he chose to sing.

Members say choir is becoming popular at schools, too.

Nick Fazzino, 17, is a student at Ardrey Kell High School, where 300 kids participate in the choral program.

"Singing is a big thing at our school," says Fazzino. "Choirs are like a big family. We truly care for one another, and we're doing what we love together.

"You can't get better training than this," Fazzino says, referring to Cantare. "It's exceeded my expectations. It's the high spot of my week."

Learning life skills

Holland and Cannon say that while fun is essential to the choir experience, there's a lot more going on.

"Choir is about being part of a team. Not all of these kids are going to be Mariah Careys or Rihannas," Holland said. "But we can offer a level of musicianship they can't always get in school or church.

"When they're in a choir, they're learning life skills - discipline, commitment, collaboration, meeting standards, pride in accomplishment, poise.

"Singing is learned behavior. It's a skill that can be taught. Everybody can improve," Holland said. "After all, we all carry our instrument in our throats; whether we use it or not is up to us. Of course, learning a new skill set, like singing, is like a foreign language. It's easier when you're younger."

Sense of belonging

In the broader choral community, several organizations are reaching out to kids. Carolina Voices sponsored a choral workshop last summer that was so popular camp director Erica McGee is doubling enrollment in 2012. Billed as a "mini-Glee" experience, the camp will accept up to 150 children from first to fifth grades.

Renaissance Singers, a 32-voice adult ensemble, selects four high school apprentice singers each semester. This outreach experience is good for the students and choir alike, according to founding director Bob Pritchard.

"We pass along the gift of music to the students, and they give us some new energy," he said.

In addition, Renaissance Singers makes a donation to each apprentice's school choir program.

"Obviously, our goal as educators is to create fine musicians," Outen said. "But there are so many side benefits. As little kids they come in all wide-eyed and eager, and choir teaches them self-confidence and how important it is to give one's individual best. And then they hit middle school, which has its challenges, but with choir they have something they're good at, something to help them navigate those tricky waters.

"By high school, they've bonded with the group and have a sense of belonging," Outen said. "That can be a lifeline, regardless of what age you are."

Holland hopes choir gives her students a lifelong love of singing.

"Choral singing gives them a great creative outlet," Holland said. "It's a lot more personal and organic than tackling somebody. And in choir they don't run the risk of breaking a limb."