Choral Academy opens musical world

Walker Smith seems like a kid of few words.

As he sits quietly in the choir room at Calvary Lutheran Church, his grass-stained jeans, gray American Eagle hoodie and grown-out mop of sandy-colored hair speak for him, describing a typical teenager.

But when his cue from the conductor arrives, in the form of a graceful and rhythmic finger-point, the few words Walker does speak march out in a low, deep bass that resonates through the chairs, the music stands and the rib cages of those around him.

Smith, 14, a freshman at Concord High School, is a member of The Choral Academy, a group of young singers who have found joy in singing choral music. That art is sometimes lost in schools, and now, with the increase of contemporary praise bands, in churches.

"Gary and I both have a love for choral music, and it seems like it's dying somewhat," said Lynette Novobilski, who created the group six years ago with Gary Shive. "We just feel like these kids need the opportunity to do this kind of music."

Both Novobilski and Shive are retired music teachers and natives of Cabarrus County. Shive serves as the conductor. Novobilski provides accompaniment.

Three choirs, divided by age, exist within the academy. The youngest students are first-graders. The oldest attend area colleges.

Walker joined in the sixth grade at the recommendation of his middle school music teacher. In the years since, he has picked up an appreciation for a style of music that's often unfamiliar to youth, and now he prefers it.

"I don't listen too much to today's music," he said.

Novobilski credits Shive with the deep-seated appreciation its members hold.

"Gary is a master teacher. There's no doubt about it," she said. "He's brilliant with the kids, and they love him and respond well to him."

Sandi Whisnant, whose daughters Natalie, 14, and Allison, 11, joined the academy in its early beginnings, said the techniques transfer to other musical opportunities as well.

"They learn how to read music," she said. "Their voice is actually their instrument."

Since joining the academy, her oldest daughter has learned to play the bassoon, saxophone and hand chimes for other groups.

Potential members meet with Shive, who runs them through exercises to see whether they can match pitch and carry a tune. "We call it an interview. 'Audition' is a little scary," he said.

Very few have been turned away.

Chorus has taken a hit in some public schools in recent years, in part, from block scheduling, which allows students to enroll in only four classes per semester. "As a result, if they take choir, they are giving 25 percent of their education to choir," said Shive. "That hurts."

Students often bypass chorus, opting for classes they deem more beneficial on a college application.

Some schools don't offer chorus at all.

"We don't have one. It's a small school," said Valerie Zacek, 16, who attends Grey Stone Day School, a public charter high school affiliated with Pfeiffer University. "I've been singing forever," said Zacek. "Singing makes me happy."

Shive said a gradual replacement of many church choirs by praise bands is further eroding opportunities for children to sing choral music.

"For a high school student who sings in a (school) choir, that's their next landing," he said. "And it's not there in a lot of churches."

He hopes the academy will help keep the art alive for kids like Walker, who shows no signs of stopping.

"I learn a lot about how to use my voice," he said. "Like going really low."