Like every other seventh-grader at Carl Sandburg Middle School, Julia Warren, 12, follows some of her teachers’ directions better than others. There is one pithy directive from teacher Meredith Lee that presents particular difficulty: “Don’t look stunned, smile.”
“I usually forget that,” Julia said, “unless I know we’re doing it well.”
When Julia and her classmates are doing it well, nothing could come easier. They see it in their teachers’ faces, feel it in the applause that follows, but most of all, they hear it in one another’s voices, a perfect mingling of sound, the breath of each subtle variation sliding perfectly into every other as the singers’ voices ascend the scales.
When she feels this, Julia said, she doesn’t need to remember anything. “I just smile.”
Julia is in Lee’s “Choralettes” class. “It’s really cool because the music we do is serious. A lot of times in middle school you do a concert just to show your parents that you’re learning.”
As a member of the Choralettes, she said, the applause that comes at the end of well-sung song is more meaningful because it’s not the unconditional approval of parents or the encouragement of friends, it’s simply appreciation. “Here you don’t know the people, and those people just come because they want to hear us. It’s really cool. You feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
TAKING A MIDDLE SCHOOL music program to another level in concert requires taking practice to another level as well. “My schedule revolves around Choralettes,” Julia said. In addition to the four classes a week they take during school hours, the Choralettes usually have two or three after school.
“Sometimes it gets tedious because you have to do it until everything’s perfect, and it’s spotless, and you know it by heart. And it takes a lot of work.”
Carl Sandburg has the third largest music program in the county, according to Lee, one of Sandburg’s three music teachers. “Really about half the school is in the music program.”
She said the middle school years are often a tough time for children as they become teenagers, but participating in the music program can ground students in a cooperative atmosphere that gives them stability and self-esteem. “It gets them through.”
Lee said many teachers, particularly in middle school, underestimate their students’ capabilities. “You’d be surprised, if you really push your students, what they’re capable of.”
She praised West Potomac music teacher Ernest Johnson for doing just this. “In a good way, I think he’s very demanding of his students.”
Johnson said he has been taking his ensembles on retreats at a camp in Middleburg every year for the past 18 years. “The slept together; they ate together; they laughed together; they danced together and they worked intensely together.”
After that experience, his singers are more comfortable accepting advice and asserting themselves when they notice a mistake. “When the girls know each other, trust each other, feel they can make mistakes in front of each other, then they sing a lot better.”
THIS WEEK, the Choralettes and the West Potomac High School Symphonic Women’s Choir will be showcasing their teachers’ high expectations. The 44-girl choir from West Potomac and the 30-member Choralettes are traveling to the Homestead in Hot Springs for the conference of the Virginia Music Educator’s Association, Nov. 17-19, which exposes music teachers to some of the most inspiring programs in the state.
When judges for the VMEA had to blindly choose the best performances submitted on cd from all over Virginia, they had no idea that the sole middle school they would select to perform at the conference fed into one of the five high schools they would choose.
“When Ernest and I found out we thought that was pretty special. It hasn’t really happened before,” Lee said. Some of the students that came from West Potomac for the joint practice sang for Lee two or three years ago, when she began at Sandburg.
To celebrate the achievement, the two choirs decided to combine their voices on three of the seven songs each would perform. Lee will be conducting the first song the group performs, a Latin hymn with trumpet accompaniment, and Johnson will be conducting their finale, a song adapted from the composer Gustav Holst’s modern orchestral piece, “The Planets.” Among other songs, the middle school girls will also be singing a Czech ballad and an African-American spiritual, and the high school chorus will sing a modern “Halleluia” chorus and an Eastern European folksong. “I try to include as many different styles as I possibly can,” Lee said.
MUCH OF THE FINAL practice is dedicated to coordinating 77 girls to present themselves perfectly. “Always stay in character out here,” Johnson tells them. “When the song is over, smile. Show your appreciation. But don’t fix yourself.” He dramatically flips imaginary hair over an ear. “Don’t wiggle.” He wiggles. “Don’t squiggle.” He doesn’t squiggle; the girls get the idea.
Although the auditorium rings with chatter, while the girls wait in the wings, they stand straight, and nearly silent, when they are onstage and taking directions. After Johnson spends fifteen minutes spacing bodies and filling gaps, Lee finally calls out approvingly from her perspective at the back of the room.
“Now,” says Johnson, “Let’s sing.”
Responding to his instructions, mouths open in perfect O’s and smoothly blending voices pour from the stage. When Johnson signals that he wants to make a correction to the phrasing of a note, or the way a drawn breath affects the emphasis of a word, the girls are able to turn their music on and off as if from a tap, stopping in mid-phrase, then picking up again when Johnson finishes.
“The consonants were amazing,” Lee tells the girls near the end of practice. “The difference between today and yesterday is 100 percent better.”
Finally, they finish the run-through of their finale. “Don’t for a moment start talking,” said Johnson as the final notes fade into the corners of the room. “Just stare out at the audience and see everything you deserve.” He looks around at the crescent of girls, imagining his colleagues in the seats behind him. “They’re gonna go wild.”