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Singing away the blues

Pioneer Middle School Choir to perform in Yakima

Payton Svoboda smiles her way through a sad passage in Johann Sebastian Bach's "Bist Du Bei Mir," which will be performed Feb. 12 at the Season Performance Hall in Yakima. Photo credit: Jessica Corey-Butler

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The Pioneer Middle School Advanced Choir will open an exclusive show for music educators attending the 43rd Biennial Conference of the Washington Music Educators Association in Yakima, Feb. 12.  Following them will be the Rogers High School Concert Choir and the Choir of the West from Pacific Lutheran University.

Katherine Elshire, who has taught at Pioneer Middle School for two years, (though she's been teaching choir for 21 years,) expresses pride as she explains the breadth of the feat the girls in her advanced choir have achieved.  Last spring, recordings were submitted for consideration to perform at this event, and at that time girls were hand-picked for the advanced choir. The Pioneer Middle School group, which includes several kids from military families, was determined to be one of the top two choirs in the state and was chosen to perform in front of music educators. Elshire hand-picked the 34 12- to 14-year-olds who make up the choir last spring, and began the rigorous process of preparation.

First, the girls were introduced to the music. They listened to it, read it, and as in the case of the self-conducted rhythmic song "Sylvie," watched the music. They learned the tone, pitch, and phrasing of each song before language was introduced. They sing in French, German and Italian as well as English, so this step was particularly important. Even before the language was introduced and the memorization began, the girls practiced at home.  And then they practiced more, together, as they met for an hour four times a week.

Class time is not the old model of learning, where students receive as the teacher teaches: instead, the students themselves provide input that the teacher responds to.  In one moment, a girl suggests the altos sound a little off.  Elshire responds to the feedback respectfully, asking the altos to repeat a phrase, asking them if they hear the difference when slight tweaks are made. These aren't directions like, "Let's sing that louder." Elshire is more likely to say, "I want a yes sound! Show me your yes face."  The girls' expressions and voices brighten, and yet Elshire asks for more. "I feel like you equate ‘yes' to forté - can we do that again in mezzo forté?" The response sounds at once brighter and softer; more mature.  

The maturity and harmony in the group is particularly notable given the brief time the group has been assembled in its current form (just since fall), and the brief time they've worked under Elshire's direction (generally, two years.)  And while many of the girls are from musical families and are involved in a variety of musical pursuits outside school, ranging from singing in church choirs to musical theater to the Tacoma Youth Chorus, many of the girls in this choir are new to this assembly of voices.

A quick show of hands in the classroom last week demonstrated about half of the girls had military roots, whether they were dependents of retired servicemembers or are dependents of active-duty servicemembers. These girls have attended anywhere from one to nine schools in their school careers, all before eighth grade.  Payton Svoboda is one of these military eighth-graders, with five schools and six choirs under her belt.  She will be moving on to Washington, D.C. when high school comes around. But for her, as for many of the girls in Elshire's advanced choir, the choir room is a sanctuary.  "I met most of my friends through choir," she explained.  

But not all choirs (and choir directors) are alike. Svoboda points to a key teaching tenet of Elshire's, the word "insist."  She suggested that in the past, choral directors say they notice everything, but don't insist on the changes that Elshire insists on, arcane things like space, breath, tone, lips and molars. "Past teachers haven't gone into that at all," Svoboda said.

Elshire believes that her insistence of excellence will create strong individuals who will go on to their next choirs as leaders; they'll understand the value of insisting for the best from themselves and those around them.  And the show of hands around the classroom attested to the fact that choirs will be in all the girls' futures. When Elshire says, "Music isn't what I do, it's who I am, " the universal nods showed she struck a chord in the group.

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