My first choral experience wasn’t until middle school,” says Kelly Mechling, who grew up to become the choir teacher at Tyee Middle School in the Bellevue School District.
“Then, discovering this group with a goal, always bettering our sound, accomplishing the goal of making something beautiful — oh, that gave me goose bumps!
“You’re using your own instrument; you’re just pouring your soul out. It’s community. It’s socialization. So many skill sets, in addition to growing your voice.”
Rather than lament the flood of distractions that threaten our children, from electronic addictions to bullying, take a look at what the simple act of singing in an organized chorus can do for kids: They develop confidence, focus, patience, cooperation and the habit of doing hard work. The result, their reward, is a beautiful, human-made sound.
The Seattle area is rich with choirs for youngsters, even for preschoolers. It has all-boys and all-girls ensembles and mixed ensembles, rehearsing from Bellevue to Redmond, Shoreline to Tacoma, and all points in between. Some perform with the area’s top professional orchestras; some at simple recitals. Some charge tuition, some are free. Choral groups are also among the treasures of the public school experience that are all too often overlooked.
Mechling offers the story of “Ann.” “She came into sixth-grade chorus class, and she would not speak. Very timid, very quiet. At the end of that year, she came to me and said she wanted to audition for all-state choir. And this big, powerful, gorgeous voice came out of her! She not only made all-state, but all of a sudden I saw her making more friends and showing more confidence.” Mechling also directs younger students at Columbia Choirs’ preparatory level.
“For a lot of students, it’s very liberating,” says Michael King, choir director at Bellevue’s Interlake High School. “The ability to express yourself vocally is going to be important in academic and work life, too.”
Like participating on a sports team, choral singing gives a growing youngster a sense of shared mission and shared responsibility for achieving it.
The work of a chorister requires following directions, practicing well and paying attention to the cues of others. The youngest singers, kindergarteners and first graders, work on developing good breathing rhythms, the skills of listening and matching a pitch.
Sarah Salomon sang in the Northwest Girlchoir from second grade through high school. “I was in kindergarten, in the school choir, when the Girlchoir came to perform. I just remember being really blown away, running home and saying, ‘I want to do that.’”
“It was a formative experience for a young woman,” says Salomon, a public health research manager who still sings in the Girlchoir’s alumnae group, Mirinesse, and with the Seattle Jewish Chorale, of which she is president. “You have to memorize all your music. Learn to blend your sound with others. Work and work until you get it right, no matter what language you’re being asked to sing in!”
How to choose a choir
Is your child ready for a choral singing group? If he or she is a first grader or older, ready for reading and tracking instructions and able to match — sing back — a pitch, then the answer is probably yes.
Teachers can tell who should go out for chorus, says Judith Herrington, artistic director of Tacoma Youth Chorus. “Something within those kids sparks an inner passion: They could be ADD or whatever, but when they’re in that music world, they’re focused.”
Looking for a group? Consider several factors, including performance anxiety and finances. Is your child ready for the pressure of concert performance? If so, maybe he or she would love to sing with a group like Northwest Boychoir, which appears with the Seattle Symphony and other professional musicians in major concert halls.
Or maybe a smaller group is a better fit. Herrington recommends church and school choirs, which give kids a chance to practice and solo in a familiar environment. But she urges parents to not reject a chorus due to financial considerations. Tacoma Youth Chorus, like many others, offers financial aid on a sliding scale.
If the choral group your child is interested in holds auditions, ask the group’s leaders what to expect. In many choirs, auditions aren’t held until second grade. Directors are supportive, usually inviting parents to be present.
Depending on age, there may be a request that the child sing something prepared in advance. You’ll be told whether the piece is personally chosen or predetermined. Auditions often include a pitch-matching challenge.
Many auditions last ten minutes, but some are longer. Herrington says her auditions last about 20 or 30 minutes per child. She assesses voice and pitch-matching ability, and also offers an exercise lesson similar to what her chorus does so she and the child can get a sense of whether they work well together.
Eight local choirs to explore
Here is a sampling of the wonderful children’s choirs in our area. The holiday season — when there is a bounty of choral concerts — is a terrific time to see if your child is inspired by choral singing. Check their websites for holiday concerts.
Eight choirs through grade 12, starting at age 4. No audition through grade 2
Rehearsals near Crossroads, Bellevue
Columbia Choirs of Metropolitan Seattle
Eight choirs with the widest age range of the groups — preschool (no audition) through adults. Rehearsals in various locations
Northwest Boychoir and Vocalpoint! Seattle
Choir with 150 members ages 6–13 that frequently performs with professional orchestras, records and tours. Vocalpoint! Seattle is a co-ed high school age choir for graduates of Northwest Boychoir and similarly trained girls.
Rehearsals in the U-District, Seattle
Auditioned choirs for grades 3–12 with 250 members who tour frequently; prep choir grades K–2 with no audition.
Rehearsals in various locations
Main focus is world music, with some jazz and classical
Non-auditioned choir for grades K–1; auditioned choirs grades 2–12
Rehearsals in Maple Leaf neighborhood of Seattle
Seattle Children’s Chorus
Mixed boys and girls, with two senior choirs exclusively for changed male voices
Rehearsals in Shoreline and Marysville
Seattle Girls’ Choir
Five levels of choirs for grades 1–12
Rehearsals in Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle
Tacoma Youth Chorus
Grades K–12, with a Saturday Sings choral primer program for K–1, up through high-school-age young men’s and young women’s choirs, both separate and combined into chorale
Rehearsals at Charles Wright Academy, Tacoma