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In the ‘Glee’ Era, Youth Choruses Pop Up All Over

February 4, 2011

Running a youth chorus is a daunting task. The repertory has to suit young singers, and the experience has to keep tweeting, texting children entertained. Then there’s the tricky issue regarding boys: what to do when their voices break.

Despite these challenges, young people’s choirs are flourishing in the Bay Area. Thanks to the commitment of talented choral directors — and the popularity of TV shows like “Glee” — youth choirs in the region are in a golden era.

There are about 40 independent children’s vocal ensembles in the region, and many are earning wide recognition for the complexity and variety of their output and the creativity of their collaborations.

“I’m struck by the quantity and quality of children’s choruses in the Bay Area,” said Ann Meier Baker, the president and C.E.O. of Chorus America, a service organization for choirs in the United States. “These ensembles are world class.”

Last week the San Francisco Girls Chorus (which, alongside the San Francisco Boys Chorus, performed at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009) became the first American vocal ensemble to win a place in the finals of “Let the Peoples Sing,” a prestigious international choral competition organized by the European Broadcasting Union.

One of only three youth choirs from around the globe to make the cut, the San Francisco Girls Chorus plans to travel to Manchester, England, in October to compete against groups from Estonia and Sweden.

“We were so excited to learn we were submitted to the competition,” said Teresa Dayrit, a 13-year-old member of the San Francisco Girls Chorus. “When we learned that just two other youth choruses besides us would be in the finals we felt super proud.”

In “Fable and Faith,” a multimedia performance featuring the San Francisco Boys Chorus and the Robert Moses’ Kin dance company at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (Feb. 18-20), the choristers will sing seven numbers including music from the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” and the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem. The boys may also get to kick soccer balls and ride skateboards onstage.

The Ragazzi Boys Chorus, which is planning to tour Cuba this summer, is working on a piece for its March 26 concert that incorporates animal sounds and complex chord clusters.

And the Pacific Boychoir Academy, one of the few “choir schools” in the country offering choral training alongside an academic day-school program, regularly takes on tough repertory, like Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, that is beyond the reach of most youth choirs.

The Grammy Award-winning chorus is releasing a new CD of spirituals this spring.

The success of the Bay Area’s top youth choirs, which generally meet one to three times a week after school and maintain a rigorous performance, touring and workshop schedule, owes much to the vision and dedication of their leaders.

Karl Chang founded the Crystal Children’s Choir, a highly regarded children’s chorus based in the South Bay, in 1994 to meet educational needs. “When I arrived here as an immigrant from Taiwan, many public schools didn’t have a music program,” Mr. Chang said. “So some friends and I decided to form a children’s choir to teach music.”

Today the Crystal Children’s Choir has 1,000 members and locations in the Bay Area, Taiwan and China.

Other Bay Area choruses have also grown substantially. In January, 60 children auditioned for a place in the Ragazzi Boys Chorus — double the number that auditioned five years ago. In the mid-1990s, the San Francisco Boys Chorus had 60 singers. Today there are around 260.

“I love being in the San Francisco Boys Chorus because I enjoy making music in a professional atmosphere,” said one San Francisco Boys Chorus member, Elio Bucky, 13.

The reasons for the growth can be explained in part by the decline of music education in public schools. Plus there’s the “Glee” factor. According to a recent poll by the National Association for Music Education, nearly half of the music teachers surveyed reported that “Glee” had increased interest in their offerings.

The most acclaimed Bay Area youth choruses, whose after-school programs range from around $600 to $1,850 a year in student fees depending on the organization (scholarships are available), are striving to mitigate the budget cuts in music education and serve the surge in interest in singing prompted by pop culture.

They offer music history and theory classes and training in vocal technique and repertory for children as young as 5 and as old as 18.

A special understanding of young voices helps distinguish the top-tier youth choruses from the rest. Youth choral directors in the region, like Kevin Fox of the Pacific Boychoir Academy and Susan McMane of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, possess a deep knowledge of children’s vocal apparatus and repertory.

“Collectively, the choir sounds quite mature because we work on things like intonation and vowel matching,” Ms. McMane said. The goal is not “to push the singers to sound old,” she added. “We want there to be a youthful vibrancy to the voices.”


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