alt text needed

The Little School That Could

ONLY A FEW BLOCKS away from Immaculate Heart of Mary School, traffic on one of Los Angeles’ most traveled freeways stirs up a constant, metallic hum. The side streets are noisy, too, as cars dodge or hit potholes and each other in the never-ending “music” of urban life. Yet, on a crisp, winter day, another gentler neighborhood sound is taking shape, a sound that calls to mind beauty and angels, not honking and the squealing of tires.

“Luuuu … Laaaaaa.”

The tones are crystal clear and fresh, like a gentle spring breeze through tree branches.

Tucked inside the school’s auditorium, the boys and girls of IHM Children’s Choir prepare for competition at the World Choir Games, to be held in Cincinnati from July 4 to 14. The World Choir Games, dubbed the “Olympics of choral music,” bring together amateur choirs from countries throughout the world, includ ing Europe, eastern Europe, South Africa, North America and the Caribbean. It will be on American soil this year for the first time ever (see The Unifying Power of Music).

Choirs competing at the Games often have extensive performance experience, and many are regulars at the international level. But, for the group of 35 second- through eighth-grade children at Immaculate Heart of Mary School, the Games will be a first; they have never competed at any level. In fact, they are the only U.S. Catholic elementary school choir registered for the 2012 competition. It’s an unlikely opportunity for an inner-city Catholic school in Los Angeles to take the world stage.

A Journey Begins

A little more than two years ago, IHM Children’s Choir sang only at Mass once a month, mostly in unison, at the parish church next door. When IHM music director Cristopher “Pete” Avendano took over, he increased their Mass commitment to every Sunday, expanded their repertoire of liturgical music and encouraged even the youngest child to cantor.

As the choir grew and its voice began to take shape, so, too, did a dream that Avendano had harbored for years. “My vision, my dream, was to form a more serious children’s choir,” says Avendano, who, with his wife, Venice, has three young sons. “I had those experiences growing up, and I wanted to share that with these kids,” he tells St. Anthony Messenger.

As a child, Avendano performed with the Tiples de Santo Domingo, the oldest boys’ choir in the Philippines. He earned his degree in music education from the University of Santo Tomas, the oldest Catholic university in Asia. There, he also was a member of the University of Santo Tomas Singers, an award-winning choir that travels extensively to competitions and concert appearances in South America, Asia, Europe and the United States.

“It gave me the most beautiful experiences to travel all around. It was amazing,” Avendano says. “When I heard that the World Choir Games were going to be in the United States for the first time, I thought, ‘Why can’t we do it?’”

Connie McGhee, an associate of the Religious Sisters of Charity, the order that ministered in the school from 1968 to 2008, had just arrived at IHM School. Her first days on the job as lay administrator were a blur of activity, but she remembers clearly when Avendano approached her with his dream.

“I had barely begun to unpack my boxes; some of them are still packed, I think,” she says. “When Cristopher told me about the World Choir Games, I thought, ‘That sounds like a wonderful idea.’ I believe in encouraging people to think large thoughts, not small.”

With that “large thought,” however, came large obstacles. To go from a children’s choir that sang once a week at Mass to one that could compete at the international level would require a significant commitment from the children and their parents, as well as support from the school and parish at large. It would be very expensive, too. But there were significant benefits. So, after getting the nod from IHM pastor Father Rodel Balagtas and McGhee, Avendano gathered up information about the Games, videos of other competitive choirs and detailed rehearsal and budget plans. He held a meeting with the parents and presented all of his information.

The Cost and Benefit of a Dream

The financial commitment would be a challenge. With the bad economy and other school and parish obligations, including a major renovation on IHM’s 100-year-old church, the projected budget of $50,000 needed to pay just for registration fees, airfare and lodging for the choir and chaperones seemed like a staggering sum. To raise the money, choir members and their families would be expected to participate in fund-raising efforts, including extra concerts and appearances at community events, which would add major time commitments to the financial ones.

The music aspect was also daunting; for the choir to master a competitive repertoire, the rehearsal schedule would have to be rigorous — two full, 2-hour rehearsals a week and one sectional rehearsal on Monday. Choir members would need to attend all required rehearsals, learn to sing in parts — Soprano I, Soprano II and Alto — and have their music, including songs in English, Hebrew, French and Filipino, memorized by June 1. No small task for energetic, easily distracted youngsters!

“At the meeting,” says Avendano, “I said, ‘I’m going to be serious about this. I want to bring the children to the choir Olympics. If you’re up to the challenge, I will give it my whole effort.’”

Many parents embraced Avendano’s plan. Parents formed committees dealing with fundraising, logistics and costumes. The word started to spread about the choir at IHM, and they began to field requests to perform at fundraisers and other venues. About 80 percent of IHM’s student population is Filipino, and the extensive Asian-American community also began to take notice.

“Mr. Avendano’s dream was contagious,” says Anthony Flores, father of the choir’s youngest member, Amanda, a second-grader. Realistic about the work involved, he says, “It is a big commitment, but my wife and I feel that, as long as our children want to do something positive, it’s up to us to find a way.”

Marlon Panahon, father of third-grader Mika, agrees.

“At first, I was just the designated driver,” he laughs softly. “But as the choir did more fundraising events, I became more involved, and I’m having a good time. To see your child active in the parish and giving back to the community brings great pride and fulfillment as a parent.”

Often music programs, especially for those in elementary schools, can suffer or be eliminated altogether when budgets are tight. Avendano is willing to be compensated less than he would be elsewhere because of his conviction that music makes a difference.

“Music is in your soul,” he says. “It’s priceless. It opens up the world. It gives you confidence, makes a person happy. It removes stress. A lot of kids need music. The family that sings together, stays together.”

IHM School is financially challenged, but parents and others believe that the benefits outweigh the cost.

“Early on,” says Flores, “there were many events, and our daughter was tired. She’s an honor student, and my wife and I wondered if we should keep her in this. But Amanda said, ‘I want to stay in choir.’ I was proud of her for making those sacrifices.”

Panahon also sees a benefit to his daughter’s commitment to the choir. “Our daughter’s confidence level has improved. She gets along better with the kids in higher grades, not just those in her class.”

The choir’s development has enhanced worship at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church. Pastor Rodel Balagtas, who is currently overseeing the renovation of the church and the 100th-anniversary liturgy and celebration, fervently believes in music’s relationship to prayer, as well as the importance of music in nurturing young people and the community as a whole.

“Good music in liturgy is inspirational,” he says, taking time out to visit at a recent choir rehearsal. “It’s a way to communicate with God and a great channel for grace. We’ve enlivened the parish through liturgy and music, and as a result, the numbers have increased.”

Father Rodel enjoys singing, too, and often lifts his voice when he celebrates Mass. “But,” he says, “I keep my microphone turned down! I don’t want to compete with the children.”

More Work Ahead

Avendano is still perfecting the IHM Children’s Choir sound, carefully balancing the different tonal qualities and adjusting for ever-changing young voices. He will soon need to add simple choreography to the music rehearsals that are already packed from start to finish. And, then, there is much more money needed to meet the looming $50,000 goal.

But even with the challenges that remain, as the choir finds its voice, so, too, do more dreams.

“Not every child likes football or cheerleading,” says McGhee. “But every child loves music. IHM School is struggling — enrollment dropped from 260 three years ago to 190 this year — but it will flourish again, and I think our choir is going to help us do that.”

Father Rodel agrees. “For us to be a school that values music and art, it’s a way to increase enrollment at the school.”

Avendano doesn’t hesitate to describe what he hopes will be next. “We could compete other places in California. But, ultimately, I would like to establish a foundation so that we can bring in children and help them get a Catholic education. And I would like for us to go to Rome and sing at the Vatican. We could
do it in 2014, I think.”

They may well already be on their way.

The Unifying Power of Music

THIS YEAR, for the first time in its history, the World Choir Games will be held in North America, in Cincinnati. The city began its bid to host the WCG in 2008 and, after a process much like bidding to host the Olympic Games, was ultimately chosen, according to its sponsor, the foundation Interkultur, on the basis of its “strong musical heritage and arts facilities.”

The World Choir Games, dubbed the “Olympics of choral music,” bring together amateur choirs from countries throughout the world. Choirs perform in categories such as “Music of the Religions,” “Mixed Choirs,” “Children’s Choirs” and “Barbershop.” They earn points based on their performances, and these points count toward placement in international rankings. The choir scoring the highest among the gold medalists in each category will earn the title “Champion of the World Choir Games.” The World Choir Games were held for the first time in 2000 in Linz, Austria, and have been held in a different city every two years since.

The event is the brainchild of Gunter Titsch. He was an accountant, tax consultant and IT consultant and trainer, but had long been a choir and choral music aficionado. In a Q&A interview published recently, he says, “I was convinced from the word go that differences could be overcome through international choir competitions at which people could meet without prejudice — that choral music could serve as a connection between peoples that transcends all borders.”

The World Choir Games gather hundreds of choirs and thousands of singers from a variety of countries to share their music in a competitive setting that also includes an opening and closing ceremony,and the opportunity to participate in “Friendship Concerts,” free events at venues throughout the host city. Choirs that do not want to compete may also participate, receiving an expert evaluation.

As of Jan. 12, 2012, 325 choirs and more than 12,000 participants were registered to attend the WCG. The event will undoubtedly be a favorite destination for music lovers, too, who want to hear the best of choral music from all corners of the globe.


A Choir Prepares

To get just the right sound or master a specific song can take hours of painstaking work. Here’s anexample of how Immaculate Heart of Mary Children’s Choir is preparing for the World Choir Games on a typical afternoon:

3:00 School is over. Members of Immaculate Heart of Mary Children’s Choir clamor as they enter the school auditorium and arrange the folding metal chairs into two horseshoes facing a much-used baby grand piano. Director Cristopher Avendano leads them in gentle, rhythmic warm-ups — shoulder rolls, arm stretches, hand shakes and breathing exercises. In the background, children shout and footsteps clatter as the school settles down after hours. A few latecomers scurry into the room and take their placeswith the choir. Avendano “tunes” the choir, beginning with a simple scale of “do, re, mi …” He directs the voices into two, then three parts, gently prompting the children to listen as well as sing. He moves on to more vocal exercises, refining the tones as the choir sings.

4:00 Avendano distributes pencils. He starts with “J’entends le Moulin” (“I Hear the Millwheel”). He eaches the melody on the syllable “ta,” so the children can master the music before they begin to learn the song’s French lyrics. He stops and starts, finetuning and introducing music theory (“How many is that note? That’s right, two. One. Two.”).

4:10 Some of the children squirm, their eyes straying from the music on heir pages. The squirming is contagious. Avendano asks them to stand and sing two songs that were part of the choir’s application for the World Choir Games. Immediately, the children stand straight and focus. They execute a soaring “Ave Verum Corpus” and a quick, spirited “Elijah Rock.” Calm is restored!

4:20 Avendano goes over the end of “O Shenandoah,” working with Soprano I, Soprano II and Alto sections separately and together. At times, he reminds them to hold firm to their own notes. One Soprano II doesn’t have the music. Avendano asks her to share with her neighbor. He shapes the phrases where he wants more volume or a softer effect. He coaches pronunciation. Parents begin to arrive. The children, even the youngest, stay focused.

4:55 More parents arrive. Some parishioners, too; 5:30 Mass is in the school auditorium while the church is being renovated. The children are restless — it’s been a long but productive rehearsal. Avendano collects the pencils, distributes permission forms and leads the children in a final prayer — the song “Angel of God, My Guardian Dear.” After the last note, there’s a pause, and then children and parents raise their voices in greeting and hurry home.