TEN CHILDREN sit cross-legged in a circle, singing with total conviction: "Sing holy an-GELS, Sing your sweet lullaby. Sing holy an-GELS!"
Their teacher, Michael Allman, motions to stop and gently corrects them. "Easy there, guys. We don't want to punch the last syllable so hard, do we?" Allman asks, "OK, who wants to play 'Paw Paw Patch'?"
Before Allman can get up from his seat on the floor, the children have formed two lines and chosen partners. The singing game takes off. It's not the usual way to teach music, but then the Children's Chorus of Maryland is far from usual.
The chorus, founded in 1976 by Betty Bertaux, is made up of more than 100 children, ranging in age from 6 to 16. Under current music director Andrea Nutter Macon, the chorus has performed with the Baltimore Opera and the Baltimore Symphony in addition to its regular season concerts, which feature the 30 member concert choir. Upcoming appearances include the BSO's Annual Holiday Pops Gala on Dec. 15, the WMAR-TV2 Christmas Eve Special, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society concert Dec. 22, and their own Twelfth Night Concert on Jan. 6.
The chorus rehearses on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings at Towson State University, where their time is evenly split between choir practice and class. Each class is modeled on the principles of Hungarian composer and educator Zoltan Kodaly. His method dictates periods of intense learning broken up by periods of relaxation.
That is where the games come in. Of course, these aren't merely games. Each teaches a specific musical lesson whether it is skipping to the beat, singing in canon while playing tag, or learning a new song while marching around the room -- each child expressing his interpretation of the music with his body. Anna Funkhouser, a proud mother, remarks, "The beauty of the system is that these kids haven't any idea that they are learning while they are playing."
There are other benefits as well. Russell Collins, 8, in his second year with the chorus says, "I really don't like performing because I am shy. I like singing and that helps me get over my shyness."
Jennifer Jordan, at a very poised 14, says, "I've always loved music, and here I get to put that love to work. It's much more than singing. We're at such a high level, and it will help us when we get older."
The children represent 51 schools throughout the Baltimore area. Most of the choir members first hear of the chorus in school.
Once they pass an audition in June, the children are enrolled in a two-semester course that roughly follows the school year. Tuition runs from $210 per semester for the beginner choir to $275 for the intermediate and concert choir. Scholarships are available for children who otherwise might not be able to join the choir. Executive Director, Donna Reid, says, "All we are interested in are the best voices."
But it takes a little more than a good voice to remain in the chorus. "It can be difficult to keep up with my schoolwork and learn the music I need to," Jennifer says. The discipline the chorus instills is demanded from parents as well. "No one goes away for weekends anymore because of the Saturday morning lTC rehearsals," Funkhouser says, "but, it's worth it."
Perhaps the most worthwhile thing of all is the opportunity to appear on television. Eleanor Martin, 11, a three year veteran of the chorus, says, "Being on the TV2 Christmas special gives you something to talk about. Your friends in school say, 'I'm going to Florida for Christmas.' I can say, 'Well, I'm singing on TV.'" Eleanor admits, however, it is not as glamorous as she would like people to think. "They shine all of these lights in your face. It's nerve-wracking. It gets really hot so it is a relief to get off the stage."
Eleanor isn't the only one who suffers from stage jitters. Suzanne Friedman, 8, has developed her own method to calm her nerves. Jamming her hands deep into her pockets, Suzanne says, "I close my eyes to calm myself." But doesn't that make it hard to see the conductor? "Well, sort of," she says, "but once I'm settled, I start to sing again."
One young singer, who wishes to remain anonymous, reveals another vital performing tip. Whatever happens, try to avoid standing in the front row.