It's Saturday morning, and 34 young people are assembled for practice.
With a few warm-up exercises and directions to "reach for an apple from the tallest tree," and "blow on hot soup," the group is ready to begin with one more instruction from its leader.
"Imagine that the music is sparkling like fresh snow on a winter's morning," said Doreen Falby, with a Scottish lilt to her voice. With a sweep of her hand, the voices immediately combine, creating a pure, sweet sound that only young vocal chords can summon.
"When I teach children, I try to make things easy for them to comprehend," Falby said. A Columbia resident, Falby is director and founder of the Maryland Children's Singers Inc., a non-profit organization of two singing groups -- the Choristers and the Training Choir -- both based in Columbia.
Falby's husband, Vern, is a professor of music theory at Peabody Conservatory at the Johns Hopkins University and composes songs for the group.
The Choristers, ages 9 to 15, focus on building vocal technique and developing sight-reading and ear-training skills.
Falby strives for a boy-choir sound -- "It's really magical when that happens," she said.
An early-childhood music specialist, she is a full-time Peabody faculty member.
Since she was 8 years old, living in Great Britain and singing in a children's choir, she dreamed of teaching music. Now 29, Falby has earned degrees in music education and piano performance from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and two master's of music degrees in piano performance and music education from Syracuse.
But, Falby said, "It was my dream tostart a children's choir."
That dream came true in September 1990, when she started the Maryland Children's Singers and formed the Choristers.
Falby added the Training Choir in September for singers ages 6 to 9.
She organizes numerous concerts for the group each year. The Choristers will perform at the Heartlands next month and are planning two spring concerts, one at the Slayton House and the other at a location to be decided.
Also in January, Falby will introduce two new groups. Music for Wee Ones will be geared for children ages 2to 4 and their parents, and will allow them to sing, dance and play circle games together.
"Children can dance with streamers to musicby (Claude) Debussy and use percussion instruments, poems and fingerplays to enjoy real children's songs and children's folk music," Falby said.
She also will begin Kindermusik, for ages 4 to 6.
Children in the Kindermusik program learn about Mozart, Bach and music from around the world. Along the way, they learn listening skills, vocal development, movement, ensemble work, playing in struments, ear training and musical games.
"It's a broad curriculum, but by the timethe children are 6 or 7 years old, they can say, 'Mom, I want to sing,' or, 'I want to play the piano.' It makes them independent musicians," Falby said.
The Training Choir learns music reading, ear training and singing games. Pupils also are instructed in proper vocal technique through the preparation of children's songs and folk songs ofmany cultures.
Falby hopes the group will "feed" children into the Choristers as their voices develop. Tuition for each program is $150 per child per school year with a one-time registration fee of $25. The programs run throughout the school year.
"We work very, very hard," Falby notes.
"Not many choruses would have the ages of 9 to 15 in one group. When you bring a 9-year-old and a 15-year-old together, they learn a lot from each other," she said.
Her singers perform folk music and classics sometimes dating to the 1500s, Falby said.
"We get to sing all types of songs, some with movements and even dancing," said Dana Romenesko, 12, a seventh-grader at Harpers ChoiceMiddle School in Columbia. She has been with the group from the start and belongs to several other singing groups.
Her 9-year-old sister, Dyan, also is a member of the group.
"We have learned to improve our singing," said Dyan, a fourth-grader at Swansfield Elementary."I like learning new songs."
Falby says a chorus "needs to sing like one voice and move as one body." To accomplish this, she encourages the children to pay attention to such details as listening to "hear your neighbor; voices should never be louder, just lovely." Mirroring each other's movements while counting meters is a way to encourageunity.
She also encourages her students to be involved in their school music programs, if possible.
"I am working with what is already there; each of us are reaping the benefits of each other's work,"she said. For schools without a choral program, the Maryland Children's Singers can fill a void for children who like to sing, she said.
The Maryland Children's Singers, decked out in the state colors ofred, white, black and gold, have performed throughout this month at various places, including Slayton House, The Mall in Columbia, the Rouse Co.'s holiday party and the Mormon Temple.
Ask Falby about hergoals, and she answers without hesitation.
"I want the children to become a shining light for the community that they serve. I want them to become an inspiration for children and teachers of music in thearea. . . . I want them to continue to be part of a great choral tradition. . . .
"I don't want them be stars, just an inspiration to as many people as possible."