Classes are over and the high school’s halls are empty late on Tuesday afternoon when singers begin trooping into the choir room. Taking seats in a circle, the singers dig sheet music out of backpacks and await directions.
After a warm welcome and announcements, conductor Lisa Varno calls the group to their feet for fun, high-energy warmups. Then Emily Anderson, Tisbury School music teacher, plays keyboard accompaniment as they begin their first song.
Ms. Varno keeps the beat with hands, arms, head, and feet, clapping and bouncing in rhythm. She indicates volume changes from soft to loud, reminds the choristers to watch, listen, enunciate. She reminds them to hold their music just so and stand up straight. The singers follow her every gesture and comment, adjusting voices and bodies in response.
“Awesome!” exclaims Ms. Varno with delight after the last note. “Good work, everyone! That was fantastic. You remembered where to breathe.”
As they begin the next number, Ms. Varno is all business again. “Music up,” she calls to the singers who are beginning to chat and fidget. “All eyeballs looking at music.”
For one song, they form two circles, echoing each other in a round. In another, several join in a folk dance. One song includes hand movements.
“How does this music make you feel?” Ms. Varno asks. Singers thrust hands in the air, anxious to give the right answer.
The hour ends and all pack up their music, then join in a farewell song.
This could be a choral rehearsal at any school or church — except most of these singers are barely age 10: first, second, and third graders from schools Island-wide. Their older counterparts, fourth through eighth graders, will practice next.
These talented and enthusiastic groups make up the new Martha’s Vineyard Children’s Chorus, organized by experienced music instructor Lisa Varno. After a winter of learning and rehearsing, the chorus is excitedly gearing up for a performance on Sunday, May 22, at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs.
With music education degrees from the Hartt School in Hartford, Conn., and a bachelor of music in music education from Gordon College in Wenham, Ms. Varno has taught music in off-Island public schools and conducted choruses.
Ms. Varno moved to the Vineyard last June, where she has long family history with musical significance. Her mother and two aunts grew up here, and sang with the earliest group of MVRHS Minnesingers in the 1960s.
When she arrived on-Island, Ms. Varno lived with her grandmother, doing garden work, leading yoga classes, and teaching private voice and piano students. But choral singing was never far from her thoughts.
“It’s always been my dream to start a group of my own,” she said.
Her determination grew when she discovered that not all Island children have opportunities for choral singing. She reached out to educators and parents, and posted flyers. Response was strong, indicating that children and families welcomed an extracurricular chorus. Some three dozen children enrolled, and began rehearsing in February.
Although local children have general music classes at school, and some take instrumental lessons, Ms. Varno said most chorus members were new to reading music and this type of singing.
“The younger you begin to sing expressively, the better,” Ms. Varno said. She explained that choral singing entails understanding and internalizing the composer’s intent, and being able to communicate it to audiences.
Although the challenges of choral singing were new to them, the children learned quickly, enjoying every minute. “It’s really wonderful to hear their response to the music verbally,” Ms. Varno said. “And it’s wonderful they’re able to be vulnerable with each other and share their interpretations…. The children have been working very hard. It’s been a joy to work with them and witness their development firsthand.”
Ms. Varno hopes the chorus will become a “feeder system,” giving students experience to ready them for choral singing at high school and beyond. High schoolers aiming to pursue degrees in music education could gain practice working with the chorus too.
Ms. Varno is gratified that Island school music teachers have welcomed her. The high school provides free rehearsal space. “We are lucky to have someone of Lisa’s experience, enthusiasm, and energy joining the Island choral and vocal teachers,” said Jan Wightman, MVRHS Minnesinger director, performing arts teacher, and department chair. “I am thrilled to have an Island Children’s Chorus. Elementary school-age students who want to sing are often in general music classes, which aren’t able to concentrate solely on singing. The chorus provides consistent early choral training. This will be a great benefit to our high school choral program as these more experienced young singers come to MVRHS choruses and the Minnesingers.”
Stephanie Brothers of West Tisbury said, “My daughter Annabelle looks forward to Tuesdays at 5 pm. She goes around the house singing the chorus songs. This chorus is exactly what the Island needs, and the kids are having a blast. We can’t wait for the concert.”
Annabelle, 11, now takes private voice lessons with Ms. Varno. “Annabelle is learning music, both in the chorus and privately, that she would never be exposed to,” Ms. Brothers said. “It’s made her excited about music, and I hope that that excitement continues.”
Catherine Coogan of Vineyard Haven, whose 8-year-old twin daughters Jane and Emily are in the younger group, said her children have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “They have sung at home, and it is impressive, so I am very excited to hear the performance,” Ms. Coogan said.
Sunday’s concert features 10 selections by the chorus, and performances by members of the high school chorus, the MVRHS Minnesingers, and the Island Community Chorus. One highlight will be Lowell Mason’s “O Music” by the chorus and all guest singers. Some chorus members will play an instrumental prelude.
Ms. Varno is planning two semesters for next school year’s chorus schedule. Formal signups begin after Labor Day, though parents may register children at any time in advance.
Martha’s Vineyard Children’s Chorus concert, Sunday, May 22, 3:30 pm, Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs. $5 suggested donation. For more information, contact Lisa Varno at email@example.com.