All I had to do was follow the trail of excited voices of some 37 elementary school students to discover the Martha’s Vineyard Children’s Choir (MVCC) rehearsal room at the Edgartown school. I was curious to learn the behind-the-scenes preparation for the kids’ performance on Saturday, May 18.
Laura Walton, artistic director of MVCC, and Edgartown School K-8 choral general music teacher, stood behind the piano at the front of the room, which she used on and off during the rehearsal. Walton is expert at her job, seamlessly leading the talented, rambunctious group with aplomb through the one-hour rehearsal. Once everyone settled, Walton began with their weekly warm-up ritual, having the group stand and sing a song called “Who Can Sail?”
As I eyed the room, I was impressed that all the students read from musical scores rather than simple lyric sheets. Although the choir is open to all students regardless of musical experience, Walton said, “Part of being in the chorus is learning to read music. Many of these singers have never read music before, and this is their first exposure to reading choral music. During the first few rehearsals I help them track the line they are singing with their fingers so that they learn how to follow along. As rehearsals continue, the older members often help the younger, less experienced, members to follow along.”
The choir ran through six of the eight songs in their upcoming concert. It was an eclectic range, and Walton explained that she tried “to pick a mix of pieces that are accessible to young voices and expose singers to many genres and styles of music. I always include multiple languages,” she said. I heard Portuguese and English in “Só Danço Samba” (Jazz ’n’ Samba), and Latin in “Pié Jesu.” After just a little fine-tuning by repeating the lyrics back to Walton, the group was able to clearly articulate the liturgical music.
Walton sometimes had the choir sing in unison, and other times in quite sophisticated two parts. She said she also always tries to include at least one song that singers will know from a movie or the radio. This year, Walton chose the song “Remember Me” from the Disney Pixar movie “Coco.” The song features a solo in Spanish. Another opportunity for a budding soloist was in their version of “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel.”
Walton and the students were efficient and focused, especially given how late it was in the afternoon. The group meets from 4:30 to 5:30 pm every Wednesday for both fall and winter semesters. It was clear they would be ready for their May performance. The errant student or two was asked to take a time out, which they did briefly — music in hand — on the large rug in the middle of the room. These short “recesses” were few, but amazingly effective.
Part of what kept the students on track is the homework Walton assigns. She explained, “Our accompanist, Griffin McMahon, makes piano accompaniment recordings for us. I record myself singing the various parts on top of his playing and send the students home with CDs to practice with. I ask them to practice at home for 10 to 15 minutes a day, or just listen to the recordings in the car when they are driving around.”
I asked Walton what motivates her. “The M.V. Children’s Chorus is currently the only elementary and middle school choir that students can join,” she said. “We are filling a very important need, since the other Island public schools do not have choirs. Singing in a choir is proven to enhance brain development and academic achievement. The study of choral music fosters resiliency, empathy, and appreciation of cultural diversity. Through singing in a choir, students build confidence and learn how to express themselves. The children make friends with individuals outside of their regular school day. They learn to work together, think critically, problem-solve, and take responsibility for their part.”
Executive director Casey Hayward added, “Our mission is to unite students through song, and develop musicianship, self-confidence, and musical expression through developmentally appropriate vocal instruction.”
According to Walton, participating students range from first grade to seventh grade, but the choir is open to all first to eighth graders. Singers currently hail from the Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, West Tisbury, Tisbury, Chilmark, and Charter schools. It is a nonaudition chorus, and students can register on marthasvineyardchildrenschorus.com. Membership dues are $75 per semester, but scholarships are available.
“We do not turn anyone away due to inability to pay,” Walton said.
Lisa Varno, who founded MVCC, shared its origins: “When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 2015, I was surprised to find out that there wasn’t a community children’s chorus on an Island rich with world-renowned musicians and artists,” she said. “I have extensive choral conducting experience, and felt there was a gap that needed to be filled. After speaking with various music teachers and community members, my eagerness to develop this children’s chorus was met with an immense amount of support and enthusiasm. I saw this chorus as a way to unite children from across the Island through song, and I found many ways to collaborate with musicians and established choruses on the island.”
At the end of the hour, Walton had the kids file out singing “Happy,” a cheery tune, which I ended up humming all the way home.
The Martha’s Vineyard Children’s Choir Concert is on Saturday, May 18, at 5 pm in Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. Tickets are $10 per person, or $30 for a family of four. MVCC, a nonprofit organization, relies on charitable donations to continue making music with children. Tax-deductible donations can be made at marthasvineyardchildrenschorus.com, or via mail. For questions about the choir, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.