It was mere hours before their annual winter concert, but there seemed to be few, if any, jitters among San Marino High School’s three choir groups.
After months and months of preparation and practice, that was hardly a surprise.
“I believe we have a good group this year,” said Jacob Leftwich, a 15-year-old sophomore bass singer, on the night of the concert. “We have a very diverse group of personalities, which helps bring us together. We’re all very serious with what we do.”
Leftwich, who sings with both the Apollo and the Concert group, said the returning choir kids had “10 times” the confidence it had last year and has helped this year’s new singers acclimate to the group. The talent, he said, is outstanding.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “This is the day we get to show off to our parents and friends the hard work we’ve been doing all year.
“At the same time,” Leftwich added, chuckling, “it’s nerve-wracking because we don’t want to embarrass ourselves.”
Director Tammi Alderman, who has taught at SMHS for four years, called Friday’s concert “one of the best I’ve ever done as a teacher” and waxed poetic on the effort her students put into their craft. She said her goal as a choir teacher is to facilitate the best possible outlet for her students’ expression.
“They’re so stressed with their academic life that I want music to be a bit of a refuge for them,” she said.
This year’s choice of songs was derived from a forthcoming spring break trip to Europe, and thus included numerous songs of Czech and of European origin. American-composed songs made up the rest of the selection.
“We have a lot of Eastern European songs in our repertoire, which is really cool,” said Jeff Xu, a 17-year-old senior baritone singer. “When we go outside of the country, we also want to show everybody what American music there is.”
The trip, which is for students in Chamber and Concert choir, includes stops in Dresden, Germany; Prague, Czech Republic; Wrocław, Poland; and Kraków, Poland. Alderman said her students picked up on the songs and their languages well.
“It’s not my language, so I had to do the learning first,” she said. “These kids sing in so many languages that I think it’s second nature to them. For me, it’s a respect for the music and composition to do it in the original language.”
Learning songs in a foreign language proved to be a challenge, some of the students said, but one that was solved with practice.
“At first, it was hard because we had to learn the words and syllables and incorporate them with your notes,” said Annie Derrick, a 14-year-old freshman alto singer.
“It’s all about the consonants,” Leftwich added.
Xu said choir students put in a lot of extra work before the school year to stay prepared, speaking specifically about summer sectional groups that self-organize to meet and practice their summer assignments. Xu, a Chamber Choir student — the highest tier of the school’s three choirs — is this year’s student conductor. He said he admired the work of past student conductors.
“I thought that since I was so interested, I might as well try it,” he said. “It’s just fun. Being up there is totally different. It’s a different sort of rush.”
That rush didn’t seem to faze Xu at the rehearsal Friday, as he seamlessly took over for Alderman, at one point to practice conducting “All My Heart This Night Rejoices” by Z. Randall Stroope.
To watch Alderman lead the students in rehearsal Friday — in which she adeptly called out teenage behavior, casually thought out loud in German and effortlessly remembered each of her students’ names — it was clear she had earned the respect and trust from every student.
She attributed that more to experience than conscientious effort.
“I’ve been teaching since 2000,” she said. “Really, the kids here are just so respectful compared to other students I’ve taught in other places.”
Derrick said she’s easily transitioned from middle school to high school with the help of the friends she’s made in choir. The song choice this year, she said, also has proved to be a hit for the kids.
“Sometimes you don’t like a few of the songs, but I really like most of the ones we’re singing this year,” she admitted.
Given it was her first winter concert with the high school, Derrick admitted Friday she was a bit anxious about it. However, she kept her head up by focusing on what she had to do on stage and also in anticipation of performing at the church.
“This place, I’ve heard the acoustics are really nice,” she said. “It’s definitely a step up going from our choir room to here.”
Down the road, the choir kids will be busy. Some of them have been selected for state and national honor choirs with performances in February and March. The travel group also has their European tour coming up. There also are a few festivals coming up for some of the groups.
“I think when we do [sing at a festival], we’ll kill it,” Leftwich said.
As each of the three choir groups rotated to rehearse on Friday, the groups on break stuck together and milled around the church grounds, each one taking part in the pre-performance rituals that go along with any stage group.
“I think that’s a really big deal,” Xu said, “because it gets people pumped up and really focused.”
For the most part, that comprises ways of encouraging each other and dispelling nerves.
“We just tell each other, ‘We’ve been singing these pieces. We know these songs and no one else here does,’” Leftwich said. “Overall, it’s all about fun. Just do your best and if you make a mistake, you move on.”