Practice makes (pitch) perfect at holiday concert

Two students singing.

Students Mikolai and Patrick practice for the concert. Photo Credit: Anna Miller

December 16, 2014

Holiday lights twinkle overhead. People squirm into their seats. Random notes trill from a piano. Finally, a hush settles and stage lights come up, illuminating the green-robed performers at the front of the hall.

It’s showtime at Perkins’ annual holiday concert, and it is spectacular.

The music and magic that fills the room for the next 90 minutes sounds effortless. But in truth, the breath-taking performance is the culmination of months of work that begin long before the first snowflakes of the season touch the ground.

Setting the stage

Music teacher Arnie Harris has been teaching chorus at Perkins for decades. And yet, every year proves to be completely different. He doesn’t know what new students may want to try chorus when the school year begins, and he doesn’t recruit.

“It’s up to who walks in the door,” he says, though they are required to audition so he knows they can carry a tune.

This year’s group includes 17 singers, all from the Secondary Program, with ages ranging from 14-21. They’ve worked twice a week to master the music, listening and singing, over and over. The students learn the pieces by ear, as opposed to reading the musical notation on paper which takes significant practice and skill. Learning by listening is faster, says Harris, though he does braille some of the lyrics.

Eclectic selection

Harris’ goal is to make the annual event an un-traditional experience for concert-goers. The result is a performance that features music far from your typical holiday tunes. “I’m an eclectic kind of guy. I like to have the students experience all different kinds of music,” he says. His selections this time include a historical piece, a gospel song and some Gregorian chants.

The historical piece has local ties. “Watchman! Tell Us of the Night” was composed by Boston musician Lowell Mason. Harris was looking for a piece written in 1829, the year Perkins was founded, to honor Perkins’ 185th year. He found this piece at Boston University’s School of Theology.

But that’s not the only feature that makes this selection special to Harris. “Mason is the father of music education,” he says. “He got music into Boston public schools as a course.”

Harris also chose songs written in three different languages: Latin, Hebrew and Spanish. “I speak Spanish so I always include a Spanish song,” he says. Every selection takes some effort to master – none are too hard, nor too easy. The Gregorian chants, he adds, were more challenging than most.

“They took a while to learn because they’re tricky,” says Harris. The chants are sung in unison, which means everyone sings the same notes, but in different octaves for male and female voices.

It works beautifully, says soprano Bella, 15. “We’re all so musically in touch, and a lot of us have perfect pitch. I don’t, but a lot of the others do.”

Since he knows he can rely on their musical ability, Harris chooses one song each year in which he grants a solo to anyone who wants one, even if it’s just a line or two. This year, nine different soloists have a chance to steal the spotlight during an uplifting performance of “The Holly & the Ivy.” Additionally, two students this year are featured in spotlight solos: Bella is singing “Where Are You, Christmas?” while fellow student Anicia, 16, is singing an English carol.

Fine-tuning

While Bella likes singing solo before an audience, she’s less willing to reveal her shaky nerves to her fellow choral singers at dress rehearsal. She opts to forgo the stress, and skips her number.

“I do well under pressure,” she says.

Hers is the only deviation from the plan. The group starts at the beginning of the set list and runs through the songs in sequence. Thirteen male and four female voices twine together in seamless harmony through the eight songs, the music rising to the rafters and filling the mostly empty hall. The concert is two days away but the group performs as if this were the real thing.

A few of the Perkins staff and students are scattered around the hall, enjoying the pre-concert. One of them, Secondary student Chris, 19, smiles appreciatively. “Arnie has done a great job with them,” he says. “If I were to come back (to Perkins) after I graduate, it would be for this.”

Showtime

On the day of the concert the students gather early. They have learned and practiced and perfected their songs. They put on their robes and head into the hall, ready to sing as one. The audience will love them.

“This is a very strong group,” says Harris. They file out onto the stage, the lights dim, and the crowded hall falls silent. Then the 17 chorus members open their mouths and beautiful music fills the room, ushering in the holiday season. It is magical.

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