Cedar Springs Public Schools, MI —
"Zinga, zinga, zinga, zoo."
"Higher ... now higher ... still higher," said vocal teacher Linda Tata.
The boys repeated the melodic phrase in higher and higher tones -- and then lower and lower -- until each reached the end of his range.
According to Tata, while other schools with "highly reputable" choir programs have had boys' choirs for a number of years, this is a first for Cedar Springs Middle School.
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When nearly 70 students signed up for this year's seventh-grade choir -- 23 boys and 46 girls -- it became apparent that two sections would be needed. Tata approached the school board for permission to separate the students by gender for her vocal music classes.
In middle school, when boys' voices are changing, having gender separation for music classes is especially beneficial, Tata said.
"I can give much more individual instruction to those boys with changing voices," she said. "It's just like how our band separates brass and woodwind instruments the first couple of years. The boys have a different 'instrument' than the girls, and in middle school, they are brand-new to a different voice than what they had growing up."
The boys get it.
"It (having all boys) helps me get my range," said seventh-grader Dominic Pellerito. "It is like having a new instrument with the voice changing. In a class with girls, it would be hard to practice that range."
Dominic said that he wouldn't be embarrassed to work on range with girls in the class; rather, it is simply that boys need to learn different techniques. "It is easier when she (teacher) is helping all of us at one time," he said.
Nothing Quiet in This Class
A separate boys' choir has other benefits as well.
"It's also nice to separate the boys and girls at this age because singing makes most people very vulnerable," Tata said. "When boys and girls are together in the choir classroom, they often feel self-conscious of their singing and will sing with very quiet voices."
"It is easier to learn and to sing with no girls," agreed seventh-grader Ayden Cratch. "We all get along, sing well together, and it is a lot of fun learning to blend our voices."
There is nothing quiet in this classroom. In fact, Tata sometimes takes a break from singing and has the boys run up and down the risers to expend some extra energy.
"Our boys' choir is full of energy," she said, "but we are working on how to use that energy to become great performers."
That particularly suits Nick Walukonis, who wants to pursue a career in music. He said he is excited to work on techniques that will help him as an actor in musical theater someday.
"We get to be ourselves and sing and have fun," Nick said. "I have been in choir since fourth grade and it is really exciting to be in a group with all boys. It is great to see how different all of our ranges are."
Free from Distraction
Pianist Chuck Detrich, who plays for vocal groups in both the middle and high school, agrees the gender separation in middle school helps keep the boys focused.
"At this age they can get really squirrelly, but this way they get so much more accomplished," Detrich said.
"Young ladies' voices don't change as much, so it is easier to teach them technique," he added. "Besides, without the girls here to distract them, the boys are making a lot more progress this year."
What Success Sounds Like
Tata said she is "very proud of the growth already made with our sound since September. I hope to see our success recognized so that we can keep recruiting boys."
Recruiting and keeping boys in choir programs is a goal for the district.
When Tata started teaching choir, there were five boys in the high school choir; the next year, six; last year,12; and this year, 17.
"The fact that we have 23 in one grade (seventh) is promising," she said. "In future years, if we retain even 15 boys per grade, that could give us 60 boys in high school choir.
"I'm excited for the direction of our choir program here at Cedar Springs."
Residents can hear the choirs in performance at their holiday concert, Tuesday, December 19 at 7 p.m. in the high school Auditorium.