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Carnegie bound: Area singers get a 'chance of a lifetime'


To participate in the national choir, students are required to learn these six pieces of music. Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

To participate in the national choir, students are required to learn these six pieces of music. Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff Photo by: Luisa Porter


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Choral Director Regina Weeks conducts choir rehearsal Wednesday at Starkville High School. Seventeen Starkville High choral students will perform March 11 with the National Youth Choir in New York City’s Carnegie Hall, one of the world’s most prestigious concert venues. On the front row, from left, are Shavonne Graham, Rebecca Griffith and Angela White. Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff


Carnegie Hall’s stunning Isaac Stern Auditorium seats 2,804 people, on five levels. WBGH/Courtesy Photo



Jan Swoope





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She's tried to imagine it, but 15-year-old Charity Brand isn't quite sure how she is going to feel, standing there on the Carnegie Hall stage.  


"I just know it's going to be the chance of a lifetime," the Starkville High School sophomore said Wednesday about singing in one of the world's most prestigious venues. 


Charity is one of 17 Starkville High choral students traveling to New York City March 9-12 to perform with the National Youth Choir in the storied concert hall built by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1891. 


Starkville High Choral Director Regina Weeks remembers when she told her students the choir had been invited by Manhattan Concert Productions. It was soon after the fall semester had begun. 


"This hush came across the room," the longtime music educator recalled.  


Weeks knows of only one other school in Mississippi -- in Laurel -- that was accepted. About 200 young people from around the nation will form the mass choir, she said. They will be under the direction of Anton Armstrong, conductor of the nationally-known St. Olaf Choir of St. Olaf College in Minnesota. 


"There will be students from Florida to Alaska. It's a great opportunity for our students to meet others from literally one end of the country to the other," said Weeks, the 2010-2011 Mississippi Music Educator of the Year. 


To the choral director's great surprise, the choir was able to forego the traditional audition process of submitting two contrasting pieces on CD.  


"We were told we were known as a superior-rated competition choir; that was a real compliment to us," she said. 




Second time around 


This will actually be Weeks' second opportunity to watch her students on the Carnegie stage. Members of her 2007 choir also participated.  


"It's a good thing I was in the balcony, where nobody could see me, because I wept," she shared, recalling the moving performance. "Parents who were there did, too. It's a very emotional thing." 


The legend of Carnegie Hall impacts visitors from the moment they step in off the Manhattan sidewalk.  


In 2007, after arriving by shuttle at the back of the concert hall, the Starkville students were led down a long hallway lined on both sides with climate-controlled, glass-front cases containing original manuscript scores of major works by Beethoven, Bach, Brahams, Mozart and more, Weeks recounted.  


"They're in awe; they're speechless," she said. "It might be the first time you see high school students speechless."  


Those musical teens even managed to get in a little extra practice outside the venue on that trip. 


"They sang all the time," Weeks chuckled, mentioning several spontaneous mini-concerts that drew attention. "They got bored in the airport and started singing. They sang in the subway,too." 


While visiting the Statue of Liberty, the students stopped at a restaurant where they "sang for their supper," so to speak. They were offered free desserts in exchange for a tune. 




Preparation ramps up 


As the date for departure draws nearer, sophomore Akash Shaunak's anticipation heightens. 


"I'm just really excited, and really honored and nervous," the 15-year-old son of Raj and Nirdosh Shaunak said. 


Preparation is intensifying. The teens have to perfect six pieces of music they'll be expected to perform with the national choir. 


The singers who elected to make the trip do have several special rehearsals, but participation requires plenty of independent study, noted Weeks. 


"Since not everyone is going we can't spend a lot of class time taken away from other students' learning," she explained. "They have to make the promise to the director that it will all be learned. If it's not, they can be tested when they get to New York, and they can be cut -- and they know that." 


"I'm getting there," Akash said of the tenor parts he's committing to memory. "I'm actually very serious about it." 


The lessons to be learned, of course, are not all musical ones. 


Akash's mother, Nirdosh, observed, "This gives them confidence. It's also a learning process -- getting along with teachers, other students, seeing the country. I think it's very good. And what a great privilege and honor, to sing in Carnegie Hall." 


Her son has been singing in choirs since ninth grade. 


"This will also help him find out if singing is the career he wants to pursue," she added. 


Of course, a trip to New York wouldn't be complete without seeing the sights. The teens, plus five adults traveling with them, will tour some of the city's most well-known landmarks and hope to take in a Broadway show as well. 




Pancakes, anyone? 


A mass excursion to New York is an expensive undertaking. Students have had to step up their fundraising game. There were Krispy Kreme doughnuts and 1,200-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets to sell this past fall. And on Saturday, Jan. 21, they'll be serving pancake breakfasts at Applebee's on Highway 12 in Starkville to help build the coffers. 


"From 7:30-9:30 a.m. on Jan. 21 everyone can purchase a breakfast that includes three pancakes, two sausages and a beverage for $5, with funds going to benefit the choir," said Applebee's General Manager Denise Palmer. "We feel this is one way the restaurant can be a good community partner." 


Weeks acknowledged the hard work the students have put into the trip, describing the choir as the "cream of the crop." 


Like all music educators, she appreciates the opportunity afforded high school-age performers by companies like Manhattan Concert Productions. The chance, she said, "is extremely precious." 


"I just believe it's going to be amazing to be on the same stage as so many famous people who have performed there," said Charity, the daughter of Steven and Derese Brand. 


Akash added, "I think it's really worthwhile and that it will be a good life lesson. I can say, when I grow up, I had the opportunity and took it." 













Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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