PEPPERELL– This spring, students from the North Middlesex Regional High School advanced chamber choir will get a one-in-a-lifetime experience that most choral groups could only dream of: They will be performing in an hour-long concert in front of the United Nations. To help cover the costs of the trip to New York, the choral group will be hosting a variety of fundraisers, including a variety show on Jan. 31. Among other locations, McDonald’s and Bailey’s Bar and Grille in Townsend have also both offered their venues for additional fundraisers, said choral teacher Michelle Blake.
Blake received the call that her students had been selected for the prestigious concert a few days before the winter vacation.
“It kind of rejuvenated me for what I do every day,” said Blake.
To compound the exclusivity of the performance, the UN is slated to begin construction one week after the March 15 concert and will be closed to most of the public for the nest two years.
“Any other high school group that comes in the next two years, they’re not going to have the opportunity,” she said. “I had to grab it or say oh well.”
The application process for the performance was complicated. After calling about the opportunity and describing the school’s program and the various titles and rankings they had won in competition, Blake made a preliminary list and submitted a lengthy application.
“They were very pointed questions, not just a vague, ‘Why do you want to perform at the UN?’ but more like, ‘What is it that makes you different than any other high school group?'” said Blake. “I really had to think about it.”
The answer Blake came up with was this: “I’m not just a choir director, I’m a teacher.”
Meaning, she said, that with each piece of music she teaches her students, it wasn’t just about learning the lyrics or the melody. She teaches about the composer, the style of music and the country of origin. Some pieces she teaches in foreign languages.
“The fact that these are academic classes (as opposed to extracurricular activities) really gives our program validity,” she said.
Music, as opposed to other courses, combines several educational aspects, from math and science to history and language.
“That’s why I really get fired up about what I do. Everything the kids do is based on those subjects. A lot of subjects can’t say that but music does all of that,” said Blake.
By the end of the application, Blake had written an entire paper on the school’s choral program, and it paid off with an hour-long concert from 1 to 2 p.m.
“An hour of choral music is a lot of music. Band music can be six to 25 minutes per piece. Choral music is usually between two and six minutes a piece,” said Blake.
Because there is not enough room for all 55 of Blake’s students to be able to perform in the building, it was narrowed down to the 25 students in the advanced class. Each piece will be performed a capella or with a single percussion instrument; the cost to use a single extension cord for electronic instruments in the UN is $150.
The concert is just one agenda item on a trip that would be thrilling for any aspiring vocalist. During the trip to New York from March 14 to 17, the entire choral group will be performing at the WorldStrides Heritage Music Festival, which will include an award ceremony dinner cruise around Manhattan. The group will also be participating in a Broadway workshop, where they will get to see a show as well as meet with the directors, choreographers and actors. In the eight years that Blake has been teaching at the school, it is the first time the choral group will be participating in WorldStrides.
“This year, I wanted to spice it up a little bit,” she said. “I wanted to find out what I could do for them. These kids have jobs, lives, school. They participate in sports and community service projects. They do so much. I thought what can I do for them since they’re doing all of this?”
The group is using the trip as an opportunity to get feedback on their competition material. For the past six years, the chorus has been participating in the Massachusetts Instrumental and Choral Conductors Association’s annual music festival and competition.
“We can apply that feedback to MICCA and become a stronger, better program,” said Blake.
MICCA is judged by three national adjudicators in the field; the competition is based on national frameworks and standards. Participants may be awarded with a bronze, silver or gold awards.
“If you get bronze, that’s good. Silver is excellent. Then the gold level, which very few groups ever receive, is outstanding or superior. If you get silver it means you put in a lot of hard work. To get gold is nearly impossible,” said Blake.
For the last two years, the North Middlesex advanced women’s choir has received gold awards. They have also performed at Symphony Hall in Boston twice.
“It’s amazing to me. I’m so blown away,” said Blake. “We’re really becoming known as a program other people want to try to be like. We set a high bar and the kids meet it.”