High note: GHS choir goes to Carnegie

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

“’No’ is not a choice,” Rae Jean Teeter told the Guilderland High School Concert Choir as it rehearsed on Friday, the first day of school. She had asked her students if they were ready to sing. Teeter, at right, makes a different hand motion for each note as the choir members follow her lead. They plan to perform at Carnegie Hall in March.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Choir leaders: Bass Leonard Bopp, left, and alto Alanna Wilson are excited about their choir’s March trip to midtown Manhattan, to perform at Carnegie Hall. “It’s a chance to represent our school and community on one of the best stages in the world; it’s something our community can take pride in,” said Bopp.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Serious singers: After being given two minutes to sight-read “Peace,” the Guilderland High School Concert Choir, a group chosen through auditions, sings the 1850s Shaker song at its first rehearsal on Friday. The choir practices for 45 minutes two or three times a week.

GUILDERLAND — The students, 80 strong, are standing, all eyes on their teacher, the first day back at Guilderland High School.

A boy wearing a baseball cap backwards, a girl with carefully braided hair, each are moving their arms as one while they sing — “Do, re, mi, fa — “

“Fa is the note that tends to be flat, so we don’t like that very much — thumbs down,” says their teacher, Rae Jean Teeter, her voice as vibrant as her motions as she points her thumb down.

What the concert choir is doing is called solfège.

“It’s assigning syllables to pitches,” explains Leonard Bopp, a junior who leads the bass section. The hand motions, he says, are “a visual way of doing solfège. It helps you think about scale degrees.” When your hand is up, your voice is up.

The kids, in general, seem up.

“Everyone’s very enthusiastic,” said Bopp. “It’s a community.”

“We’re all very close, like a family,” says Alanna Wilson, a senior who leads the altos.

Students audition to be in the concert choir and this year the enthusiasm is palpable.

The choir has been invited to perform at Carnegie Hall in March. Starting this week, fund-raising activities are underway to get them there.

This is the third time the Guilderland choir has been invited to perform at Carnegie Hall since winning gold medals at Heritage Festivals.

WorldStrides is a company that sponsors musical competitions all across the United States including those at Carnegie Hall. The Guilderland singers have enjoyed the competitions over the years, Teeter said. “They meet kids from other backgrounds,” she said, who have music in common.

“If you do well consistently, you get an invitation to the Festival of Gold,” she said.

“The cost is so prohibitive,” said Teeter of performing at Carnegie Hall. She calculates that paying for four days in New York City, the rental of the hall, and the conductor will come to $1,000 per student.

“We figure the third time’s the charm,” said Teeter. “Parents are willing to spearhead fund-raisers.” (See list below.) Teeter noted that the high school principal and the district’s music superintendent have approved of the trip.

“For a musician,” Teeter said, “Carnegie Hall represents the pinnacle of success.”

 “It’s a great opportunity,” said Wilson.

“We’re lucky to be able to do it. It’s something many musicians never get to do,” said Bopp. Asked if reaching the pinnacle at such a young age might be problematic, Bopp answered with alacrity: “I don’t think it’s too soon. It’s all about taking advantage of the opportunity.”

“When we’re old, we can say, ‘When we were 16, we sang at Carnegie Hall,’” agreed Wilson.

The Guilderland chorus will perform, with a professional orchestra, under the direction of Dr. André Thomas, a professor at Florida State University who is an expert in spirituals.

“He is inspiring…an icon of choral conductors,” said Teeter of Thomas.

Thomas will select a masterwork for the chorus to sing. “I’ll prepare them,” said Teeter. The students will rehearse in New York on Friday and Saturday, March 28 and 29, with a performance on Sunday evening, March 30, before returning home on Monday, March 31.

The performance is open to the public.

“Broaden your horizon”

“It’s something our community can be proud of,” said Teeter. She credited the district’s music teachers, from kindergarten through high school, for Guilderland’s excellent reputation in music.

“The curriculum treats music like a language,” said Teeter. “We saturate them with musical patterns; they develop a vocabulary.”

The Guilderland program, Teeter said, fosters musicianship with students becoming leaders because, early on, they can read music. The Music Learning Theory curriculum was developed by Dr. Edwin Gordon at Temple University.

Both Bopp and Wilson started with chorus in the fourth grade and both credit the school program for their progress as musicians.

Wilson comes from a musical family. Her father played the trumpet and her mother was a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall as well as dancing in Broadway shows like No, No Nanette and Sugar Babies.

Alanna Wilson dances, too — ballet, tap, and jazz.

She also plays the church organ as well as the piano. Wilson thinks she’ll study something practical in college, like business, although she thought about music education.

On Sundays, she plays the pipe organ at Christ the King Church in Albany. “It’s nerve-wracking; at any moment, you could press the wrong note,” she said. But she also enjoys the power of the sound. “It’s nice to hear it bouncing off the walls and vibrating the floor,” she said.

A religious person, Wilson said, “The messages in the songs are big. It helps me comprehend what’s going on with the music.”

Bopp said the only thing musical about his family is his father likes listening to jazz and they go to concerts together. Although he started out being most interested in jazz, Leonard Bopp said that now he’s moved toward classical.

Bopp plays the trumpet and plans to pursue that in college. He is looking at The Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, the University of Michigan, and Northwestern, and plans to sing in college, too.

Teeter, who is in her 26th year of teaching at Guilderland, said, “I see the kind of thinkers these students are. In an ensemble, you’re not just enjoying music. You’re adrenalin is pumping…You’re constantly listening and thinking.

“These kids are musicians. When things don’t go well, they can assess what went wrong. Maybe it was the phrasing, Maybe they didn’t breathe well. It’s problem solving with a creative bent. They are risk-takers.”

Wilson and Bopp talk easily about the musical concepts they learned as children.

On the importance of sight-reading, Bopp says, “The faster you read it, the faster you internalize it. Learning the notes and the rhythms is only step one. After that, you’re not reading, you’re channeling — you let it out through your voice or your instrument.”

“If you stand up, it helps you sing because it helps you breathe,” said Wilson. “It keeps your diaphragm open.”

Explaining a term their teacher had used in rehearsal, Bopp said, “To audiate is to hear the pitch in your mind before you let it out….I don’t remember a moment when I became conscious of doing that.”

“You don’t even think about it,” agreed Wilson.

Wilson and Bopp credit Teeter for pushing them beyond where they thought they could go.

“Mrs. Teeter encourages you to do all sorts of things out of your comfort zone, to take risks, to broaden your horizon,” said Wilson.

Bopp agreed. “Mrs. Teeter pushes us,” he said. “It can inspire you to try new things in all aspects of your life.”

“No loser”

Teeter’s own life was shaped and stretched by music.

She grew up in central Pennsylvania, the daughter of a truck driver and a public-school math teacher.

“My Dad was a wonderful bass,” she said.” I grew up listening to country western and opera. He had an affinity for Mario Lanza,” she said of the popular American tenor and movie star.

When Teeter was just 3, her grandparents observed her playing the piano by ear and bought her a Reader’s Digest collection of records, which she grew up on.

“My dad never finished high school. He wanted to make sure I had a chance,” said Teeter.

Her high school choral teacher, James Jordan, encouraged Teeter to pursue music as a career. She auditioned at The Eastman School of Music, and got in. She originally planned on being an opera singer and pursued a performance degree but a summer doing regional opera in Colorado made her rethink her career plans; she switched her major to music education and never looked back.

Her first teaching job was at Guilderland’s Farnsworth Middle School; after seven years, she moved to the high school.

“I love it,” said Teeter of teaching music. “It’s never the same…You’re always doing new pieces, stretching the performance envelope of kids. We just did ‘The Gloria,’ by Francis Poulenc…It’s an incredibly difficult piece of music with complicated rhythms and harmonies.”

Her students did not balk at the challenges or extra practices, said Teeter. “No matter what I give them, they’ve never let me down…They trust me,” she said.

Teeter went on, “I have high expectations. It comes from a love of the music. I know, when they look back, they’ll say, ‘Wow, that really changed me, grew me as I person.’

“I get jazzed watching them accomplish those goals,” Teeter said, concluding, “It’s like a sports team going to the sectional championship — only there’s no loser.”

For Wilson, music is uplifting. “It changes my mood a lot,” she said of going to choir rehearsals. “I might be having a bad day, but I come to this room and my whole mood changes.”

“Music goes places where words can’t,” said Bopp. “It brings out the depth of your spirit.”

Carnegie Choir Fund-Raising Calendar

The Guilderland High School Concert Choir will be in New York City from March 28 to 31, with a public performance at Carnegie Hall on the evening of Sunday, March 30.

These are the activities that have been planned to raise funds for the trip:

— Sept. 14: Car wash at Albany Beverage Center, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.;

— Oct. 10: Open house with information and a donation table, selling buttons and wristbands;

— Oct. 13: Pizza Gram Night, with a portion of profits going to the choir;

— Oct. 28: Pasta dinner at the Helderberg Reformed Church, from 5 to 8 p.m.;

— Nov. 15: Guilderland’s Got Talent, in the high school auditorium at 7 p.m.;

— Dec. 18: Alumni and Friends Benefit Concert in the high school auditorium at 7 p.m.; and

— Jan. 10 and 11: Dance Marathon, overnight in the high school’s east gym.

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