Soprano, alto, tenor, bass sing the praises of choir
(Soprano Emily Brotmann, alto Sebastianne Kent, tenor David Axelrod and bass Justin Fischer in Penelope Cruz’s choir room. Photo by Matthew Brown/The Journal News)
As four of the 40 voices in the White Plains High School Choir, they are accustomed to singing their own parts, but ask soprano Emily Brotmann, alto Sebastianne Kent, tenor David Axelrod and bass Justin Fischer how important the choir is in their lives and they’ll answer in unison.
Choir increases confidence, builds a team, charges the creative side of the brain, they say.
“I think there will always be a stigma about singing in the choir, especially at a public school,” says Brotmann, 17. “But the people who are in choir don’t really care. It’s just fun to come to.”
Seniors Kent, Brotmann and Fischer have been singing together for four years; junior Axelrod joined the choir last year.
The learning curve is the journey in a choir. They start haltingly, develop confidence, work toward performance.
(Watch here as they tackle a section of “For unto us a child is born” from Handel’s “Messiah,” which they started rehearsing a week earlier.)
Each time choir director Penelope Cruz hands out a new piece of sheet music, the sections — soprano, alto, tenor and bass — learn to turn dots on a page into melodies and harmonies. These four section leaders will help less-seasoned members of the choir, who will lean in to hear their notes, to become more confident, to get it right.
Brotmann says that after four years with Cruz — “the only teacher we’ve had every one of our four years” — seniors can pick out a sour note when they hear one. Rather than stopping and giving a disapproving glance at the perpetrator, though, these choir leaders have learned a diplomatic way of dealing with klinkers.
Says Kent: “If you’re nice about it and say ‘We were off here,’ instead of ‘You were off here,’ or if you ask Ms. Cruz to play the notes again, everybody will get it without you having to be mean.”
The White Plains choir has taken its talents far from North Street, to Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
“We love it to the point where we’ll sing Mozart in the shower as opposed to … I don’t know what’s on the radio these days,” Kent, 18, says with a laugh.
The new piece on this day is from Handel’s “Messiah,” a section called “For unto us a son is born, unto us a son is given.”
Axelrod likes being a link in a chain that goes back hundreds of years.
“It’s the most intense music thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “Last year, we sang the Mozart Requiem. These pieces are so intricate and complicated and there’s so much history behind them. Thousands, maybe millions of people have sung them before and it’s kind of cool to be part of that.”
You don’t get that with Lady Gaga, and you needn’t go back that far. The singers talked effusively about upperclassmen who went before them, teaching them the ropes before handing the choir over to them.
Brotmann, 17, rattles off names: “Yara Mohammed, Laura Pellegrini — she was amazing — Luke and Griffin Taylor. When they left, our whole choir was shocked. We were like ‘What are we going to do? We’re going to have no one. We’re going to be awful.’ They left and we did our first concert and they came back to see it and they were like ‘Wow! That was very impressive.’ Even they were wondering how we’d do because we lost a lot of seniors.”
Axelrod, 16, adds: “Possibly one of the greatest singers I’ve heard in my lifetime was Will Socolof. He sat next to me and he always helped me out. He was so good. He had lots of confidence, always knew what to sing and when to sing it.”
Tackling a piece like Handel’s could be daunting, Brotmann says, but Cruz eased them into it, working snippets of Handel into their warmups without the students realizing it.
“Then she said to take out this song and we were like ‘Oh, it’s right there,’” the senior says. “We all knew how to do it and it came together. Well, it’s coming together.’”
Being in a choir is about learning the notes, but it’s also about mixing the voices, about not overpowering, finding a balance.
“It’s about listening to the person next to you and making sure that you can hear them and yourself,” Kent says. “If that’s the case, you know you’re blending.”
At concerts, the students dress formally, the women in identical black full-length gowns, the men in tuxedo and black tie.
“It’s very, very fancy,” says Kent.
“I get very hot,” adds Brotmann, without missing a beat.
“Try wearing a tuxedo, Emily,” tenor Axelrod protests. “But it definitely gives us a sense of unity.”
“And professionalism,” Fischer adds.
Cruz’s classroom, right next to the auditorium, is a hive of activity at all hours.
“There are days when the four of us will have choir, then a meeting during lunch for area all-state mixed and a sectional, so we’ll be in here for a majority of our day,” Brotmann says.
Senior year without choir would be horrible, Kent says.
“Choir has been an outlet for me, all four years,” Brotmann says. “It’s better than a study hall. There are kids who don’t take art classes or music classes and they just go to study hall and go out to lunch. I’d rather be here doing something good with my voice and my friends than sitting in the cafeteria.”
Axelrod, the junior, agrees.
Cruz’s choir room, a hive of activity all day, is an oasis, the students say.
“In here, we get to sing, relax and do what we like to do,” Axelrod says. “There are no rivalries. There’s no ‘who’s the best singer?’ We’re all good singers, but better together. With that sense of unity we can become something bigger than ourselves.”
“It’s synergy,” Brotmann blurts out, adding proudly: “We just learned that in AP Environmental!”
Fischer, 17, says choir is a chance to recharge his batteries in a grueling academic schedule.
“It’s always a great relief, academically, to have a period where you can sing and — not relax — but use a different part of your mind,” he says. “I’m in AP Calc and AP Chem, two strenuous classes, and last year was crazy. And it’s good for your self-confidence if you’re shy like me. I never would have sung in public before. If you saw me freshman year, I was really shy and I didn’t like to sing out and I kept in a corner. But now I’ve really opened up and that carries over into other aspects of my social life. I’m more confident because of singing.”
“The pieces we sing outside of school are half-hour pieces,” she says. “To be able to learn a half-hour piece, with 20 pages of classical music in a few hours a week, once you can do that, you have a lot of confidence when it comes to other stuff. AP Stat is not so much of a big deal. It makes other things seem easier.”
It’s not easy to leave Cruz’s class, Brotmann says.
“The bell always interrupts us and the entire choir will be putting stuff away in our backpacks and sing the rest of the song and we’ll walk out of class and there’ll be people singing in the hallway.”
How far down the hall do they go before they stop singing?
“Never,” she says with a laugh, prompting Kent to add: “When I separate from the other choir people.”