If your idea of what warbling youngsters look or sound like is limited to the buttoned-up brats from the von Trapp Family Singers or the snooty airs of the Vienna Boys' Choir, you may want to reconsider. Youth choirs are growing up: programming sophisticated repertoire, providing much-needed opportunities for music education in a cash-strapped school system and training the next generation of performers and listeners.
And you may want to look around Portland, which boasts at least a half-dozen choirs—all non-school-affiliated—training nearly 1,000 kids ages 6 to 18 each year. That's a lot of choirs and a lot of kids; surprising, given that Portland is not known as a choral singing town.
So why are youth choirs a booming business in Portland's moderate-sized classical-music scene? Roberta Q. Jackson, founder and co-conductor of the Portland Symphonic Girlchoir, says that she and other groups were formed to "fill the gap from low funding of music education in Oregon schools." Mia Hall Savage, artistic director of the newish Pacific Youth Choir, agrees: "Portland is a tough community music-education-wise, and Oregon is an unchurched place."
With so many kids clamoring for chances to sing in groups that collaborate with the likes of the Oregon Symphony or be coached by members of the acclaimed vocal ensemble Chanticleer, it's natural that a little friendly competition among choirs, and choir parents, would emerge. Hall Savage says the kids' choirs in town—including the Portland Boychoir, Ovation! and the training choirs at Oregon Repertory Singers—enjoy a healthy rapport, though it's clear that Hall Savage's PYC has emerged as the group with the strongest chops and most serious ambitions. "We choose challenging repertoires—intense and risky," Savage says. "And our collaborations distinguish us, too."
But just as their adult counterparts have learned, recruiting a diverse pool of singing talent into the choral community is, in Portland at least, a challenge. "Our chorus is pretty representative of Portland as a whole," Jackson says. "Not ethnically diverse, but economically diverse. We are also not," she says definitively, "a rich kids' choir."
This leads to another reason why kids might be attracted to these choirs: the romance factor.
"Oh yeah, we have choir romances," Savage says, "but I ask them to leave those things at the door. I had this soprano who kept looking behind at her bass boyfriend in rehearsal and I said, 'Uh-uh, eyes on me.' She got the picture."