The sweetest sounds

The Children’s Choir of Chico sends seven young voices to perform at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall

The National Children’s Choir rehearses at Davies Hall, surrounded by the massive Ruffati organ.

The National Children’s Choir rehearses at Davies Hall, surrounded by the massive Ruffati organ.

Photo By Lizanne Sandbach Fowler

Have I got a fairy tale for you. It ends happily, with seven Chico children singing their hearts out, to thunderous standing ovations, at San Francisco’s famed Davies Symphony Hall.

Of course, magical tales need medieval villages, billy goats and haunting violin solos. So we begin long ago and far away, in a land of orchards, gypsies and majolica palaces on the great sandy plain between the Danube and Tisza rivers.

In 1882, a boy was born humbly in Kecskemét (from kecske, Hungarian for the goat I promised you), an architectural wonder known as the jewel box of Central Europe. Zoltán Kodály (pronounced ko-dye) started very young to sing, read music, play piano and strings and, before age 8, compose. He grew to be a doctor of linguistics and composer of note, though less known than Bach, Beethoven or his fellow countryman, Béla Bartêk.

In the early 20th century the Hungarian upper classes, with strong economic ties to Austria, tended to speak German and listen to Viennese classical music, rejecting the rich language and music of Hungary. In 1905, Kodály and Bartêk set out on the first of many expeditions to reclaim the heritage of their native Magyarország, collecting a repository of Magyar folk music that eventually grew to 100,000 regional songs.

While Magyar motifs often found their way into his compositions, it was in music education that Kodály’s use of the genre created his wealthiest legacy. The only instrument belonging to everyone is the human voice. Kodály believed singing was the best way to learn music, with the music of one’s culture the natural beginning; once mastered, the student progresses to folk music of other cultures and, finally, to art music.

Kodály and his followers created a brilliant amalgam of teaching methods from around the world, with the prize being musical literacy, including instrument playing, improvisation and composition. But it all begins with singing—incorporating rhythm, games, movement, solfa (variously solfege and solfeggio, or what most of us know as “do-re-mi"), hand-signs, written codes and, crucial for the young child, fun—with Kodály insisting that school music should be “not a torture but a joy for the pupil.”

And now our story turns to a soft-spoken music teacher with a real gift for working with children. Susan Tevis was 20 years into her career and dissatisfied with methods of teaching children to read music—an instrument was always required. Her path changed during a demonstration of the Kodály Method. She launched herself into the years-long process of becoming certified, often traveling to Kecskemét to study, and later teach, at the Kodály Institute.

Tevis arrived in Chico four years ago with her music professor husband Royce, sharing her specialty with elementary-school children and college music students. In 2001, she formed the Kodály-based Children’s Choir of Chico, offering age-appropriate levels of music instruction and performance.

From left, Chico singers Claudia Randall, Karli Brownfield and Katie Fowler finish rehearsing with National Children’s Choir director Elena Sharkova.

Photo By Lizanne Sandbach Fowler

The road to Davies Hall began last October, when Tevis announced to her students that three national choirs would be created by the Organization of American Kodály Educators for a public concert.

Audition CDs were submitted. Soon, seven excited kids got news: High-school freshman Lauren Thompson was selected for the National Concert Choir; sixth- and seventh-graders Graham Provost, Grace Jacquet and Emma Luther for the National Youth Choir; and for the National Children’s Choir, fifth-graders Karli Brownfield, Claudia Randall and (farewell, journalistic objectivity) Katie Fowler, my own 10-year-old daughter.

“You are very privilaeged musicians. You are singing for the queen! None of that I-have-not-had-my-breakfast-for-three-days sound!” Thus, the charismatic Russian-born and trained conductor Elena Sharkova begins rehearsals in San Francisco for the youngest singers.

While gentle humor seems to be a hallmark of educators here, I’m struck by the seriousness and focus of the children. These are no bratty, stage-mothered, limelight-craving Broadway wannabes. These kids, already accomplished musicians, understand the powerful magic unleashed when music is created in a group. During breaks, a polite throng forms around the grand piano, as fourth- and fifth-graders take turns showing off their stuff: the theme from Harry Potter, Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy,” a Chopin étude.

There are 500 educators here, from as far as Greenland, Japan, Australia, Mexico, Taiwan, and Hungary, and over 400 children from throughout the United States. Expectations are high; choirs begin rehearsing the first night, and children must arrive knowing the music. (Tevis has worked individually with her singers for six weeks, teaching them parts for each voice—no small feat, considering the lack of lyrical context for, say, Latin.) They will rehearse intensively for the next three days, with the supreme privilege Thursday evening of a private concert by the world-renowned Grammy-winning men’s choral group Chanticleer.

Kodály believed that, just as language is acquired developmentally by children, music can be acquired by anyone. Tone-deafness, therefore, is an invalid concept. And even the youngest child can grasp beginning notation, reminiscent of the binary system’s elegant simplicity: “ti” standing for the eighth-note, “ta” for the quarter-note. Preschoolers can learn to “decode” a written rhythm into clapping.

It’s cerebral multitasking, with children seeing, hearing, signing and singing music. If there are any doubts these children are forming marvelous new synaptic links, they’re dispelled with a warm-up exercise Sharkova conducts. Touching her head, she says “Head.” Touching her ears, she says “Ears.” Touching her shoulders, she says “Shoulders.” And so forth. Then the word is one beat behind the action. She touches her ears and says “Head.” Shoulders, “Ears.” Waist, “Shoulders.” Next, the word is two beats behind the action, then three beats. The children act in unison. The parents in the room give up, mistaking ankles for eyeballs. Go ahead, you try it.

It’s Saturday morning, concert day. Katie opens her eyes.

“I slept like a baboon, Mommy—very wildly.”

Chico’s National Youth Choir contingent (from left) Karli, Katie, Claudia, Emma Luther, Grace Jacquet, Graham Provost, Lauren Thompson and Children’s Choir of Chico director Susan Tevis rehearse at CSU Chico.

Photo By Lizanne Sandbach Fowler

You might be a little excited too if you were headed to Davies Hall, in the footsteps of musical luminaries. Completed in 1980 as the permanent home for the San Francisco Symphony, Davies shelters one of the largest instruments in North America—the 9,235-pipe Ruffatti Organ. Dress rehearsal begins at 8:00 a.m. As the children and their chaperones swarm in a column four blocks long down Van Ness, the hall’s curved glass and concrete face looms, suggesting to a delighted Claudia a giant piano keyboard.

Rehearsal goes well. But, you know, Murphy’s Law. Halfway through a reverent rendition of “I Am Goin’ Up a Yonder,” the little redhead from Pennsylvania standing next to Katie covers her mouth and starts to erupt—all over the riser. Parents whisk her away; a stage hand rushes in with towels. Miraculously, Sharkova continues without a missed beat. As Katie turns a little green, I fear a sympathy chunder mixed with concern for her new friend. She keeps singing.

Davies Hall has 2,743 seats, and most are filled on concert night. We find box seats immediately over the stage, with a sightline directly to our daughter and her friends and magnificent acoustics.

Joyous, and thrilling, following Kodály’s embrace of folk to classics, the youngest singers perform everything from Purcell (two pieces from Come Ye Sons of Art) to a rollicking merengue from the Dominican Republic, “El Pambiche Lento.” Our youngest, 8-year-old Will, loves Sharkova’s arrangement of “Va Kuznitse,” a giddy Russian folksong concerning, Sharkova tells us, burly blacksmiths, a young lady and a cockroach hole in her burdock-leaf dress.

The program leaps in complexity as the National Youth Choir, sixth- to eighth-graders directed by Canada’s dynamic Elaine Quilichini, performs sacred works in Latin, Bach in German and American gospel. The difficulty, discordance, and onomatopoeia of Miklos Kocsar’s “Cat and Dog” prove this choir’s artistry and precision.

The National Concert Choir, an imposing Edward Bolkovac conducting, concludes the program with four movements from Vivaldi’s Gloria (possibly written for a Venetian girls’ orphanage) and Kodály’s “Evening Song,” among others. Perfection. During “Black Sheep,” a traditional American lullaby, I can see below to the seats reserved for choir members. Katie is fast asleep.

Admittedly, there’s that pesky little bias called proud parenthood, but for many in the audience, this has been the concert of a lifetime. Mari Jacquet, Grace’s mom, found the evening “so spectacular it brought me to tears. … I think people around me were thinking ‘What a lunatic.’ Plus, how many people get the opportunity to perform in a venue like Davies Hall? Grace’s dad, who’s in a band, told her, ‘You made it to the big stage before I did.'”

You hear many sounds as a parent—as wondrous as an infant’s first giggle, as hilarious as a 4-year-old’s query, “Does Al Gore’s party have cupcakes?,” as profoundly irritating as the pre-adolescent sibling rant, “Get out of my room, you little weirdo!”

No sound is more beautiful than the sweet voice of a human child elevated in song. Around our house these days, thanks to Tevis, we’re more likely to hear a Benedictus or a Czech folk song than the theme from Sponge Bob Square Pants.

As Katie says, "Singing makes you happy." So, amazing children, may you all sing happily ever after.