Washington Middle School Choir Director Stephen Johnson looked out into the audience and waited ... until silence finally fell over the crowd Thursday morning at Bakersfield College's Simonsen Performing Arts Center.
It was from that well of perfect silence that the gentle chords of "Salangadou," a Creole lament, rang out, followed by the raised voices of dozens of young singers.
Bakersfield City School District held its second annual Junior High and Middle School Choir Standards Festival on Thursday — and it lasted all day.
Student participation in the district’s middle school choir classes has exploded in the past decade, growing 134 percent since 2008, according to the district.
Fortunately for those students interested in vocal instruction, the district has been able to hire four teachers — with locally controlled state funding — to provide instruction to close to 500 singers, said Michael Stone, the coordinator for the district's Visual and Performing Arts Department.
"These students are being taught by teachers at a high level of standard," Stone said. "I've been looking at the ratings so far today and they're almost all superior and excellent ratings."
The festival was created to benchmark, or assess, student progress in meeting district standards for performance in choir classes. It's an opportunity for the district’s music faculty and guest adjudicators to focus instruction with the goal of improving student achievement.
And boy, do they focus instruction.
"It's a great experience," said 12-year-old Kylee Perez, a seventh-grader at Curran Middle School who sings alto in the school's all-girl treble choir.
"You can learn from your mistakes," Kylee said. "And try again."
Not only do the students get the opportunity to visit a college campus, they can learn together with other singers and instructors from throughout the district. On Thursday, choirs performed three numbers, were assessed, and then received a clinic from one of our four expert adjudicators.
"That's probably the most valuable part of the festival experience," Stone said of the chance for 12-, 13- and 14-year-old vocalists to work with the adjudicators, who were experienced at the high school and college levels.
Jenepher Lapp, former director of choral music at East Bakersfield High School, coaxed students in Curran Middle School's Treble Choir to become more physically connected to the music.
"I want your legs to bend, your body really involved," Lapp told the students.
And when the students relaxed and fell back into old habits, Lapp let them know.
When the powerful Emerson Mixed Choir — featuring more than 30 students — took to the stage, guest adjudicator Nicola Bertoni, an assistant professor and choral instructor at Fullerton College, focused on pronunciation and breaking words down into syllables in vocal performance.
Some of the concepts appeared to be new to the students, but their enthusiasm and enjoyment was palpable — as if they instinctually understood the inherent value of the instruction and the immediacy of the feedback they were receiving.
The enthusiasm of the adjudicators was just as apparent.
"Beautiful work," Bertoni told the Emerson choir as they finished up their session together. "I wish I could work with you all day."