Lily Sutton, a seventh grader at Carlos E. Haile Middle School, remembered the joys of being a part of the All County Choir in fifth grade.
She practiced every week with the choir and loved participating in the competition.
When she was entering middle school in sixth grade, she was disheartened to find out Haile Middle School didn’t offer a choir program.
But this year, Sutton is loving every day on the risers in the choir room at Haile Middle, singing with her classmates as part of the school’s new choir program.
“I’ve been singing since I was a little kid, and now I get to sing with this awesome group of people,” Sutton said.
Haile Middle eliminated the choir program in fall 2020 due to staffing cuts.
The program has returned this school year with high interest. The choir program consists of a choir for sixth grade students and another choir that combines seventh and eighth graders. This year, the program has 55 students, but teacher Janice Wagner hopes to see the program grow.
With 25 years of experience teaching choir, Wagner was asked to serve as the director of the school’s new choir program. She had stepped away from being a choir teacher and served predominantly as a math teacher for the past eight years.
“I was a little hesitant, but once I got into it, I realized how much I missed it,” Wagner said. “The kids are just awesome. They’re so enthusiastic, and they sing so well.”
Since the school hasn’t offered a choir program over the past three years, the students in the program have not had any vocal training unless they pursued it individually.
Starting the program from scratch has meant Wagner has to teach her students the basics before they can build on the program.
“The exciting part is that it’s like molding them and shaping them right from the beginning,” Wagner said. “There’s no bad habits.”
Wagner has been teaching her students to sight read, harmonize and work as a team to perform a song. She said learning how to harmonize often is a challenge for students because they are used to singing the melody of a song.
The choirs will be able to show off what they’ve learned during their first concert Dec. 7.
Wagner said she’s a little nervous about the concert because her students have yet to perform in front of anyone, but she’s excited to see them rise to the occasion.
In February, the choirs will perform in the Music Performance Assessments at Venice High School. They will sing two prepared songs for judges as well as sight read rhythm and vocal exercises.
Celia Baehr, an eighth grader, is thrilled to be a part of the program, but she’s sad she’ll only have one year with the choir until she moves onto high school.
Baehr said she felt judged in her other classes when she would hum or quietly sing to herself, but now she has the space to sing her heart out while surrounded by a group of likeminded students.
“It’s a great community, and we’re all learning and getting better since the start of the school year,” she said.
The seventh and eighth grade choir students spend their days practicing songs including “Seasons of Love” and “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Spencer Barros-Watts, a seventh grader, said he appreciates the different types of music they are performing. His favorite at the moment is “Jingle Bell Rock” because it’s a catchy, fast-paced song.
When her students need a break, Wagner knows just the song to sing: “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”
Every time a word that starts with a “b” is sung, her students either have to sit or stand. When the next “b” word comes, they have to do the opposite.
During a round of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” Sept. 29, Wagner’s seventh and eighth grade students were laughing as they tried to keep up with whether they were supposed to be sitting or standing as the lyrics continued.
“It’s getting them up and moving and getting them out of their seats,” Wagner said. “It just breaks up the hard work we do. The kids love it. They ask for it all the time.”
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.