In new group, singing is all about the boys
Palo Alto-based Silicon Valley Boychoir to hold its first auditions
One need only take a look at Michael Jackson or Josh Groban to realize that there is something particularly exciting about discovering and cultivating young, male vocal talent.
Now, Bay Area boys ages 6 through 12 have a new opportunity to pursue their own singing ambitions, thanks to a new Palo Alto boys' choir called the Silicon Valley Boychoir. The group will hold its first auditions in Palo Alto on Aug. 21 and 28, inviting even boys who have never taken a singing lesson to try out.
The choir is the brainchild of Palo Alto singer, teacher, choral director and composer Julia Simon. Simon holds degrees in conducting, singing and voice teaching and has taught and performed with children and adults. She also teaches private voice lessons and worked with the San Mateo-based Ragazzi Boys Chorus during its tours of Australia and New Zealand.
Simon said she wanted to start the Silicon Valley Boychoir to allow boys to sing with other boys in an environment they can feel comfortable in.
"Although there are opportunities for kids to sing, there are few opportunities for boys to sing with other boys," Simon said. "In many schools there is no choir until sixth grade, and by then the choir is mainly girls. The voice change is in sixth or seventh grade and boys drop out."
Unlike Ragazzi and other Bay Area choirs, the Silicon Valley Boychoir will be small; Simon said its size will ensure that each singer receives individualized attention and coaching. In addition to attending group rehearsals, boys will take a small-group musicianship class for closer instruction in music theory and choral-singing technique.
Members of the choir will also receive support as their voices get lower with age. That transition is often cause for anxiety and embarrassment in pre-adolescent boys, Simon said, noting that she has coached many young singers through the process.
"They will be in a safe environment getting toward the voice change," Simon said, in part because each boy will see his peers going through the same progression.
Simon added that pre-adolescent boys' voices have unique qualities that should be cultivated before their voices mature into adulthood.
"It doesn't take long for the pre-voice change to start. The vocal chords start to thicken and produce a different timbre, a sound unique to boys," she said. When the boys are 8 to 10 years old, they start producing "a special sound," she added. "This is the only time in their lives that they're going to have that."
Joining a choir at a young age doesn't only help children become better singers. Research from a 2009 study by the nonprofit organization Chorus America shows that children who sing in choirs are more focused and well-behaved in the classroom, possess better social skills and have higher levels of creativity than children who do not participate in choir. Simon stresses the importance of nurturing these qualities while children are still growing.
"You have a very limited time, but if you start in elementary school you can gain these skills," she said.
The Silicon Valley Boychoir will be divided into the Overture Choir for singers with basic skills and the Concert Choir for those with more experience. Rehearsals will be held after school at First Lutheran Church in Palo Alto, once a week with the whole group and once a week in the small-group musicianship class. Students will learn music theory and basics of chorus singing, as well as sight-singing, or the ability to read and sing from written music, which Simon believes is important to teach singers at a young age.
"A lot of kids get lost in the process," she said. "They have a lovely voice but they can't read music."
The choir will sing songs considered to be "choral standards," as well as folk tunes and rounds for practicing harmony. In the future, the group may experiment with pop songs.
Auditioners for the choir don't need to prepare songs. They'll be put into small groups, where they'll sing simple songs and play pitch-matching games so Simon can evaluate their vocal skills, enthusiasm and ability to follow directions, she said.
Although getting young men interested in singing can be a challenge, there is evidence that Americans may be warming up to male choruses as other parts of the world have for centuries. Thanks to such cultural phenomena as "Glee," "High School Musical" and the BBC reality show "The Choir," singing for boys is cool again.
"It's a cultural thing. In Wales, if you play soccer you also sing in a choir," Simon said. "In America, male singing is coming up and finding a resurgence."
What: Auditions for the new group Silicon Valley Boychoir
Where: First Lutheran Church, 600 Homer Ave., Palo Alto
Info: Call Julia Simon at 650-424-1242 or go to svboychoir.org .