Choral Programs in Prince William: Having a Lifelong Impact on Our Area’s Youth

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By Amy Falkofske

Famed Italian opera singer Lucian Pavarotti once said, “If children are not introduced to music at an early  age, I believe something fundamental is actually being taken from them.” Taking a glimpse into the youth choral programs in the Greater Prince William area, you can certainly see all the wonderful things the area’s youth gain from participating in music.

The Greater Manassas Children’s Choir

The Greater Manassas Children’s Choir got its start seven years ago when the Manassas Chorale and its Artistic Director, Becky Verner, decided they wanted to create a children’s choir. GMCC consists of two choirs, Younger Choir for grades 2-4 and Older Choir for grades 5-8. Verner directs the Older Choir.

“Our choirs are diverse in terms of our singers and come from a variety of school and home-school settings. Interested singers do a simple voice check before or after their first rehearsal by singing ‘Happy Birthday’ for us in high and low keys,” said Verner.

GMCC starts its year in September and gives its first concert in early December. Later in the month, the children share their music with residents in local assisted living facilities. They start learning new music in January and perform two spring concerts, one in May and one in June.

This year’s May concert took place on May 1 and was about seizing the day and being kind. This month, GMCC will perform with the Manassas Chorale at the Hylton Center in a concert titled “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” Visit manassaschorale.org for more information.

Manassas Park High School

“The MPHS Choir Program aims to provide a comprehensive choral music education to all interested singers. The ensembles offer challenging music education opportunities for all levels of singers,’ said Kristina Schenck, choral director at MPHS.

MPHS has two choirs that meet during the first semester, Bella Voce, a treble choir, and MP singers, a bass choir. Concert Choir, a mixed ensemble consisting of soprano, alto, treble, and bass singers, meets during the second semester and builds on the skills learned in the first semester. Chamber Singers is for singers
who sing more advanced repertoire. It meets both semesters.

Osbourn Park High School

Even though Osbourn Park is a center for Biotechnology, the school has a robust music program. Dominick Izzo is one of four music directors at the school and is the Director of Choral Music. There are five choirs at Osbourn Park, Bella Voce for treble voices and Fella Jackets for bass voices. Both of these choirs are for incoming freshmen. Older students are eligible to audition for one of three select ensembles, Cantus, an advanced treble choir, Concert Choir, an advanced mixed choir, and Madrigals, the school’s top chamber choir.

“We are continually recognized as a ‘Blue Ribbon School for Musical Excellence in Virginia’ based on our state performance assessment scores,” said Izzo.

Additionally, the Osbourn Park choral program performs regularly for football games, ceremonies, Christmas tree lightings, and other community events. Every year, they also team up with Brentsville and Patriot High Schools to put on a Messiah sing-a-long at the Hylton Center.

Marsteller Middle School

Phillip Keirstead has been one of two choral directors at Marsteller Middle School for 15 years. He co-teaches with Julie Phelan, who is in her 17th year at Marsteller. Prince William County Public Schools requires a performance-based music class in 6th and 7th grade. Keirstead and Phelan work on the same skills and music with their classes and combine them when preparing for concerts.

“In 7th grade, we separate the treble voices, generally the girls, from the bass voices, generally the boys. This allows us to directly address the individual needs of the adolescent voice, especially the changing male voice. In 8th grade, performing music becomes an elective, and we typically have about 2/3 continue from 7th into 8th grade. We keep the classes split in 8th as well,” said Keirstead.

Woodbridge Middle School

Khanner Hancock is the Choral Director at Woodbridge Middle School.

“The Woodbridge Middle School Choral Program is comprised of three tiers of musical development- beginning, intermediate and advanced. The mission for the program is for each student to be given the tools necessary to become proficient musicians while also building character and citizenship,” said Hancock.

Incredible Accomplishments

Each of these choral groups has an impressive list of musical accomplishments that makes them stand out from the crowd.

The choirs at Osbourn Park “consistently receive superior ratings at State Assessment,” said Izzo.

“In 2019, Madrigals was selected to sing at the Virginia Music Educators Conference, which is the equivalent of winning the state championship in sports. This was the first time the group was selected to perform at the conference since the school opened in 1975,” he said.

The choral program at Marsteller was transformed after Keirstead arrived on the scene.

“Most middle schools struggle to engage male students. Singing in choir is not always seen as the cool thing to do. My first year at Marsteller, there were 11 boys in 8th-grade choir. My second year, there were 55, and by my third, it had jumped to 75. Julie and I were creating a culture where singing wasn’t just a cool thing to do; it was THE thing to do at Marsteller,” he said.

Keirstead took the 8th-grade men’s choir with him to the Virginia Music Educators Association state conference in Norfolk in 2011 and gave a presentation on the steps he took to grow the choir program at Marsteller. The presentation was a resounding success, so he recreated it in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2014, Boston in 2016 and at the American Choral Directors Association regional conferences in Mobile, Alabama, in 2020.

Manassas Park High School choir

Manassas Park High School choir at 2022 yearly assessment.

The achievement Schenck is most proud of at MPHS is that the singing didn’t stop during the year of virtual learning.

“COVID, of course, made a big impact on teaching and learning, but instead of letting that stop us, we kept singing! My students sang online with me, and we presented four virtual concerts throughout the 20-21 school year,” she said.

“On Friday, March 18, we had the opportunity to attend our first District Choir Assessment since 2019. Concert Choir and Chamber Singers both competed and earned superior ratings on their performance from every judge!” said Schenck.

At Woodbridge Middle School, Hancock said she is most proud of how her students came out on the other side of virtual learning.

“As a proud alumnus and now director of the Woodbridge Middle School Choral Program, the greatest achievement has been the ability to adapt to the virtual environment for continued development of musicianship and ultimately, returning to the stage after nearly two years without being together in song. They took on the various adversities of life during the pandemic to encourage others with their  interpretation and understanding of each song. It makes my heart smile to witness my students get lost
in the music,” she said.

GMCC is, without a doubt, in the business of building musicians.

“Several of our singers have been selected for the top groups at their schools, have made All-State Choir and have decided to major in music. We are thrilled about the accomplishments of our ‘graduates!’” said Verner.

Having a Life-Long Impact

Music will forever be a part of the lives of these youth, and the life lessons they learned are invaluable.

“Every year, we graduate out many seniors; this year, we have 29 singers graduating. I know that choir has had an impact on them when I see these seniors going on to study music in college, singing in community choirs as adults, and coming to OP concerts to support the current singers. My goal is to make each student in the choral program and each student who hears us a lifelong lover and appreciator of music,” said Izzo.

“Though a handful of my students have gone on to become professional musicians and music educators, that is not my goal as a teacher. I teach citizenship, acceptance, character, empathy, all through rehearsing and performing music together. Just recently, a colleague mentioned they were at a wedding, and none of the groomsmen knew how to tie a tie except one, who tied all of them. His answer to, ‘How’d you learn how to do this?’ was, ‘Mr. Keirstead taught us all in 7th-grade chorus,’” said Keirstead.

Verner loves to see the respect between students and the friendships form. “We teach the singers to work as a musical team, to learn how to be good singers, and to be respectful of each other and their leaders… They have learned a lot musically but have increased confidence from singing in front of others. They have also made friends with each other and with their leaders,” said Verner.

And the acceptance within the WMC program is equally as important to Hancock as the music.

“Throughout the course of the last three years, I have seen the WMS Choral Program become a safe space for all despite their differing backgrounds, musical experiences or sexual identity. It is imperative that students feel safe not only physically but also emotionally, as it will ultimately affect their behavior and  engagements beyond the chorus class environment. Choral arts across the nation took a hit with the COVID-19 global pandemic redefining our general meaning of the word safe. However, this program has served as a place where students are free to be themselves and further discover who they are without judgment,” said Hancock.

Amy Falkofske is a freelance writer and screenwriter. She has a Master’s degree in Film-TV with a concentration in Script & Screenwriting from Regent University. She lives in Bristow with her husband, two boys and two Beagle dogs.

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