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Bay Area High School Choirs Face Off in 'American Idol'-Style Sing-Off

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Choir practice at Gunn High School in Palo Alto. "It's a very inclusive program," says choir director Bill Liberatore. "I don't see who I can weed out. If you want to sing, we'll find the right group for you. Everybody is welcome on the stage." (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

UPDATE: Monte Vista is the winner of Local Vocals 2015.  Competition organizer Gail Eichenthal writes the Danville finalist was the “clear winner,” even though the other finalists had “strong showings.” Eichenthal suspects “From the Top” may post videos from all three high schools online, even if Monte Vista will be the only one to enjoy a nationally broadcast performance, on March 27, 2016.

The musical competition has been with us for a long, long time, but American Idol took the form to a whole new level, reaching highs – and lows – never seen before. The show’s phenomenal popularity has inspired a host of TV shows, movies and real-world competitions, including a high school choir sing-off going on right now in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Three choirs are in the run-off to win the chance to perform for a national audience in February. And as in American Idol, your vote could determine who wins.

Here’s one of the three finalists, the Monte Vista High School Chamber Singers of Danville, singing “Pange Lingua:”

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Not too shabby, right? Seventeen-year-old Tori Del Monte says the choir started working on the song at the beginning of the year.

“It was kind of an anthem, ringing in the back of our heads,” Del Monte said.

“Even on a bad day. Even when their diction is terrible. Their vowels are terrible. It’s still OK,” choir director Jodi Reed says while sitting opposite the choir, which is laughing along with her. “They’ll probably tell you I don’t complement them all that often. Or it’s back-handed complements. You know: it was almost perfect! But sometimes I sit at the piano and I’m just overcome by ‘I cannot believe I get to do this every single day.'”

Monte Vista was one of 28 Bay Area schools that sent in videos to compete in the Local Vocals High School Sing Off organized by KDFC, a local classical music radio station. President Bill Leuth came up with the idea.

“I know there’s a lot of talk about the demise of arts education,” Leuth says. “Yeah, it’s true and we all feel it. But there’s also some really good arts education that does go on, and this gives us a chance to say ‘Look at these choir directors, and what they’re doing with these kids.'” (It’s also true that Leuth sang in choir when he was in high school, and he remains a die-hard fan of the genre.)

The winner, to be announced Dec. 8,  gets to sing at San Jose State in February, a performance that will be nationally broadcast in March on “From the Top,” a showcase for young classical musicians across the country. 

Danville, 45 minutes east of San Francisco, turns out to be a hotbed of high school classical choir talent. Neighborhood rival San Ramon Valley High School, featured on KQED’s Spark not too long ago, also claimed a spot in the second round with “Ave Maris Stella.”

Monte Vista and San Ramon Valley have faced off before, in other competitions. What’s in the secret sauce? In large part, money, says San Ramon Valley Choir Director Ken Abrams.

“Well, it’s a public school in that, yes, we get money from the state,” he says. “But we have a lot of parents that contribute and help and volunteer, so in many ways, we feel like a private school some days.”

Yes, his salary is covered in the school budget, he goes on to explain, but many of the extras — everything from the accompanist to international travel for the six choirs at San Ramon Valley — are covered by a non-profit established expressly to support the choir program. After Proposition 13 gutted arts education funding across California, parents have done what they could to supplement extra-curricular programs. The wealthier the community, the fatter the coffers of the PTA and other booster organizations attached to public schools.

Abrams adds a choir is more than just a class, an academic resume booster for students intending to go on to college. These kids perform at local senior centers and community events, as well as at competitions.

The story is no different for the third Local Vocals finalist, Gunn High School, in Palo Alto, another wealthy neighborhood.

When asked about the way economic disparities play into high school arts, Leuth agreed hundreds of Bay Area schools are not represented. The competition is only in its first year, he noted, suggesting choir singers who don’t listen to KDFC may not have heard about the sing-off.

“Maybe it’s because our audience that listens to KDFC tends to be more upscale, because classical music still attracts that way,” Leuth says.

No professional choirs were allowed to participate, he added, or choirs that pull from multiple high schools. This competition, Leuth said, is meant to be a celebration of amateur effort at its finest. KDFC opted to keep the rules fairly loose to encourage more schools to participate, so contenders could apply with music that “leans” classical, even if it’s not, technically, classical.

The Gunn Concert Choir entered with music based on a poem, “I Am Not Yours,” by Sara Teasdale.

There are two rounds in this competition. In the first round, the public advised a panel of judges who got to pick the three finalists. In the second round, the public vote determines the winner.

KDFC is bracing for an onslaught of clicks. An earlier contest in Los Angeles two years ago garnered 26,000 votes. Here in the Bay Area, more than 200,000 votes were cast in the semi-finals alone.

The judges were looking for cohesive and well-balanced sounds, rhythms, and dictions — and a strong men’s section. That’s something that eludes many high school choir programs, although “Glee” has done a lot to make singing more appealing to boys. Even so, mere mention of the TV show causes Liberatore to flinch.

“Did you notice that on Glee they don’t rehearse. Ever? They talk about their feelings. And then all of a sudden they jump up and the music is ready and perfect. I can’t stand that show!” Liberatore says.

He jokes that he’d be happy with placing in the finals. Planning a concert in February should Gunn would require a lot of work. But 16-year-old Olivia Eck is keeping her fingers crossed. “It’s really fun performing, especially with a crowd that’s really engaging with us. I think that’s the most exciting part.”

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