The Martin Luther School Concert Choir of Queens, New York, has had its share of the spotlight in the past couple of years: two performances at Citi Field during New York Mets baseball games; a TV appearance on Good Day New York; participation in the Bronx Zoo’s “Sing! For Wildlife” competition; an appearance at a New York Islanders hockey game; and numerous school and community concerts. Not bad for a school choir of only 18 singers, especially when you consider that a mere two years ago they seldom performed outside the school. How did they get so good? And so popular? Katie Chan Chee, their choir director.
From the moment she arrived four years ago, it was clear to Chan Chee that her students needed to be challenged, not only to be better singers but, more importantly, to believe in themselves. “Many of my kids come from tough situations, and they need something positive in their lives,” she says. They have found it in choir.
“Our wonderful administration has long valued the arts as necessary to developing well-rounded individuals, so every student has to be in chorus or band as well as art,” Chan Chee says. “Most of our kids are beginners, because they come from elementary and middle schools whose music programs have been cut,” she explains. “It’s a huge challenge to get them up to speed,” which makes their participation in the 2012 World Choir Games all the more impressive.
Two summers ago, Chan Chee saw the BBC TV series, The Choir, about a dedicated teacher who turns a group of disinterested kids into a top-notch choir so they can participate in the 2006 World Choir Games in China. “When I found out that the 2012 World Choir Games were going to be in the United States, I knew this was our one chance to go,” she says. Martin Luther High School Principal Elizabeth Crowe agreed it was a great idea, then told Chan Chee she better start fund-raising.
When Chan Chee told her concert choir students that she wanted to take them to the World Choir Games in Cincinnati, she vividly recalls their reaction: “They were so excited that you would have thought I was taking them to the moon.”
Seventeen-year-old Joanna Garcia thinks it will be a social studies lesson come to life: “The best part for me will be seeing all the different cultures coming together in one place,” she says. “I know it’s going to be amazing.”
Chan Chee knows the value of such an experience. As a music major at Valparaiso University in Indiana, she toured with the college choir every spring, traveling throughout the country on a bus. “We still talk about those choir tours, and the great times we had,” she says, laughing. She also knows firsthand the hard work it takes.
“The kids this year aren’t any more talented than the students I’ve had before, but they are so motivated,” she says. “They have just improved by leaps and bounds, because they know what a big opportunity this is for them.”
There’s also another reason behind their determination and dedication. They don’t want to disappoint Chan Chee. “They’ve had to take on more responsibility themselves for learning the music,” she says. That’s because Chan Chee had to deliver some difficult news last fall as they began to rehearse in earnest for the upcoming World Choir Games. She told them that she had breast cancer and had started chemotherapy treatments a couple of weeks before school started.
“It was very emotional for them, but I’ve been honest with them throughout the school year,” she says. “If I had to leave early for a treatment, they would rehearse even when I wasn’t there. It was such a beautiful and meaningful thing to me that they would do that.” Chan Chee created digital recordings of each part and posted them on the school website so they could learn their parts and practice at home. At school several students emerged as leaders when Chan Chee was absent. Seventeen-year-old Krystal Contreras, who had been in choir the longest, became the group’s de facto director.
“Mrs. Chan Chee has done so much for me and is helping me with my goal to become a musical therapist,” Contreras says. “We all wanted to do our best to make her happy and help her not to stress out.”
Sharif Jenkins, 17, also stepped up to the plate: “Krystal and I have some of the more experienced voices in the choir, so we felt we needed to help and would lead the choir in warm-ups at rehearsals.”
“God sent me the right kids at the right time,” Chan Chee says. She’s also convinced that her cancer has been a valuable life lesson for her students. “They saw somebody who was sick and didn’t feel good some days, but who kept going and who isn’t going to die.”
Chances are, thoughts of all the highs and lows of the last year will be on everyone’s mind when the Martin Luther School Concert Choir, who will perform in the Mixed Youth Choir category at the World Choir Games, takes the stage to sing one of its favorites, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Chan Chee’s own dreams for the kids are bound up in what they will take away from the Games. “I hope they will have an understanding of how we created something beautiful by working together,” she says. “I know they are in for an experience they will remember the rest of their lives.”