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Big, Big Chorus : Yorba Linda Music Program Features 120 Student Voices

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Nora Van Corbach volunteered to organize a children’s chorus at Bryant Ranch Elementary School in Yorba Linda, she figured a few dozen kids would show up. But when Van Corbach walked into the room this fall and saw 120 children, she nearly turned around and walked out again.

“I walked in and they were, like, massive,” she says, grinning at the recollection.

What made it worse was that Van Corbach’s chorus partner, teacher Lisa Verville, was sick that day and Van Corbach had to face the group alone. But, to her amazement, the children were perfect angels, she recalls.

“You could hear a pin drop because they were so scared of getting kicked out,” she said. “With 120 kids, you’d think it would be hard,” added Van Corbach, who teaches a combination fifth- and sixth-grade class. “But they are so well behaved because they want to be in the chorus. It is the hottest program going right now.”

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Bryant Ranch has the only ongoing elementary school chorus in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, according to Linda Owen, music coordinator for the district. “One other school is getting a program started,” Owen said, “but it’s just for one performance only.”

And it isn’t half as big as the program at Bryant Ranch, according to Owen, who said that the recommended chorus size is about 60 students.

No matter what the size, choruses at the elementary level are becoming an endangered species because of budget cuts, according to Bonnie Drolet, principal at Bryant Ranch School. In years past, the district had itinerant chorus teachers, but last year even that program was dropped, Drolet says.

That’s when music lovers Van Corbach and Verville came to the school’s rescue. “I play the piano and Lisa sings,” Van Corbach says. “And so we got together and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a chorus and put on a program?’ ”

Last year, the two teachers volunteered to run the program after school on their own time. They were pleased when nearly 50 children took part. But this year, Van Corbach and Verville were astounded when the fledgling program more than doubled in size. Interest in the music group increased after last year’s chorus performed a December concert of holiday classics and a spring show of popular songs before an enthusiastic audience of parents and community residents.

“The winter holiday program was a smashing success last year,” Van Corbach says. “This place was packed. The kids really enjoyed it.”

Word spread among pupils at Bryant Ranch that chorus was “really fun,” says Stephanie Pinkham, whose sister, Kate, took part in last year’s program. Now Stephanie, 9, has joined her 11-year-old sister and is busy getting ready for the holiday performance at 6 p.m. next Thursday in the school’s multipurpose room.

The children will perform an hourlong program of 25 songs they have learned during weekly rehearsals under pianist Van Corbach and Verville, who serves as conductor. This year the two teachers have been joined by a third volunteer--Linda Schnabl a former chorus teacher, who is now a classroom instructor at Bryant Ranch.

“We weren’t able to teach the kids harmony,” says Van Corbach, “so, when Linda came and said, ‘Can I help out?’ we sent her 20 kids to work with on harmony.”

Each week during rehearsals, the children learn two or three new songs, says Verville, who explains that pupils are not allowed to look at music sheets during the performance, but must memorize the words to all 25 songs.

“People were amazed that they learned the music,” she says. “One teacher joked, ‘How can they memorize 25 songs when some don’t know their multiplication?’ ”

For some children, however, being in the chorus actually helps them become better pupils, Van Corbach points out.

“We have one boy who is working very hard in class to keep his grades up so he can remain in chorus,” she says. “This is keeping him motivated for school. It teaches the kids commitment, not to be quitters. It also gives them something good to do after school, instead of hanging out with the wrong kids. And teachers are always talking about cooperative learning. Well, this is the ultimate in cooperative learning.”

By participating in chorus, children also develop a real sense of belonging to the school, according to Verville. “For some kids, all they really have going for them is chorus,” she says. “And they may never have the opportunity to do this again because they may not have the voice or talent.”

But lack of talent will not keep a child out of the Bryant Ranch chorus, Van Corbach and Verville are quick to point out. “We have tryouts, but we let everybody in,” Van Corbach says. “We just ask our off-key people to sing softer. We don’t throw them out.”

Although the chorus now numbers 120 members, the women acknowledge that it could grow even bigger if next week’s holiday concert is a rousing success. Bryant Ranch has 950 pupils and chorus is open to the approximately 400 students who are in fourth through sixth grades.

What would happen if all 400 signed up?

“We’ve talked about that a little bit and haven’t come to any conclusions yet,” says Bonnie Drolet. “We could break them in half and have certain ones perform in the winter and others in the spring. Or we could go to auditions and make it competitive, which I really don’t want to do. Once they get to junior high and high school, everything is competitive. If we could get more teachers involved, we could possibly have all the kids involved.”

In the meantime, Drolet credits teachers Van Corbach, Verville and Schnabl with keeping music alive at Bryant Ranch School. “It’s a wonderful program,” Drolet says. “What they are doing is offering over 100 students just an incredible creative outlet. Without them there wouldn’t be a chorus program. They work without pay and put in lots of extra time and energy.”

Van Corbach, who has a painful cyst on her wrist, has even postponed surgery so that she can accompany the chorus on piano during Thursday’s holiday concert. “I won’t say it isn’t hard--it is,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it, but then I see the kids and it is. Kids just love singing. They put their all into it. There is nothing like hearing children sing. It sends chills through me and when they perform, there is not a dry eye in the house.”


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