The road to musical literacy is long, and for some at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Monday night, it may have begun with Laura Harrison's fingers.
Harrison, a music educator and classical and jazz vocalist, led a class of about 30 adults in a small, brightly lit rehearsal room. The subject of the class was reading sheet music, and the participants, who would perform alongside the Pacific Chorale in less than a week, began with a crash course in rhythm.
"You hear that?" Harrison asked, snapping her fingers loudly to a 4/4 beat. "This is what we call the pulse."
With that pulse established, the instructor led the class through exercises and sections of Morten Lauridsen's "Lux Aeterna," the centerpiece of the Pacific Chorale's annual Choral Festival.
Over the next hour, she touched on note lengths, Latin vowels and a few jokes that she imagined a mature audience would get: At one point, when a phrase called for a silent beat, she asked the singers to go into Milli Vanilli mode.
The class, which was scheduled to conclude Wednesday, sought to put the amateur singers on the same page — literally — as the regular chorale members. For the last five years, the Santa Ana-based group has invited people from across the country to join the chorale for a one-day performance, and while many participants are experienced singers, a few may just need an introduction to the form.
"Remember, you have 100 professional singers in the choir who will lead the performance," said artistic director John Alexander. "So you'll have a lot of professional help."
During the sixth Choral Festival, which will take place Sunday at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, those 100 chorale members will share the stage with about 300 guests. The program alternates organ solos by Jung-A Lee with a pair of vocal pieces: "Lux Aeterna" and the classic spiritual "This Little Light of Mine."
Those interested in singing in the Choral Festival don't need to audition or send recordings — all applicants are accepted until the list fills up. A month ago, the chorale provided iTunes links to the vocal pieces for guests to study (Harrison's sheet-music class is optional), and the first full rehearsal will take place Friday.
According to marketing director Ryan McSweeney, the participants this year have come from as far away as Texas and Illinois. Some are first-timers.
Hero Emolaga, the coordinator for the vocal group Prime Note Ensemble in West Covina, will join the festival with a group of colleagues.
His group had done a similar project with a choir in the past, he said, and he looked forward to the vocal blend this weekend.
"It's easy to sing with other groups if you know the songs," Emolaga said. "And the conductor will just advise you if they need more voice from the tenors or the sopranos or the one voice needs to tone down."
Others are festival veterans, including Karyn Rashoff, who has joined the past four years and took part in Monday's class to brush up on basics. Joan and Ted Machock, who live in Brea and sing in a church choir in La Habra, have entered the festival every year since 2008.
Joan, an alto, credited Alexander for pulling the disparate voices together.
"Let's face it, we're all amateurs," she said. "But he has a way of communicating with a huge group of people and creating this wonderful sound."
If You Go
What: Choral Festival
Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 5 p.m. Sunday
Cost: Sold out, but free stand-by tickets may be available
Information: (714) 556-2787 or http://www.pacificchorale.org