COSTA MESA — You have to hand it to Sonora Elementary. It really knows its music.
That much was obvious during Friday's rehearsal, where more than 40 fourth-graders practiced for their concert later that evening at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
Although the Smokey Robinson Band was to be the main attraction, Sonora Elementary was to be the warm-up band for the reception, somewhat of a daunting task, considering they just started learning the art of handbell in September.
Clutching handbells in the classroom, and waiting for the right moment, the choir practiced the songs they were to play Friday night — namely, "America," "Sugar Plum" and "Carol of the Bells."
Few mistakes were made. No notes were off-key. And none of the children could have done it without the help of their leader, music and band director Nick. St. Royal.
He's been teaching the students to ring the handbells since September.
"I'm a piano player, and I tell the kids that they are my giant piano," St. Royal said earlier in the day during rehearsal. "It's really been a blessing to see them work together and to see how focused they are. It's so great to see it all come together. In the end, this is a team effort. It has to be."
St. Royal is a virtual one-man show behind the great musical accomplishments that have been made at Sonora, one of the few elementary schools in the district that has nearly 100 students participating in band, said Councilwoman Katrina Foley.
Foley, who was elected Nov. 2 to the Newport-Mesa's Board of Education, said her son, Ben, learned the handbells last year as a fourth-grader and now is a member of the advanced band this year.
According to Foley, St. Royal is constantly writing grants to raise money so the school's music department can purchase new equipment, including the 40-odd handbells, which cost upward of $15,000.
He did it. The school bought them. And Sonora is now in its second year of teaching the art of handbell music, thanks to thousands of dollars raised by the Sonora PTA as well.
"He's just a great asset," said Foley. "He's the kind of teacher who goes above and beyond the 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. He goes out of his way to write grants."
The end result is a more diverse music program, and more students to take delight in learning how to read music and the importance of rhythm in the handbell choir.
And to see their faces, the students couldn't have been happier in class, whether it was Luis Pena, Katie Belmontes, Diana Castro or Aniyah Dillingham, among others.
Christine Anderson, Sonora's principal, said she couldn't have been prouder.
"This is a great gift to have with Christmas so close," she said.