Vocals gaining strength at Marina

It's zero period at Marina High School on a serene Tuesday morning and students are slowly making their way onto campus.

But on the north side of campus, the sound of voices harmonizing softly emanates from Room 322.

Vocal music director Eric Graham and his Viking Chamber Choir are practicing the song "Since Feeling Is First," by composer Joshua Chai, for an upcoming music festival.

This group is one of six choir classes with Graham at the helm. This couldn't have been the case seven years ago.

"This room wasn't here when I started," he said. "I was actually in a bungalow that wasn't a functioning choir room."

Pinned on the wall of his office is an old Huntington Beach Independent article from 2006, the year he started, with a picture of him and his first choir.

"I just had this tiny little keyboard and this hodgepodge group of kids," Graham said. "This was the Viking choir, but it was the only choir I had. It wasn't really advanced. It was anybody who wanted to sign up was in the Viking choir."

Fast forward to 2013. Graham is surrounded by more than 100 choir students enthusiastic about singing.

"I want students to take away a passion for music, a passion for choral music, specifically, but music in general," Graham said. "They are the supporters of music in our generation and what makes music classes continue."

In his seven years at Marina, Graham has built a choir program from the ground up.

"It doesn't matter if they go onto college and study music," he said. "A few of them will, but that's not why I'm doing this. They become the parents that teach their children that music is important. And then they enroll their kids in music early in school, or they make sure their school district has music at their elementary school because they know the value of it. So it's about teaching them the value of the arts, specifically in music."

And Graham students have come to embrace the lessons he's trying to teach.

"It's a program that gives you lots of opportunities," said Sam Ahern, a junior in the Viking Chamber Choir. "It's not just a choir program. It allows you to do so many other things. We do musicals and go to festivals. We just do a lot of things."

For Sam, 17, joining Graham's choir was a no-brainer because it was something he wanted to do, he said. But others were a little more hesitant to jump on board.

Matthew Arthur, 15, a sophomore at Marina, said his father told him to join because his older brother, Daniel, was in the choir.

"I told my dad that I just wanted to do band, but he told me to just try it," said Matthew , who is now in his second year with the Viking choir. "I auditioned and [Graham] told me I could join. So I tried it out and now I like this better than band."

Though Graham has an ecstatic bunch with his Viking Chamber Choir, it wasn't always the case.

Early on, he visited middle schools and went around the Marina campus asking students to consider joining his choir program.

"I tell the girls to bring their boyfriends, their future boyfriends or ex-boyfriend. I don't care," Graham said. "We always need guys. Guys are the hardest to convince. But I know once I get them in here, they'll like it, but the trick is to get through the door."

It was a rocky start for Graham and the program. In 2006, he was teaching the Viking choir, another vocal class that counselors dumped students in and a music appreciation class with the same group of kids, he said.

"It was the roughest kids that we had at Marina High School," he said. "It was mainly kids that were failing a lot of their classes and I was there to try and convince them that they needed to pass my music appreciation class so that they can get their performing arts credit."

Then in 2007, Graham asked the school to change the music appreciation class to another choir, giving him his Viking choir, a women's choir and the "dumping ground" class he called the "Y'all Come" choir, he said.

But as the years went by, the music program started to grow and the school began to have faith in Graham, giving him the classes he asked for, he said.

Graham currently has his Viking choir, an advanced all-girl Valkyrie Ensemble, a middle-tier Concert Choir, an entry-level Siren Chorus, a vocal jazz ensemble and an entry-level all-boys group called the Norseman Choir.

The Norseman is for those students who don't have enough experience to join his upper-tier groups and are shy when it comes to singing.

"I have to convince them that it's OK," Graham said. "I wish that we had a culture of acceptance for vocal music and for singing in choirs. I wish there wasn't a stigma for it and have to drag people here or manipulate people to come into this class."

Most of the students in this class were placed there by their counselor, but some have come to embrace it.

Senior Kyle Ward, 18, had an interest in joining the choir program since his freshman year but had put it off until his last year.

"Every year, [Graham] would always tell me to join choir and I would always come up with an excuse," Ward said. "Then I came back from a continuation school and I told myself, 'I always wanted to join choir. This is my last year and I'm going to do it.'"

Sophomore Justin Farrell, 16, said he joined Graham's class because he believed he was "somewhat vocally talented and wanted to experiment with it" and is planning to join the Norseman Choir next year.

"I used to think choir was a little wack," Justin said. "But now I think it's fun. I love this class. This is what I look forward to the most in my day."

Ultimately, Graham's choir program allows him to express and share his creativity with his students.

"It's different every single day. I could not be a history or science teacher and do the same lab or lesson five times a day," he said. "I need different music, a different piece and different interactions."


Twitter: @acocarpio

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