Fresh faces dominate LCHS Choral Department after demographic shift

“A family in harmony will prosper in everything.”

The inspirational quote is but one slip of paper among a flurry of playbills and posters advertising past performances of the La Cañada High School Choral Department pinned to a bulletin board at the front of choral director Dr. Jeff Brookey’s classroom — but its message is key.

In his 11th year on campus, Brookey has worked to groom an ever-expanding group of choral students into high-level performers who can excel at competitions and maintain a full schedule of classes, practice sessions and performances on and off campus.

This year’s singers consist of some 300 students in grades 7 through 12 singing in six groups — 7/8 men’s and women’s ensembles, 9-12 men’s and women’s ensembles, the concert choir and chamber singers.

“My goal is to first give them the best choral education I can, not just singing individually, but learning how to sing in a group and work well in a group,” he said during a recent concert choir class. “I want them to find enjoyment working in a group because it’s something they can do for the rest of their lives.”

Building harmony among students is hard work, especially given the demographics of this year’s choral students. Brookey estimates he’s seen some 120 seniors graduate in the past two years. In their place are many more freshman and sophomore singers, some of whom are completely new to the program.

“The majority of the program consists of underclassmen and junior high students. They’re doing great, they’re just young,” said the choir director. “I have 20 new freshmen I know nothing about yet.”

And time is of the essence. Just five weeks into the new school year, the Choral Department’s show season begins Friday with a 7:30 p.m. on-campus Pops concert featuring 25 short performances of popular music selections from students in grades 9 through 12.

Among the evening’s performers are freshmen Esme Salzman and Soren Ryssdal, two students who auditioned for, and won, spots in Brookey’s 80-member concert choir class.

Ryssdal began working with “Dr. Brookey” as a seventh-grader in the 7/8 men’s ensemble, but his musical career goes way back — the 14-year-old has been a member of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus since the third grade.

“I always knew there was a really good choir department [at LCHS],” he said of the program. “Everyone enjoys it, because we get really close and everyone enjoys singing.”

Salzman, a 14-year-old who began singing at age 6, is also a member of the Children’s Chorus but is new to Brookey’s program.

“Since the school has such a cool choral department, I thought it’d be nice to be a part of it,” she said, admitting the group’s spring trip to France was just icing on the cake.

The absence of a strong senior majority (there are only about 30) may mean a slight dearth of natural role models, but Brookey said the demographic shift presents a new opportunity to rebuild the ranks.

“We lost a lot of great people, but we also have a lot of great people returning and some good new talent,” he said. “It’s refreshing—we’re building for a future.”

Ryssdal agrees.

“I think all the seniors leaving just led to more younger people joining,” he said. “Everyone’s going to become seniors eventually, so let’s start now.”

Twitter: @SaraCardine