A five-year-old video has become the impetus for a unique opportunity for the Toano Middle School Choir to perform this summer at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
The choir will be one of just 25 from across North America to perform in a season finale collaboration for treble voices at Carnegie Hall under the direction of Francisco J. Nuñez, director of the world-renowned Young People's Chorus of New York.
The 23 choir members going on the trip will spend five days and four nights in New York City to prepare for and take part in the June 26 concert.
The opportunity came about through a 2012 YouTube video of a spring concert, which Kimberly Preiss, a member of the program development team at Distinguished Concerts International in New York, found online. She then reached out to Toano Middle School choir director Valerie Hart, saying she "was impressed by the musical quality and most of all, the enthusiasm of your students."
"I think the thing that makes our situation so unique is that they found us, and they came looking for us and asked us to become part of that performance even though we didn't officially audition for it," Hart said.
Hart initially didn't know what to make of the email, but after showing it to principal Tracey Jones and then replying to it, she was enthusiastically on board.
"I kind of was perusing the email and I got down to the bold print where it said, 'Carnegie Hall, you've been invited,' and I thought it was a joke," Hart said. "I printed it out, I took it to my principal, and I said, 'Look at this. Isn't it funny?'"
Still, Jones suggested to Hart that she call the organization anyway. After receiving assurances that it indeed was not a joke, Hart sent an updated video of the choir and received a formal invitation to perform and special permission to go from the Williamsburg-James City County School Board and administration.
Normally, out-of-state trips for middle school students are not allowed, but Hart said due to the timing of the event, being after the school year is over, along with the unsolicited selection and uniqueness of the trip, they were allowed to go.
With the choir at 170 members — made up of students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades — it wasn't feasible for every member to go, so Hart narrowed it down to seventh and eighth graders, with 37 students receiving invitations and 23 accepting.
"When we got the call, I literally started crying because I never thought in a million years I'd be able to perform at Carnegie Hall," said eighth-grade choir member Olivia Garrett. "It's life-changing. You don't know who's going to be there, and it's going to be a fun event."
As the five-day, four-night trip will cost $1,600 per student, Hart, her students and their parents have been working to secure donors to help offset the cost of the trip. Oleta Coach Lines provided the choir with a sizable discount on the bus it will use to go to and from New York City and is helping with sightseeing arrangements.
They have established a GoFundMe page, reached out to local businesses and are awaiting word on a pair of grant applications that would help defray the cost of the trip. Choir members have also been working to secure sponsorships.
"My only reservation with this whole thing was that I couldn't take them all," Hart said. "I wish there had been a way for me to take all of them because it truly is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Hart said even the students not going are pitching in with the fundraising and are positive about the event and what it means for the choir. She expressed her pride for the quality of the choirs she's been able to teach in her 13 years at Toano Middle School.
"It's just awesome being a part of a group of people that can sing," said eighth-grade choir member Lucie Griffith. "And hearing harmonies and making music together is really fun, especially the end result when you get to perform. It's such an adrenaline rush."
The preparation will be a challenge for the students, as they will be performing eight pieces either written or arranged by Nuñez, who is also conducting the event. Among the pieces they will have to learn are three in Spanish and another in Latin. The rest will be in English. Rehearsals will begin around the end of this month and continue up until their performance in June.
And though none of the students have performed on such a stage as Carnegie Hall, eighth-grade choir member Ben Hogan said he expects it to be a lot like performing at district competition.
"Districts was really awesome, and I hope Carnegie Hall is like districts 'cause at districts, everyone was really good, and when everyone sang really good, it made me feel pretty awesome." he said.
Seventh-grade choir member Dylan Norris likens singing to being an athlete.
"If you make a mistake you let your entire team down, and that's the same thing with choir," Norris said. "If you make a mistake with notes or dynamics or something, you let the entire choir down, so you have to perform in the same type of pressure."
Speaking of that pressure, seventh-grade choir member Samuel Lang, like most of the other choir members going on the trip, expects to have a touch of nerves when they perform on stage in June.
"It's going to be scary," Lang said. "I don't know how I'm going to react to that. I've seen pictures of Carnegie Hall, and it's amazing. I cannot picture myself just being up on that stage."
He, and the other 22 choir members heading to Carnegie Hall, will do just that. And Hart, who said she expects to be crying in joy watching her students perform, can't wait to have an up-close view of it.
"I am perfectly content with my back to an audience watching my kids' faces and watching the light bulbs come on," Hart said, "as they realize that they've just done something really, really special when that music comes together."
LaRoue can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.