Three hundred middle-schoolers in a hotel ballroom sounds like guaranteed pandemonium, but these kids aren’t acting up. They’re too busy singing — and listening to their director, Tesfa Wondemagegnehu (the kids call him Mr. Wan), rows and rows of anxious adolescent eyes glued to his round, bow-tied figure prowling the aisles that separate altos, tenors, basses and sopranos. “Go!” he exhorts them. “Crescendo! Big mama sound!”
“How many of you are tired?” he asks. “I’m hungry!” one girl says plaintively. Tough, lunch break is two hours away. Mr. Wan has them blow out — six counts, 12 counts, 20, 24. 30! “Bad posture!” he commands. They slump. “Bismo (Urban Dictionary says it means fabulous, amazing) posture!” They straighten up, chests out in exaggerated pride. And sing, 300 voices vibrating together.
My seventh-grade daughter Romina’s voice was among them (soprano, middle of the third row from the back, Middle School Mixed Chorus) at the All-State Music Conference in Tampa this month. It’s the kind of event you probably wouldn’t know about unless you’re a music student, parent or teacher. But it has been taking place for 73 years, and it currently brings 10,000 people from all over Florida for four days of rehearsals, concerts, workshops, and celebrations of learning and teaching music.
Getting here is not easy. My daughter auditioned just to be one of the students chosen from her school, Miami Arts Charter, to audition for All-State. Then she and hundreds of kids from across Miami-Dade gathered to take a music theory test and a sight-singing audition. After passing those, she had to learn six songs and was recorded singing from one (she didn’t know which until the morning of that second audition) and judged, anonymously, by a panel.
Multiply her experience by 3,100 kids around Florida — each of them feeling at the top of their game, their musical peers, until they get to All-State and find themselves one of thousands of equally (or more) talented kids in elementary, middle and high school bands and choirs. It’s simultaneously empowering and humbling.
After getting up pre-dawn to drive across the state, and steering Romina through crowds of chattering children and bleary parents to her first rehearsal at a Hilton in downtown Tampa, I meet Dawn and Brian Dougherty, whose 16-year-old son Seamus, lanky and lackadaisical, spent most of the five-hour drive from their home near Key Largo practicing his trumpet in the back seat. Seamus’ dad has been bringing him to All-State since eighth grade, and he has met a lot of music moms. “The parents are more competitive than the kids,” Dougherty says. “They’re asking me, ‘Who’s his tutor?’ ” None, as it turns out, which makes some other parents sputter.
I’ve spent years interviewing and reviewing pop stars and professional musicians, gotten used to being around artists who draw hysterical crowds, who are spectacularly talented and successful. Musical glory is a dream in our culture, pumped up by “American Idol,” “The Voice,” YouTube stardom. It’s what you’re supposed to want.
There’s none of that here. The conference’s motto is “Music for All!” The motivation is not to promote fame, or even, really, a professional career, but the idea that teaching, practicing and learning music is valuable. The rock stars are the Reading Chorus, high-schoolers who sing music on first sight like you’d read text out loud. Their Friday evening concert is packed with hundreds of people who practically hold their breath as they wait for these teenagers to show their skill. “I’m so scared,” my daughter whispers. “There is music here,” they sing in a repeating canon, waves of song lapping into the air, one after another after another. “There is music here there is music here there is music here.”
Whatever musical or celebrity fantasies these kids might have are subsumed, for these few days, in the discipline of what they gotta do. On the second morning of rehearsal, Mr. Wan works on “Hold Fast to Dreams,” which was composed for the St. Louis Children’s Choirs — created for this community of dedicated amateurs. The lyrics are a Langston Hughes poem on inspiration. “Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.”
It is the kind of thing, lyrically and musically, that I’ve always found unbearably sentimental and cliched. The lights are too bright. I’m surrounded by other moms, all of us with that frazzled look that comes after hours of driving and waiting and shepherding and alternating between reassuring your child and disappearing when she decides she doesn’t need you. I can’t see my daughter. I need more coffee.
Mr. Wan tells the kids to hold the note and focus their breath. And he tries to get them to identify with the song. “When I asked you to tell me about someone who told you that you were destined to fail, everyone in this room raised their hand,” he says. “Do you hear that bird taking off? That bird that’s been told it can’t fly? How are you going to show them that you are capable of soaring?”
And they sing, pouring themselves into the words. To me, there is something so earnest and simple in 300 teenagers putting aside their insecurity and bravado and Instagramming and Snapchatting and trying to sing their best together. I find myself tearing up. I wonder if the kids are moved as I am. Who knows? This is the age of uniformity. The girls all wear the same long hair and cross their arms over muted-color tops, the boys, lumpy or lean, are in polos or T-shirts. There are a few gestures at individuality; a boy in a stocking cap, a girl with red-dyed hair. Are they inspired? Made brave? Or are they rolling their internal eyes?
Multiple generations go through this process. Mr. Wan introduces the choir to the man who was his conductor when he went to Tennessee’s All-State. (States all over the country hold All-State music events.) Daisy Solis, one of the other MAC moms, brought her son for five years. “He was a child who couldn’t sit still,” she tells me. “Singing gave him focus.” Now she’s brought her daughter Bressia for the first time. I meet a woman from Weeki Wachee who has been coming for 34 years, first as a musician and now a “proud band mama” of a 16-year-old sax player.
My daughter’s teacher, Liana Salinas, 25, is a product of this generational chain. Her choir director at William Lehman Elementary in Kendall spotted her gift and sent her to the Miami Children’s Chorus, a half-century-old group. Salinas came up through MCC (where she now leads the Intermediate Chorus), went to All-State through high school and her three years at University of Miami. She graduated early and began teaching at MAC (where her high school conductor is the school’s co-founder and vocal department director.) She has been bringing students to All-State for five years.
Salinas’ dream was always to teach, rather than to perform.
“I fell in love with all of it,” she tells me. “I had great role model teachers. It sounds cheesy and people say it all the time, but music really is the universal language. I’ve just always felt so moved by it, and I’ve always wanted other people to feel what I felt through music. When people are inspired they want to share it and they find their medium to share it.”
She thinks her students find the same inspiration at All-State that she did.
“It’s being able to immediately connect with people you’ve never met and have so much in common with,” she says. “The level of ability you see here makes you realize, if they’re so great, then I must be great. So it’s affirmation.”
The two middle school choirs perform Saturday morning in the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, which is very glamorous (and has better acoustics) compared with the hotel ballrooms where they’ve performed before. I’ve never seen a more determined audience than the hundreds of parents here; one woman climbs over seats to get to a better spot. But we all settle in once the singing starts. I can barely see my daughter, the rows of faces blending into each other. But I am enormously proud, in a way I can’t explain. “There’s an energy you can almost touch,” a teary-eyed Edwige Subirats-Dejean, one of the other MAC mothers, says to me. Mr. Wan leads a round of applause for the teachers there, and the whole audience, up to the third balcony, rises to their feet.
The kids sing Mozart, a song in Swahili, “Dreams.” For the finale, they do the gospel “Freedom Train,” another uplifting song written for children’s choir, and their favorite in rehearsal. They sway, they stomp. “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around!” And for a few moments, we all feel like we’re part of the music.