Confidence is one of the qualities gained from performing.
Sue Fay Allen, founder and artistic director of ABC Bel Canto Choir, says watching young people gain confidence is the most rewarding result of her job.
“Watching them [the choristers] grow. There are kids who come in who are not as confident as the other singers, they become more confident, become better singers and make new friends,” she said.
Allen is a former teacher and music coordinator for the Amherst School District. She founded the choir in 1994, and it has emerged as one of Western New York’s outstanding choral ensembles. Bel Canto, which began with 25 singers, now includes more than 130 singers from 38 area schools who perform in three separate choirs, based on age. Presto showcases the talents of singers in grades three through six; Vivace is the senior treble choir for grades seven through 12; and Bravo is the mixed voice ensemble with changed male voices and high school girls.
“I think that a choir like this offers the opportunity for choristers to experience a different level of repertoire and often a different type of structure,” Allen said. “We have three conductors, including myself, for each choir; teachers; and professional accompanists.”
She believes that a sense of unity is created through music and performance.
“It’s like magic,” she said. “When everything really works and we’re in tune and we’ve got those dynamics going, we can all tell. ... They [the choristers and conductors] know that something wonderful has occurred.”
Over the years , Bel Canto has performed in many well-known venues all over Western New York.
“My favorite venues have wonderful acoustics,” Allen said. “They are beautiful spaces and it gives the kids, our choristers, an opportunity to experience our wonderful architectural gems.”
The Bel Canto choirs have also performed with the Amherst Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus.
The challenge of performance is to make sure kids feel prepared and confident. Allen believes that young people should have the experience of seeing great performances as a means of becoming better performers themselves. As a result of this belief, Allen developed the Community Night concept. Currently serving on the Education Committee of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Allen developed the Community Spotlight Program in 1996 because she wanted to expose children and their parents to the philharmonic. She began preconcert performances for school performing groups in the Mary Seaton Room at Kleinhans Music Hall. Youth groups and schools perform for a half hour before each philharmonic concert and then get to see the BPO concert free of charge. This program now features 25 youth and school groups per concert season.
Some young performers have a fear of performing in front of an audience. Allen stresses that well-prepared performers feel more comfortable and confident. She is a stickler for details. In preparation for each concert, Allen rehearses even such things as how to carry and hold your performance folder, how to enter and exit the stage area, and even where to sit prior to and during the concert. If students know exactly what to expect, they focus more on producing a beautiful sound.
Laura Biddle, assistant director and business manager for Bel Canto, gives her take on fear of performance.
“It’s hard because I have stage fright,” Biddle said. “At some point, you just have to take a deep breath and do it. That’s why singing in a group is nice because you are not alone.”
Biddle admits that her favorite part of performing is “the hour before when you are getting dressed and ready and getting excited.”
Biddle began her tenure with Bel Canto as a student, the only high school student performing with middle school students, at the time. After receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal performance and music education at Syracuse University, she joined the staff of Bel Canto. Now in her 10th year, Biddle says the most rewarding aspect of directing a youth choir is the level of music that is chosen and working with kids who really want to be there and being able to connect Bel Canto with the community.
Simoya Ghajar, a senior at Orchard Park High School and second-year Bravo member, heard about Bel Canto through a friend, longtime member Sarina Featherstone, who encouraged her to join.
Simoya enjoys the experience because “it’s not serious but everyone takes it seriously, it’s very put together.” She adds: “[I enjoy] making the music, the music is just phenomenal and just so fun.”
Bel Canto is known for performing songs in several different languages.
“I really like [singing in multiple languages] because it shows that there are all different cultures in the world,” Simoya said. “I like the different variety and styles between them. It’s just so great, like African songs have a lot of drums in them. Music and performance allow me to express myself because I don’t have any other way to just get frustrations out, to channel emotions, and it’s fun.”
Puneet Jacob, former chorister and current assistant conductor, says kids are often afraid to perform because of fear of failure.
“I think what kids have the biggest fear of [is] messing up and sticking out,” Jacob said. “I think the biggest thing about dealing with fear is having confidence and knowing that what you know is important.”
During a performance, Jacob stresses the importance of conveying “the main message of the music, and that the singers understand the message so that the audience can feel it, too.”
In addition to public concerts, Allen has always strived to give back to the community. Each year her choristers volunteer to perform holiday songs at area senior citizen residences.
In 2010, Bel Canto partnered with the Buffalo Niagara Youth Choir to produce a compact disc of children singing lullabies. “All Babies Cherished” is distributed free of charge to newborns’ families in Buffalo area hospitals. It is also available for purchase on Amazon.com, with proceeds supporting the project.
Bel Canto choirs have been selected to perform for area and state music conferences. They have performed in Hawaii, New Orleans and most recently Chicago. Allen says with humor, “What sets us apart from other performing groups is that Bel Canto kids have to be crazy enough and dedicated enough to give up and hour to an hour and half on a school night because they want to sing.”
The Presto Choir of Bel Canto will be performing from 12:30 to 1 p.m. Wednesday in the recital series at St. Paul’s Cathedral, 128 Pearl St. Admission is free. For more information about upcoming auditions or about the choir, visit www.abcbelcanto.org.
Eliza Lefebvre is a junior at Sweet Home High School.