When you walk into the small, south gym in Amherst Middle School, the sight is daunting and familiar. It’s familiar in the way the rope swings and the rock walls lay undisturbed on the walls and ceilings. It’s also familiar in how your shoes squeak against the dusty gym floor, and how your shoes leave wet spots from the never-melting snow outside.
However, when you pick your head up from the ground it is suddenly no longer the quiet, mundane gym from sixth grade. Now it is a sea of half-singing, half-screaming 12- to 14-year-olds packed into 125 beige chairs lined in four rows, with sweating adults running around trying to control us like a shepherd trying to control his flock. This was the scene at the All-County Junior High Chorus Festival. Held every year, it’s a celebration of Erie County’s best and brightest seventh- through ninth-grade singers. Simply put, it’s musical chaos.
The first thing that struck me about the event was the age range. It was a shocking diversity of kids between prepubescent boys singing girls’ parts, to freshman adolescents with poorly shaved, almost-beards. But it worked. The deep rumble of the basses paired perfectly with the high harmony of the tenors. But what made the age difference work even more was the drive of the younger singers. They weren’t your typical middle schoolers. They supplied the resolve, the work ethic and the love to make the songs possible. One young man, a seventh-grader at Sweet Home Middle School, said point blank, “I wanna be famous, so I gotta be here.”
That was Ashton Ford. He’s a small, skinny kid with more energy and charisma in his left thumb than I have in my entire body. At lunch, we were talking, and suddenly he decided to just break dance. In the middle of the cafeteria. Break dance. That’s the kind of dude he is, and that’s the kind of group All-County was. It was just about the fun of performing. And nobody knew performing like the conductor of the chorus, Lou Shafer.
Shafer received boisterous applause every time he walked out of the bathroom, finished playing the piano or even stopped talking to another teacher. That shows what kind of a guy he is. He was running up and down the stage, hair bouncing, clapping, yelling, jumping and, of course, singing. He has the voice of an opera singer, but the charisma of a politician. It was crazy. When he wanted the guys to sing like men instead of the boys we are he would point to his ring to remind us why boys sang in the first place. He even made fun of the girls a little bit to try get some laughs out of us. He was the real reason any of us could put on the show. He kept us honest, made sure we didn’t slack, but most importantly made us sing.
All of the preparation, all of the hard work, all of the yawning, complaining and back-aching led to one moment: the concert. There are three things a good chorus should have: talent, confidence and emotion. We had all three. The jubilance in “Kenya Melodies,” the feelings in “Who’s Garden Was This,” the energy of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” it was incredible. Shafer (and everybody at All-County) took kids of all different backgrounds, ages and skill levels and perfectly melded them.
Organized chaos is all about random movement of different parts that is only controlled in the slightest degree. When most people think about singing, random is not usually one of the most sought-after traits. But what if it is? As Shafer said, “Music is like water. If it’s stagnant, it gets scummy. But if its moving, it can create waves.”
Sam J. Schatmeyer is a freshman at Williamsville East High School.