Striking The Perfect Note

Director Heidi House rehearses her choir. | Photo: Courtesy Hank Tovar/Pictures That Move

It is dark, the still-night sky holding pretty stars. It is silent, only the lightest of wind in the palms, but it is the sort of scene that could be put to music. The kids drift, quiet as the breeze, through the open door.

It is 6:15 in the morning, and most of the performers in Company are already here, standing beneath the floodlights on the Ventura High School stage. Anyone who has ever been in high school knows 6:15 is not exactly a shining time. But with only an hour to practice before school, and, more important, only a week until the big holiday show, Company needs to shine right out of the gates.

Time is short and Heidi's fingers go right to the piano keys, after one admonition, for Heidi House knows high school kids.

"Remember, if you have gum in your mouth, ditch it. Here we go..."

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And then she plays and, gum or no, the sound that follows is achingly beautiful, and not just because the kids in Company -- drawn from four high schools in the Ventura Unified School District -- can truly sing, their young voices, altos and sopranos and tenors and basses, rising to the floodlights and pouring out over the empty seats. It is beautiful because there has always been beauty in voices raised together for beauty's sake, but it is also beautiful because, in so many schools, the stages are silent.

Vice Principal Wolters: "I care about these kids just as much as you do. And if I'm forced to choose between Mozart and reading and writing and long division, I choose long division." 



Gene Holland: "Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren't going to have anything to read or write about."

You might recognize this patch of dialogue. If you're a music lover, you most surely do. It's from "Mr. Holland's Opus," which, in my humble opinion, is one of the most moving movies ever made, and not just because it so beautifully portrays a man who, albeit slowly in the case of Richard Dreyfuss's Gene Holland, comes to live only to work for the benefit of others.

In the Ventura Unified School District, vice principal Wolters has not won. Thanks to the Ventura United Arts Education Master Plan there is money for the arts, although they've had to parcel it out wisely. In the case of choir, they created three school district-wide choirs, one for the elementary kids, one for the middle school kids and one for the high schoolers -- with Heidi House and a handful of others at their helms.

Photo: Courtesy Hank Tovar/Pictures That Move

Company, the kids standing somewhat bleary-eyed on stage now, is the district-wide high school program.

Heidi keeps her explanations short, because there is always a dozen other things to do.
"It's a show choir," she explains, "which means they sing and they dance when they perform."

You must audition for Company and it is an honor to be chosen, but it ensures no cake walk. Company meets four mornings a week, and Sundays, too. With their "Share the Joy" show coming up in exactly a week (December 14, 15, and 16), rehearsals have expanded. Next week they'll do their morning hour, and three hours each evening. A full schedule underlined by a single fact.

"Rehearsal," says Heidi, "is not optional."

Heidi has taught music in Ventura for thirty years and in the schools for fifteen. She has known some of these kids since they were in diapers. They are in diapers no more. Up on the stage the lights are on, but the auditorium seats are empty. This is the way it is most often. This is the work. This is the path to perfection. This is what the rest of us don't see.
Heidi does not treat them with kid gloves. The first song they practice, "A La Nanita Nana," has phrases in Spanish. One of the boys sings his own Spanglish. I don't hear it, but Heidi hears everything. What's that? The boy shrugs, and with a half smile allows he was improvising a little.

This does not go over well.

"Not at all," says Heidi, the words snapping off. "It's disrespectful if you think you can just add in words. It's disrespectful to the language and it's disrespectful to the music. Okay. Again. This is a lullaby. You have to sing it softly."

Heidi is quick and abrupt with critiques. She is equally quick to allow for her own faults, which, she allows, might be magnified a tad with show time only a week away.

"You know I freak out," she says to her singers a few minutes later, and I see a few heads bob. "I get a little wiggy if I don't see it now. You gotta' move. You have to smile." Heidi swings her own hips, and gives a stage-worthy showing of teeth. "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, it's the best time of the year..."

Again they step. Again they wiggle and shake and smile and sing. Again. Again. Again. Again. The astute reader will see this has repercussions beyond the stage.

"Remember that no matter how many times you sing it, you have to sing it with joy," Heidi says. "You have to tell the story. You have to mean it. It was good, but I want it better. Because I know you can."

You see, Heidi is quick to criticize but she is quicker still to leave criticism in her wake. Praise is different. It's drawn out. Like a long note.

Now and again she wanders over to me.

"Aren't they awesome? It's amazing the caliber of kids I have. They share their gift of passion with me."

There actually is a light in her eyes.

When Company's rehearsal ends, I talk with the kids. One of them, Seryozha La Porte, has known Heidi since kindergarten, which makes him something of a Johnny-come-lately.

When I tell Seryozha the songs were beautiful, he uncorks a winning stage smile.

"We've been practicing these songs since September," he says. "By the time the holidays come you don't play these songs at home or on the computer."

I ask Seryozha what his high school experience would be like without Company. He does not hesitate.

"It wouldn't be as full. I'd feel like something was missing."

As a journalist, I believe there is no such thing as a stupid question. Seryozha is now a high school senior. We have a senior in our own home. Sometimes he can't remember what you asked him ten seconds earlier.

Do you remember Heidi from kindergarten?

Seryozha smiles again.

"I do. We would be singing songs for fun. It would be to get you inspired for music. Which worked."

A few minutes later the middle school choir comes in. Officially known as Crescendo, the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders are a much smaller group. They, too, get right to work. They, too, are part of the upcoming show. For many of them it will be their first time on stage.
Heidi runs them through their paces. They bump into each other. They look to each other. They take steps when they shouldn't. Arms go one way, legs another. They remind me of newborn foals. They make me smile.

Heidi is more patient with the foals.

"You have to watch me," she says firmly but kindly. "Please do not fuss and fidget. Stand up straight. This," she holds her head high, "is a powerful performance. So much you're learning in a very short time. This will be a rocking performance."

There is absolutely no doubt in her voice.

The foals run through the routine, yes, again and again and again. They watch Heidi. They spread apart. They step forward together. They spin when they're supposed to spin, mostly in the same direction, Heidi urging them on.

When they finish their last run through, Heidi throws up her hands and claps.

"My God! Goosebumps. That was so good. So good. The show will be magic. I guarantee it. I will be sobbing."

You should see the smiles.

I have watched "Mr. Holland's Opus" more times than I care to tell you. If you have seen it just once, I don't have to tell you about the final scene. If you haven't seen it, I will tell you that the ending isn't entirely peaches and cream. Mr. Holland is forced to retire, his job the victim of budget cuts. As he leaves his classroom for the last time, final boxes in tow, he hears noise in the auditorium. This is where his former students, several hundred of them, have gathered to honor him. They are grown up now. Now the light is in their eyes.

There are speeches. One of Mr. Holland's former students smiles at him and says, "Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life."

Heidi House would never allow to being Mr. Holland. But she will say this: "There would be a huge void if we didn't have music in our schools. Music and the arts complete the soul."

You should see "Mr. Holland's Opus." Before that, you should see "Share the Joy." You should see "Share the Joy" for the performance which, I have no doubt, will be terrific. But you should also see it because in this world where so many things are going wrong, so many things are also going right (although you don't tend to hear about them as much).

And then the show will be over, because that's the way shows go. But always the show goes on. Soon enough the young faces will trade this stage for others.

And they will know what it takes to be ready.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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