Most members of the new Hawaii Sacred Choir are young local kids, but they don English accents whenever they sing classic cathedral music, complete with rolling R’s.
It’s not only about the singing. Members have to learn diction, good posture and the meaning of Latin lyrics in songs centuries old, among a multitude of new disciplines.
"They love it — absolutely!" said the choirmaster, the Rev. Daniel J. Werning.
He and his wife, Terry, have been teaching them since September, when the Hawaii Sacred Choir was formed. The choir has six adults and 16 children — a rare blend of choral ages — and their intent was to have many more treble, or children’s, voices, he said.
"Anybody who listens to these voices soaring in the high notes, above anybody else, they usually say, ‘That sounded like angels singing,’" he said.
The choir will be introduced to the public in a concert at 3 p.m. next Saturday at the Co-Cathedral of St. Theresa, 712 N. School St. The concert is free but offerings will be accepted.
"It’s astounding how far they’ve come, since most of the children are third-, fourth- or fifth-graders," he said. "And they’re singing Latin and doing beautifully. … Only three children have had formal voice training. Some sang in their church or school choirs, but the others just enjoyed singing. They’re very fine musicians already." Most of the adults have choral experience.
The program will offer songs and Gregorian chants that will appeal to listeners unfamiliar with choral music, but half of the selections will be traditional Christmas songs.
Other performers will include organist Katherine Crosier, the Honolulu Handbell Ensemble and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Choir. Seven adults will be guest singers to supplement the choir.
Werning said, "Terry has been saying for the last 10 years that we should start a choir. She was very instrumental in forming it. It was her dream," he said, adding that his wife is a flautist and longtime music teacher in Hawaii.
Singers had to audition to join the choir and pay a membership fee of $390 (four scholarships were awarded). The amount was high, but without any sponsors it was necessary to cover startup costs, Daniel Werning said. The Wernings were able to convince participants that membership was worth the price, he said.
"We presented a vision and played a CD of what they could sound like with proper instruction. We believe strongly in what we’re doing and have the skills to bring it to pass," said Werning, who has a choral background and is also musical director of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.
"Our mission is to spread the beauty of this kind of singing that is not heard outside a few cathedrals in Europe or a few boy or children choirs in the U.S.," Werning said. "Our future goals are to become an international touring choir — something like the Vienna Boy Choir (but with girls and adults) — make commercial CDs and become a high-level choir that’s very well known. I think we’ll be able to start touring the neighbor islands in three years.
"The first time they heard themselves singing in the cathedral with the big reverberations, there were these big smiles. They were looking at each other and saying, ‘Wow! Did we do that?’ The children respond so beautifully. They are like blank pages and I like their enthusiasm."
"I give them homework, a CD with the entire repertoire to listen to daily, and they are given extra exercises to work on the difficult parts."
Terry Werning said they get diction exercises to improve their "choral English," which has a British, not American accent. The A’s are pronounced as short vowels, as in speaking Hawaiian, she added. They’re always reminded to "roll their R’s — I tell them to say, ‘R-r-ruffles have r-r-ridges.’ The rolling R’s come out crisply and have a better tone acoustically."
"We give them the history of the music and translation of the Latin words so they understand what they’re singing, and I tell them the story behind each song," she added.
Caleb Johnson, 13, of Niu Valley Intermediate, said, "At first it was hard but it became easier over time. I’m kinda nervous about the solo, and I still have to learn how to pronounce things. The hardest thing is learning the Latin and learning the high notes. Sometimes my voice cracks," Caleb said. His mother, Ariane Jackson, who sang in a Dutch choir years ago, said she is happy to sing with her son for the first time.
It’s also a family affair for Jill Sherman-Lewis and her kids: Johnmartin, 9, and twins Jamesmichael and Joyelaine, both 13.
"I’ve sung in many choirs. I like singing because it feels natural to me. I like the Christmas songs the best," Johnmartin said.
Jasmine Quilit, a sixth-grader at St. Theresa’s School, said, "I want to be a singer when I grow up. It’s opened up so much opportunity." Once she earned the bonus of leaving practice a few minutes early but said, "I don’t want to leave early. I want to be here."
Assistant choirmaster Mike Dupre, who has performed in a lot of community theater and is a voice teacher, also sings tenor in the group. He has realized he can’t wait for the next rehearsal to work with the kids, and their dedication has inspired him to go into music education instead of performing.
"They’re all shy about their voices but all outgoing in person. They’re all really hard on themselves. After we did the Hawaii Public Radio performance (last month), they were so critical — we didn’t do this right or that wasn’t right. I had to challenge them to think of what they did right," Dupre said.