A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

The UCLA Choral Outreach Program at Venice High School on Oct. 26, 2011

Teenagers listening to a teacher with utmost interest and intense concentration… teenagers following instructions with utter devotion, striving to be the best they can be… and ultimately, teenagers grinning as happily as if they were at a party, even though what they’ve been doing was, in fact, hard musical work. Elusive though such visions often are, they’re fully apparent in recent photos from Venice and Mira Costa high schools, depicting their students’ participation in the new UCLA Choral Outreach Program.

The instructor who so inspires them, smiling an infectious smile in every photo, is UCLA’s associate director of choral activities, Dr. Rebecca Lord, whose youthful, pixieish appearance belies her years of experience as a soprano soloist, actress, dancer, violinist and orchestral conductor. The outreach program, developed this year by Lord and Professor Donald Neuen, director of choral activities, sends Lord traveling to middle and high schools in the greater Los Angeles area, offering knowledge and training to enhance the quality of school choir performances, and striving to help high school choral directors make choral singing an exciting, enjoyable activity in which students want to take part.

The outreach program, which was launched in October, is designed to remedy the recent dearth in public school music education. The current depressed economy has caused funding for the arts to be cut, eliminating music programs altogether in many schools, and making it almost impossible for the remaining public-school music teachers to dedicate the time and energy needed to really bring forth the joy, excitement and passion of great music.

The aim of Lord and her associates is to work with teachers to build a stronger arts community, giving the students quality artistic experiences that the schools can no longer afford to provide. Through hands-on coaching sessions offered free of charge, they seek to help school choir directors make their ensembles shine, to motivate music students to prepare for a higher education and to instill in them a love of singing and music that will last a lifetime. So far 140 schools in and near the UCLA area have been contacted about the outreach program.

Upon request, at the choir director’s convenience, Lord visits a school and hears its choir. She validates the students’ and director’s good work. Then she helps them to enhance it by studying their previously rehearsed repertoire with them, bringing her own expertise to the proceedings. In her coaching sessions, or “clinics” as UCLA has dubbed them, Lord helps students to improve their vocal technique, phrasing and musicality, instructs them on how to properly stand and hold their scores, and assists them with their diction, in French, German and Italian as well as in English, so they can sing the classic choral repertoire in all its original languages.

Perhaps most importantly of all, she helps students to enhance their personal expression in song. Choral singing demands such concentration from a purely musical standpoint that emotional expression is easily lost, but with unique “acting” exercises, Lord encourages students to remember the meaning of the text they sing and convey that meaning to their audience in a compelling way. Under her guidance, students learn to infuse their singing with passion, all too rarely heard on a middle and high school level, making the music exciting not only for audiences but also for the young singers themselves.

In addition to coaching, the outreach program provides free concerts for middle and high school students, performed by the UCLA Choruses and held in UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall. These concerts are conceived to enhance middle and high schoolers’ understanding of choral singing and help to motivate them by exposing them to professional-quality performances.

“Every time my students visit the UCLA Choirs,” states public school choral director Heather Gold, who annually brings her students to UCLA to hear chorale rehearsals, “they come back more dedicated to excellence, excited to rehearse.”

The goal of the new outreach concerts is to bring such dedication and excitement to a greater number of students than ever before. The first concert took place on Dec. 2, with enormous success.

“I was able to feel the emotion of music in a way I never have before,” declares one student who attended the concert. “I was inspired.”

Other concerts will follow in 2012 on March 16 and June 8.

Over the past two months, Lord and her associates have worked with more than a dozen schools and hope to work with many more in the future. To do so, however, they will need increased financial support in the following months. The Choral Outreach Program is funded entirely by private donations and cannot continue beyond 2011 unless devotees of musical education continue to donate. Any financial assistance will be greatly appreciated by faculty and students alike. Donations can be made by visiting the UCLA Choral Activities website, www.uclachoralmusic.com, and clicking “Give.”

“We love working with the students,” Lord declares, “watching their faces catch on fire with excitement as they express themselves and grow as artists. We rejoice as they cheer each other on, building teamwork and achieving excellence.”

The teachers and students with whom Lord has worked thus far return her enthusiasm. “Dr. Lord is professional, knowledgeable, articulate, inspiring, and my students loved her,” states one teacher. “You have a real gem there!”

“Dr. Lord gave me a solid model for my musical persona,” declares a student, “the professional musician that I want to be.”

But perhaps the most encouraging quote of all is one from another student, simple in nature, but expressing a joy that sums up the motivation, devotion and ambition that the outreach program aims to arouse:

“I had fun singing! I hope Dr. Lord comes again soon!”

—Jordan Serchuk, Culture Spot LA

Contributing writer Jordan Serchuk recently graduated from UCLA’s music department.