The North Star Boys' Choir, formed last fall for boys ages 9-14, earned silver and bronze medals at the recent World Choir Games in Cincinnati.
Members of the North Star Boys’ Choir, decked out in barbershop quartet-style outfits, visited an actual barber shop while in Cincinnati for the World Choir Games. The group competed in a pair of categories: children’s choir and, as you might have guessed, barbershop music.
Eight months into its existence, a 25-member boys' choir based in Corcoran was part of the Olympics of the choral world, the World Choir Games in Cincinnati.
When the 9- to 14-year-olds in the North Star Boys' Choir came home last week, they had silver and bronze medals, earned in the children's choir and barbershop music categories, respectively.
While other choirs had been preparing for the event for up to two years, North Star has only been around since November. But the Games came toward the end of a three-week tour around the eastern U.S. for the group, so "we had a lot of practice giving concerts and were in good form and ready for competition," said artistic director Francis Stockwell.
This was the first time the Games were held in the United States; in previous years they've been in locales from China to Austria. They drew over 15,000 people from more than 60 countries, according to choir materials.
North Star, which includes members from all over the metro area, was the only choir from Minnesota at the Games and one of only three from the United States in the champion division.
Opening chord is key
Stockwell said that for a choir to do well, "the first chord of any piece has to grab the attention of the listener."
In this case, the listeners were seven judges who were constantly banging tuning forks on the table. One wrong note puts you in danger, Stockwell said.
Northstar was one of 15 choirs in the children's category. In barbershop, the group competed against adults, some of whom had been singing together for decades. It was an unusual move for a boys' choir, with surprising results.
Stockwell said that, back in January, "I thought, let's try it."
"The boys were a big hit," he said. "We made a lot of friends and fans doing barbershop."
Stockwell, who previously worked with the Vienna Choir Boys and has studied in England, Germany and Austria, said he trains "the body, not the voice," which he compares to a string instrument.
"The strings vibrate and the instrument picks up the vibrations and transforms into sound," which he said relates to the way the vocal chords resonate throughout certain areas of the body.
When the North Star boys sing, "You won't see their chests move or gasp for air," he said. "They only breathe out. It creates a rich, effortless sound."
This "full-body breathing" method originated centuries ago in the Netherlands. It's a method that's rarely taught today, probably because it takes quite a bit of diligence to achieve it, he said.
North Star plans to keep it alive. In fact, the choir "was formed with the view of preserving the European method of singing."
The choir does a mix of sacred, classical, and spiritual and folk songs, sometimes in multiple languages.
A passion for singing
Vicky Duran is a founding parent of North Star, and her 13-year-old son, Marc, is a member. He has "always had a desire and love for singing," and he fell in love with choir from the start, she said.
Choir is a huge time commitment, but it's rewarding, she said: Even after Marc graduates from the choir, experiences like the Games and the singing technique "will carry him through the rest of his life."
Marc agreed, saying the tour "was super fun. It seemed surprisingly short." He added: "It was forever for my mom, but it was like a week for me."
Part of the fun was socializing with people from all over the globe. One of the most rewarding moments came during lunch one day when he taught a Chinese boy some English words. He had never heard of some of the countries that sent choirs. It was an eye-opening experience. "I learned that it's not a small world," he said.
As for the competition itself, Evan Christianson, 13, of Elk River, said: "Everyone was nervous at first, you could feel it. But after songs went by, it got easier. I think we did very well."
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.