By Jenny Neyman
If Renee Henderson, choir director at Kenai Central High School, had any doubts about Kyle Dougherty’s lung capacity when she submitted his audition recording for national honor choir, he amply dispelled them by his reaction when she told him he had been chosen to participate.
“You could hear him probably for — I’m serious — at least a block and a half,” Henderson said.
Dougherty, who just finished his sophomore year, and four other KCHS choir students will travel to Washington, D.C., on June 23 to participate in the Music Educators National Conference’s Music Education Week from June 24 to 28, including performances by a mixed choir, orchestra, concert band and jazz band made up of musicians and singers selected out of student auditions from around the country. The choir’s program includes “Until I Found The Lord,” by the honor choir’s director, Andre Thomas of Florida State University, who was in Kenai in October 2007 to conduct borough honor choir.
While KCHS routinely sends participants to the All-State and All-Northwest honor music festivals, only one other student in KCHS history, Synneva Hagen-Lillevik, has participated in a national honor choir. Henderson had two of her current students, Natalie Kurzendoerfer and Cole Chase-Cochrane, seniors next year, asked to send audition recordings to national honor choir, and she chose to enter three others whom she thought had a shot at it — Dougherty; Dante Diaz, a senior next year; and Faren Calix, a junior next year, without telling them she was doing so.
Given how challenging the audition process is for national honor choir — “like shooting a bird in the dark,” as Dougherty put it — acceptance came as a surprise to all five singers and Henderson.
“I didn’t want to open it because I knew it would say none of them made it,” Henderson said of an e-mail she got from MENC. “And I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to look at it sometime, might as well look now.’”
It was doubly a shock to the three who didn’t even know they had been entered. Dougherty, though, shouldn’t have been quite so surprised, since he had been planning on attending since middle school.
“He came in as an eighth-grader, I’d never seem him before,” Henderson said. “He came in with (Rosemary Bird, Kenai Middle School choir teacher) and he said to me, ‘I plan on making national honor choir when I’m in high school.’ And I said, ‘Well, that would be nice. I only know one other person in the history of Kenai Central to do that.’ It was a strange introduction to a student, which is why I remembered it.”
Henderson got word from MENC about nationals while she was chaperoning a KCHS group at the All-Northwest honor music festival earlier this year. She took the opportunity to torture the students a bit.
During a break in rehearsals, she told Dougherty she wanted to speak to him.
“I was very somber and serious and not happy. It cracks me up to tell it because it was really hard to stay straight-faced,” Henderson said. “He said, ‘Am I in trouble?’ I said, ‘Yeah, a little bit.’ And he got this very worried look on his face and followed me out and started getting more worried. He said, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done. I don’t think I’ve done anything.’”
Henderson led him out two sets of double doors and as far away from other people as she could, because, “I knew he would be very raucous,” she said.
“I stopped and I looked at him very seriously and I said, ‘Do you remember what you said to me when you came in with Mrs. Bird to tape for All-Northwest as an eighth-grader?’ And he’s looking at me like, ‘Are you insane?’ He couldn’t even focus on it, it was so out of context. Then he goes, ‘I can’t think of anything.’ Then he starts thinking and said, ‘That I wanted … that I … that I wanted to make All-Northwest?’ And I said, ‘No.’ ‘That I wanted to make na… I MADE NATIONALS!”
Dougherty said he remembers his early aspirations in music, but was surprised to have achieved them.
“When I was in sixth grade I just tried out choir for the easy grade. And I kind of started to like singing, and I got a chance to do a solo and after that I just really took to it,” he said. “… I just wanted to try out (for All-Northwest as an eighth-grader). I wanted to see how far I could take it. I made it and that trip was awesome. It made me want to not come home. Music’s been a real fun ride and it’s not even over yet.”
Calix had a similar reaction to the news. Even though her parents had let slip that Henderson had submitted her audition to nationals, she was snowed by the you’re-in-trouble routine Henderson and Bird used on her at All-Northwest.
“I was really scared and (a friend) was like, ‘What’d you do? Ooh, you’re in trouble.’ And Mrs. Bird looked really serious, too. I’d never seen her look that serious before. I was panicking,” Calix said.
Diaz’s response was much more quiet — at least to Henderson’s ears — but the news was the most out-of-the-blue for him. He’d auditioned for All-State and All-Northwest honor festivals and wasn’t selected for either, and didn’t know Henderson was submitting his audition recording for nationals.
Henderson texted him from All-Northwest.
“I had just woke up and I was looking at my phone and trying to focus. I thought she was texting the wrong person. I was like, ‘Wow.’ I said, ‘Really?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, you made it,’” Diaz said.
“I said, ‘All those years of trying so hard to make All-Northwest and All-State and you finally hit the big one,’” Henderson said. “I probably had barely hit ‘send’ and got back, ‘Wow.’ I texted him back, ‘Tell your mom and dad.’ Zap, ‘Already did.’ It was too cute.”
The students will visit national monuments and museums while in D.C. and are going a day early to squeeze in a trip to the Holocaust Museum, which wasn’t on the music festival tour itinerary. The students said they’re excited for the trip but it’s being shoehorned in around other engagements, such as football camp and visits to family. Kurzendoerfer will head to D.C. from a youth court trip and a swim from San Francisco to Alcatraz Island and back.
“June’s going to be like the busiest month,” Chase-Cochrane said. “It’ll be good to get home and sleep.”
That doesn’t mean they’re taking the trip lightly.
“It’s like once in a lifetime,” Kurzendoerfer said. “Not everybody can say, ‘Yeah, I went to D.C. and I sang in a national choir.’”
That being said, though, Kenai choir members are old hands at once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The national choir performance will be in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. That will be a thrill, but probably not quite as big as their experiences from the choir’s European tour.
“I think it won’t be as good as singing a Mass at the Vatican,” Henderson said.
“The Vatican was pretty cool,” Diaz said. “That’s got to be one of my all-time favorite places to sing. The shower and the Vatican, they’re about the same.”