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Monday, October 11, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ordinary Kids Make Extraordinary Sound -- Seattle Opera, Benaroya Hall Are Just Two Of The Venues That Have Seen Performances By The Girls And Boys Choirs, Who Placed Second Last Year In A Competition In Spain

Special To The Seattle Times

The members of the Columbia boys and girls concert choirs look like ordinary kids as they wait for rehearsal to begin in the basement of First Baptist Church of Kirkland: same T-shirts, same haircuts, same jeans as their peers.

Then they begin to sing, and the sound they produce may make your ears question your eyes.

Can a bunch of kids really be making sound so rich, so focused, so big?

Well, these kids can - although their sound is just one of the reasons why they get invited to perform with such groups as the Seattle Opera and why they placed second in their division last year at the prestigious Cantonigros International Music Festival in Spain, where U.S. choirs rarely win.

The members of the concert choirs are also trained musicians who perform regularly at venues ranging from Safeco Field and the Christmas ships to Benaroya Hall, and are putting finishing touches on a Christmas compact disc.

They are part of a larger organization known as Columbia Choirs, which involves about 200 singers and includes the Columbia Boys Choir and the Columbia Girls Choir, which both have several age and ability divisions.

There's also the Columbia Vocal Ensemble, composed mostly of high-school students, and, for female grads of the Vocal Ensemble, choir moms and members of the community, the Con Brio Women's Choir.

At the heart of this sizable enterprise is founder-conductor Steve Stevens, who's also choral director at Woodinville High School.

Youth choirs have been a major fixture of Stevens' life. As a youngster, he sang in the Texas Boys Choir from 1957 to 1960, then became a professional musician and returned to conduct it from 1971 to 1977. Moving to Seattle, he conducted the Northwest Boychoir from 1977 to 1984 and founded and conducted the Northwest Youthchoir from 1982 to 1984.

The next year, Stevens began the Columbia Boys Choir as an Eastside organization. All the other choirs followed by popular demand.

For example, whenever he gave presentations on the Boys Choir, so many girls said "we want to be in a choir, too," that in 1988 he started the Columbia Girls Choir. That choir, he says, "just wonderfully revolutionized the organization. It was just a lot of fun. It felt more like a family atmosphere."

Stevens thinks just about every child can and should sing.

Singing, he says, "is every bit as good exercise for the lungs and muscles as sports. We teach the children to breathe properly and to support the sound, which uses the same muscles as sit-ups.

"Singing is the most personal way to make music," Stevens adds. "Your instrument is you. We teach music as a landscape of emotion. Children learn at an early age to express themselves in a very healthy way. By singing, children learn to focus, they gain personal confidence, they learn to be part of a team."

Four of Stevens' five children have been in choir; the youngest two are now members. "The other one, it just wasn't his cup of tea," says Stevens. "He went into band."

Becky Boberg, vice president of the Columbia Choirs parent organization, remembers how impressed she was with choir members' confidence and presence when they performed at Benaroya Hall in April with Orchestra Seattle and the Seattle Chamber Singers, and the aplomb with which they mixed with the adult musicians backstage.

Matilda Henry says being in the boys concert choir has been "a great adventure" for her son, Austin, what with all the performances and tours, including in Spain last year and San Francisco last summer, and a show in Austria coming up next summer. Henry enrolled Austin at the suggestion of his teacher, who'd been a choir mom for five years.

"She said it was perfect for him, and she was right. He was interested in music. He also bonded right away with the other boys in the choir. They're usually kids that do well in school and have a little drive to do something a little different, not just always the same old sports."

And yes, it's a big commitment, says Henry, "but so is Boy Scouts, so is soccer."

Parents are pleased that Stevens, who conducts the more advanced groups, is exacting yet always fair.

"He has a gift for bringing the best out," Boberg says. "He expects a lot, and the kids rise to the occasion. He coaxes it out of them. He uses humor, and he tells a lot of stories from his days as a choir boy."

As for the singers, if you ask them why they like being in choir, they'll say things such as "It's a lot of fun," "I just like to sing," "You learn a lot," or "Mr. Stevens is really a good teacher."

Ask them about peak moments, and they'll generally cite performances. Seventh-grader Rachael Dorman, for example, says she will never forget how the concert choir was asked to sing "Homeward Bound" during the final performance at last summer's festival in San Francisco because "it touched the hearts of the judges so much."

"I think some of them cried," she says.

Barbara Brachtl can be reached at 425-453-2130 or by e-mail at bjbrachtl@cs.com ------------------------------- Want to join? Here's how

Auditions for boys and girls in kindergarten through high school who'd like to sing with the Columbia Boys Choir, Girls Choir or Vocal Ensemble will continue through mid-October.

The Boys All-Region Choir will give fourth- through eighth-graders the opportunity to sing with the Boys Concert Choir on a short-term basis. The next session will be from Nov. 9 to Dec. 2 culminating in a concert of holiday music. (The entry deadline is Nov. 1.)

The Con Brio Women's Choir, for women of college age and above, is seeking singers with enough music experience to be able to read it or learn it quickly. Rehearsals are held Monday evenings in Kirkland.

For more information, call Columbia Choirs at 425-486-1987 or visit the organization's Web site at www.columbiachoirs.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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