Being the best at what you do takes time. It takes dedication. And it takes a leader who drives you to be your best.
That’s been the winning formula for the Southeast Bulloch High School Advanced Chorus, under the direction of Brent Whitaker. The chorus continued its streak of excellence as they participated in the Festival of Gold in April in San Francisco, California. As a result of achieving the highest ratings during the event’s adjudication, the chorus performed in the encore concert at the close of the event.
Only 10 choirs were accepted to the festival, and all must have Superior ratings. To get to the Festival of Gold, Whitaker said, you must have earned a Superior rating at WorldStrides. There are only four or five Festival of Gold events each year in the United States. Whitaker and his Advanced Chorus determined that San Francisco was the event venue for them.
Whitaker says the event is not considered a competition in the usual sense; there are no trophies awarded for placement. Each choir receives recognition, and only the top two choirs get to sing in the encore concert, so that made it, for SEB’s choir, a competition.
The choir sang for some of the choral world’s top adjudicators, including Dr. Anton Armstrong, former director of the St. Olaf’s Choir at St. Olaf College in Minnesota; and Dr. Craig Jessop, director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from 1999 to 2008, and the U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants from 1980 to 1987.
In addition, 14 SEB students were selected to participate in an honors choir that included members from each participating choir.
Whitaker says they were invited to be one of the two choirs to sing in the encore performance, but they had no idea that night what their scores were. But they knew that the final performance position, which was theirs, was reserved for the highest scoring choir. Once they returned home and received their score sheets, they found that their average score was 98.67, and they even received a perfect 100 from one of the judges.
“That was really exciting,” Whitaker said.
Forty-eight students traveled on that trip, which ran from April 4-9. The group performed “The Conversion of Saul,” by Randall Stroope; “Dawn,” by Eric William Barnum; and “Wade in the Water,” by Allen Koepke. Whitaker said the songs were selected for dramatic effect.
“It’s what we like to do,” he added. “If it’s not exciting, if it’s not wowing, if it’s not stunningly beautiful…even when we do something that’s typical, we try to find something that is a different take on it.”
The program opened with “The Conversion of Saul,” which Whitaker said is incredibly aggressive and powerful, and features stomping and chanting in Latin. It’s followed by “Dawn,” which he said is very “soothing, controlled and beautiful.” The program concluded with “Wade in the Water,” which he calls “fun and rhythmic, with a cool ending.”
“So for the audience, you don’t have time to get bored. You don’t have time to get into this lull. We try to keep our audiences out of that as much as we can,” he said.
The choral program at SEBHS hasn’t been an overnight success. The program started off with only 18 members a little more than a dozen years ago, and was part-time. They began competing by attending the Southern Star Music Festival, hosted by Six Flags. After a disappointing showing the first year, the group has since gotten a Superior rating at every Southern Star event they have attended.
“So we thought, maybe we are kind of competitive,” Whitaker said. “So we decided we’ll see what we can do with this. We just kept amping up our trips, bit by bit.”
Since then, they have competed multiple times, including Festival Disney, and they performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, with adjudication by Jo-Michael Scheibe, which Whitaker calls that trip’s high point.
“If his stamp is on it, he’s the man. He worked with us and kind of told us what our potential was,” he said of Scheibe.
The group once again received a Superior rating for their performance of “Nox Arumque,” by Eric Whitacre. Scheibe was amazed by the group's rendition of the piece.
“He had never heard a high school choir even attempt it, much less pull it off,” Whitaker said. Scheibe told them he was calling Eric Whitacre that night to let him know that a high school choir had just sung it, which Whitaker says they were all “super excited” about.
“They took a chance on us. We were nobody. When I took this program, it was incredibly small. So we were just building our reputation. It wasn’t even full-time. We built up our rep enough that they said we’ll give these guys a shot. We did our concert and apparently it was a big hit. People still talk about it. It was a fun, exciting time for us,” he said.
It was then the group realized that if “we can do this, we can do anything,” Whitaker said.
The chorus has since consistently received the highest ratings in each competition they have performed in, winning over much larger schools and programs.
This is due, Whitaker says, to the fact that he expects a lot and his students deliver.
“We have a ton of fun, but there is an absolute intolerance of not knowing your music, of not being prepared, or not being able to sight read. We really stay on top of them to keep them at that competitive edge,” he said.
Whitaker says his students in Advanced Chorus are highly motivated.
“They’re the kids that can recognize your passion in something and follow you to the ends of the Earth because they see it,” he said. “They love music and are talented, that goes without saying. But it’s also about their passion for it; they feel it.”
Whitaker believes that there is no real limit to what his students can do.
“We’re the ones imposing the limit. They know when they are being pushed, and they know when they are being coddled,” he said. “They rise to the challenge. It happens every time.”
Next on the agenda for the Advanced Chorus is the annual spring concert, which will be held at Southeast Bulloch High School Auditorium May 15-17, at 7 p.m. each evening. Ticket holders can get in at 6:15, while all others will be allowed in at 6:45 p.m.
The concert will feature competition material, as well as some soloists, trios and quartets, during the first half of the evening. The second half of the performance will feature pop music, including material from “The Greatest Showman.”
“It will be pretty theatric and pretty entertaining,” Whitaker said.