Salesian High School senior and drum line member Brendan Lopez has a passion for music. When the opportunity came up as a sophomore to join the after-school Glee Choir at the Colburn School of Music in downtown Los Angeles, he decided to try it out, and he’s been coming weekly ever since.
“Just being here and being able to express myself through music and with these people, it’s just out of the ordinary,” said Lopez about the Colburn Glee Choir, directed by 24-year-old Leeav Sofer, a Colburn School teacher who holds a music performance degree with a focus in clarinet and voice from the Bob Cole Conservatory at Cal State Long Beach.
Started three years ago with generous support from the Dan Murphy Foundation as a way to provide Catholic school students from underserved communities with a free after-school activity, the Colburn Glee Choir has 12 students from two all-boys’ schools (Cathedral and Salesian) and two all-girls’ schools (Sacred Heart and Bishop Conaty-Our Lady of Loretto). For the first time this year, the choir is opening membership to Catholic high school students from throughout the archdiocese.
“We will definitely double our size this year,” said Sofer, in the midst of planning a two-semester schedule of performances, including fall and spring concerts at Colburn, performances at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on March 6 and 7, 2015, with L.A. Opera’s community presentation of Britten’s “Noah’s Flood,” as well as trips to choir competitions and theme park-sponsored music events.
Sofer also leads four Saturday workshops for Glee Choir participants and will be assisted this year by Erin Thompkins, choir director at St. Mary’s Academy in Inglewood.
“It’s an expected commitment to be there at every rehearsal and every practice,” said Sofer, noting that the Colburn School bus usually picks up the choristers at their respective schools. Parents pick up their children at the end of the twice-weekly rehearsals, taking place on Mondays (4:30-6:30 p.m.) and Thursdays (4-6 p.m.).
“We try to give the kids an environment of music and creativity [in addition to] discipline and focus and teamwork,” explained Sofer. “I try to treat them as professionally as I can, as a pre-professional ensemble that has to be acting and behaving like adults. When we go out to perform, especially off campus, we have to be as mature as possible.” At the same time, he notes, they manage to have “a lot of fun” in the process.
Like, when the choir attended its first choir competition in Santa Clarita last year, performing with seasoned, 50-member high school choirs in formal dress of long gowns for the girls and suits for the guys. Sofer’s nine-member choir dressed in “preppy” ensembles of black pants, white button down shirts, black neck ties and gray hoodies with a glee logo they designed themselves were a bit nervous as they faced the audience of 500 choristers and sang their first piece, a French madrigal, accompanied by Sofer on piano.
As is customary after a competition song is sung, silence ensued as the judges wrote their remarks and everyone waited. Sofer grabbed the microphone (“I felt a need to break the ice”) and announced to the audience, “What you see in front of you are kids from four high schools who have come together to make music with each other and to make music to share with you. I know that every single one of them, including myself, are so grateful and humbled to be in front of such amazing groups, and we hope that we can inspire and share just as you have inspired and shared with us, so enjoy this next song.”
The next song, “True Colors” by Grammy winner Cyndi Lauper, was a show stopper. “Everybody started singing along in the chorus, everybody was clapping,” said Sofer. “All of a sudden, it turned into a pop concert. I just saw all of the tension just dissolve.”
After the choir sang its last piece, a spiritual, “Down to the River to Pray” accompanied by the singers’ “body percussion” movements, the audience jumped to their feet in applause.
“When they walked out,” described Sofer, “other high school [choristers] came to these nine kids like they were celebrities [saying things like] ‘We loved your set, it was so much joy, I’ve never been so happy coming to these festivals before.’” The delighted Glee Choir members organized everybody for a giant “jump shot” picture.
“I’m really proud of my choir because they were the ones so excited, they instigated the picture, and they rediscovered the joy in some of the ensembles that had been so rigid and competitive because it was so new to them,” said Sofer.
He takes time in every rehearsal to teach music theory, and students visit the keyboard lab to practice playing piano. “I’m trying to equip them so they can actually be musicians, not just choir singers,” said Sofer, who is planning to concentrate on American folk-themed songs for fall and songs with love themes for spring.
“I make sure that we’re doing all styles, [classical], spirituals and hope-themed pop tunes,” said the Israeli-American choir director, who accompanies cantors in local synagogues and founded the L.A.-based Jewish culture revival band, “Mostly Kosher.”
“It’s amazing how people with different [types] of voices can come together and perform beautiful music,” said Joscelin Levano, 15, a new choir member from Bishop Conaty. “I really like this Glee Choir.”
“It has definitely helped me grow,” said Cathedral senior Kevin Flores, 17, who started attending as a sophomore. “‘True Colors’ helped me understand there’s a certain group of people who don’t have it the same way as I do, and maybe by my singing, I can help that group of people. I love helping people, and I love singing, so if I could sing to help people, that’s just a bonus, that’s just amazing for me.”
For information on joining the Colburn Glee Choir, contact Leeav Sofer:[email protected]; (714) 606-4818.