Two years ago, they were only singing in unison at Sunday Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in East Hollywood. Next month, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Children’s Choir — 35 singers in grades 2-8 — will travel to Cincinnati, to compete at the World Choir Games, also known as the “choir Olympics,” a biennial event that draws hundreds of groups from more than 40 countries. It will be the first competition for the IHM Children’s Choir, the only U.S. Catholic elementary school choir registered to compete, said choir director Cristopher Avendano who has overseen the development of the young ensemble.As a child, Avendano sang with the oldest boys’ choir in the Philippines, the Tiples de Santo Domingo. At Immaculate Heart of Mary, he saw potential in IHM’s talented young singers and believed they could achieve a high level if they worked hard. The Games’ U.S. venue made it the logical “first step” in the choir’s competitive journey.In Cincinnati, choirs will be judged by an international panel using a rigorous point system based on elements of performance such as fidelity to the written score, sound quality and interpretation. Based on the points they accrue, and whether they sing in the Open or Champions competitions, choirs are awarded gold, silver or bronze diplomas or medals.For a school whose enrollment dropped to 190 at the beginning of the year, the idea of fostering a world-class choir was daunting. However, with the encouragement of school administrator Connie McGhee, Father Rodel Balagtas (Immaculate Heart of Mary pastor) and school parents, Avendano and the children eagerly embarked upon an ambitious schedule of rehearsals, beginning with two hours twice a week, and increasing as the Games draw near.Since June 11, the choir has rehearsed every day “right up until we leave,” said Avendano. “There is a lot to do.”All choir members have learned to sing in three parts and different languages, and incorporate choreography and stage presence into their performances. They also must memorize their competition pieces, which include “Oh Shenandoah” in English, “J’entends le moulin” in French, “Hava Nagila” in Hebrew, and “Orde-e,” a Northern Philippines folk song in Tagalog. Avendano punctuates rehearsals with breaks and a sense of humor — important aspects of encouraging young singers.Parent committees oversee details such as microphones, pictures and promotional materials, costumes and travel logistics, and sometimes provide pizza and other treats.“I am very, very lucky,” said Avendano. “The parents are really supportive.”McGhee, Father Balagtas and the IHM community are active with the challenge of fundraising. The budget for going to Cincinnati is $50,000, including airfare and lodging for the choir and chaperones, and IHM is still short of that goal. Bake sales, concerts, and donations from supporters have helped — as has much-appreciated spiritual support. “Please pray for us,” says Avendano. Since this is the first time the IHM Children’s Choir will take the world stage, expectations are difficult to set. However, Avendano is hopeful.“We’re aiming to get a gold,” he says. “You have to aim for the moon; if you don’t get there, you’ll at least reach the stars.”The IHM choir leaves for Cincinnati on July 9 and competes on July 11. A send-off concert will be held June 29, 7:30 p.m. at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, 4950 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $10 for general admission and may be purchased by calling (323) 663-4611.Day-by-day news about the World Choir Games may be found at The IHM choir’s Facebook fan page is: Immaculate Heart of Mary Children’s Choir.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0629/ihmchoir/{/gallery}