Kenai Central High School choir director Renee Henderson rehearses with students at KCHS earlier this week in preparation for the choir's trip to Europe. Students pictured from left are Dean Shinn, Sean McDonald, Amanda McGahan, Katie Foley, Brittany Kiser, Jenna Frederic and Hailey Strickon.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur in Paris. An afternoon excursion to the birthplace of Toulouse Latrec.
It sounds like an itinerary right out of a movie. More than 80 Alaskans most of them between the ages of 15 and 18 will be traipsing around Europe next week seeing sights and singing in some of the most amazing buildings the western world has to offer.
The Kenai Central High School choir, under the veteran leadership of Renee Henderson, will leave Sunday to see the world and be seen.
Henderson has shown the world to Kenai students and their parents for 32 years.
“This is the 13th tour. The first tour was in 1975, so it’s a long time, a lot of people,” Henderson said.
KCHS choir students rehearse for their trip to Europe. From left they are Dani Rehm, Kevin Krause, Ian Uponen, Kyle Gregg, Kristopher Giordiano, Alex Koch, Devin Boyle, Kelsie Nunez, Hilary Domke, Katie Ford, Kristi Louthan, Ashlyn Curry, Hanna Delaney and Kelly Salisbury.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
The students are looking forward to new experiences and cultural encounters. Kristopher Giordano, a senior, is going on tour for the first time and is hoping to gain, “An understanding of different cultures. I’ve only been in, like two states, so I think this’ll be an experience.”
Devin Boyle, a junior, is looking forward to his second choir tour.
“In Europe, there’s so many beautiful things in such a small amount of space, over in Europe. I just want to absorb as much of what they’ve created over there over the centuries as possible,” Boyle said.
Brady Perkins, left, and Dean Shinn, both tenors, rehearse earlier this week for the choir's trip to Europe.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
Almost all the students interviewed are a little nervous about the experience. Breanna Blanning is a sophomore. This will be her first tour. Not only will she be singing with the choir, but also she’ll be performing as a dancer.
“I don’t really know, and that’s why I’m kind of nervous, because I don’t really know what to expect. I mean, I know it will be fun, and I’ll get something out of it. I’m just not sure what,” she said.
Excited, nervous and certainly disciplined in the work they’ve done to prepare for the tour, the students have put in an enormous amount of energy to learn a repertoire of sacred and secular music of about 30 pieces.
Last Sunday, on the newly dedicated Cliff Massie Basketball Court at KCHS, touring choir students got themselves up and out of their houses, and into their red, white and black uniforms to attend their first tour practice as a unified choir. Henderson teaches more than 200 students a day, and because of the limited number of class periods, cannot get all the tour students into the same choir to rehearse during the regular school day.
The demand of so many students in her choirs has taken its toll on Henderson this year. The health of her own voice was threatened.
“I had a virus settle in my vocal chords. You know how it’ll settle in the weakest part. I was seeing 212 kids a day. Since then I got this little mic system. Oh my gosh, it makes such a difference,” she said.
In class, she wears a headset microphone that allows her to amplify her voice through a PA system. At the Sunday rehearsal in the gym, though, she didn’t seem to need it as she coached her singers through their set list.
“Soon as you wake up, it’ll be great!” Henderson said, cajoling some sleepy students into alertness.
“The reason we’re in the gym is because it’s a terrible acoustical setting, so you have to really, really, listen like crazy,” she told the singers.
Henderson puts the full court press on the choir as they listen and sing sometimes in Latin. It is difficult to tell that this is their first time together. The work they’ve been doing is paying off, and Henderson acknowledges the students’ shining moments.
“Tenors! Wow! Good job,” she said.
Aside from the music, it takes an enormous amount of work to put together the choir tour. Carol Hall, mother of senior Christopher Hall, substituted for Henderson during her illness and is chaperoning the tour, which will be her son’s second.
“She is one bundle of energy,” Carol Hall said of Henderson’s abilities.
“Her mind works incredibly fast and efficient. And she’s not wrong. You don’t argue with her about numbers ever. She’s got a mind that is incredible. And everything seems to be laid out, but she’s always looking for people who can help with the details. And it’s just wonderful, because she’ll say, ‘Oh please! Thank you,’ and you know, it’s like teamwork. She is quite an organizer.”
Henderson is particularly looking forward to one of their engagements as once-in-a-lifetime.
“Do you know we’re singing in the Guggenheim Museum? Oh my gosh, is that exciting,” she said.
It wasn’t easy to book the stop. She works with a woman in Houston, scheduling the tour. The woman asked the Guggenheim in Bilbao a titanium sheet construction, designed by architect Frank Gehry to conjure the image of a ship if the choir could sing in the museum.
They made one request and were turned down.
“She tried again, and they said, ‘No. No one sings in the Guggenheim,’” Henderson said. “So I said again, ‘I really want to sing in the Guggenheim.’ She said, ‘Renee, they’re going to say no.’ I said, ‘I know they are, but, we’ll try a third time.’ They said, ‘Yes.’ I was so ecstatic!”
So what does she hope for this group of young people? The same thing she has always hoped for her tour students:
“Oh my goodness. Personal growth, a tolerance for others, big bright eyes for their view of the world. The architecture, the history, the buildings they get to sing in, it’s all different. It’s so fun, just so exciting.”
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