With sheet music in hand, two dozen boys and girls, members of the Ventura Youth Chorus, tediously worked their way through the Christmas favorite, "I Hear Bells."
It wasn't going well. The ending wasn't quite right. "Do it breathier," coached Barbara Howard, director of the chorus.
That was all the encouragement one little boy, a soprano, needed. He put his hands to his neck in a mock stranglehold and gasped for air. A ripple of giggles followed.
It didn't bother Howard. Nor did the fidgeting, whispering, tickling, silliness and occasional games of footsie faze her.
"I hang as loose as I can," she said during a break in practice at Trinity Lutheran Church in Ventura. "I want them to have fun. I want them to think music is fun."
For Howard, the fun began four years ago when she began directing the Ventura County Children's Chorus, an offshoot of the Ventura County Master Chorale. She resigned from the chorale this fall and regrouped as the Ventura Youth Chorus.
The break will allow her troupe of 9- to 14-year-olds to perform a broader range of music, instead of the technically difficult and sometimes obscure music of the chorale.
"That takes a very intelligent listener," she said. "The average concert-goer will enjoy the music we will be doing."
Howard's chorus is actually a class offered through Ventura College's community services program. The cost per semester is $30. The next semester begins Jan. 14 with class, or practice, on Mondays from 5:15 to 6:30 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church.
The chorus will perform Dec. 13 and 14 with the 120-member Gold Coast Choir at the church. A spring concert is planned, and Howard is lining up singing engagements for the group throughout the school year.
But simply signing up for the class doesn't ensure a spot in the chorus. Kids must audition. They are asked to perform a solo, and then sing with the group. This fall, four children were turned away.
Not only that, once they are accepted Howard asks them to sign a contract, promising, among other things, to practice at home, be on time for rehearsals and performances, and perform to the best of their ability.
She gets the cream of the crop, she insists.
"The kind of kids I get are show-business kids, GATE kids and overachievers," she said. (GATE stands for Gifted and Talented Education, a special school program for the gifted.) They are the children of parents, she said, who believe that the more activities their children are involved in, the less likely they are to get into trouble.
Two of the boys in the chorus already are show-biz veterans. Gabriel Solo, 12, and Justin Shepard, 9, each performed the lead role in "Oliver" for two local theater productions.
On a recent Monday night as the children practiced, Denise Dalto, mother of Nicole, was making red sequined bows and suspenders with another mother.
In September, Nicole, 12, signed on for her third year with Howard's group. During that time she has blossomed, according to her mother.
"She used to be the shy little kid, the kid in the background," said her mother.
Last summer, Nicole was one of eight children selected by Howard to record songs at a local recording studio for Gospel Light Publications in Ventura.
Howard said one of the benefits of breaking with the Ventura County Master Chorale is that she can expose the children to such other singing opportunities.
For Cheri Viselli, 11, and Emily Lockwood, 12, the chorus is one step toward their goal of singing professionally.
"I want to write my own songs," said Viselli, a veteran of three years with the chorus. When they are not singing, they are listening to music.
"I play my tapes 24 hours a day," said Lockwood.
WHERE AND WHEN
Ventura College's community services program offers the Ventura Youth Chorus as a class. Auditions for the next semester will be Monday, Jan. 7, 5:30 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church in Ventura. The class will meet on Mondays, from 5:15 to 6:30 p.m. at the church beginning Jan. 14. For more information call 654-6459.