Montana Students Perform This Month at Kennedy Center

Talent and Hard Work, a Formula for Success

06/01/2011

BY DAVID S. LEWIS

This month at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., 150 students selected from across the nation will perform in the All-National Honor Choir. The students selected represent some of the most talented young people in America. Five of those students attend Park High School in Livingston, Montana—an astounding number given the relatively small population of their local community.
“In the 29 years that I have been a teacher,” Choir Director Nancy Curtis told the Pioneer, “this is the most amazing group of kids that has ever come through Park High.” Curtis  attributed their accomplishments to “an incredible natural ability,” but also to their background in theater. 

“They’ve all been involved with Russ Lewis at [Liv-ingston’s] Firehouse 5 Theater (now in its new location and called Crazy Mountain Productions),” Curtis said. “That theater background has given them such a sense of confidence…that extra something that’s needed when they perform,” she said.

The selected students submitted audition tapes of required exercises and songs through a national organization of music teachers, the Music Educators National Conference. The audition requirements included singing acapella, chromatic scales, and the Welsh lullaby All Through the Night.

Having been selected to perform for the All National Honor Choir, the five students, Alex Armstrong, Evan Barrett, Carolina Kehoe, Kayla Mathews, and Tess Whittlesey, received the music they will sing at the Kennedy Center, so that they could  begin preparing for their performance.  The students will arrive in Washington June 23 and spend three days rehearsing and refining their songs with a “national clini-cian,” the full choir of 150 voices, and a national orchestra. The Kennedy Center performance takes place on June 26.

The choir in which the local students will sing performs with the All-National Honor Ensemble—a band of 83 musicians performing under the direction of Dr. Thomas Duffy, and The All-National Honor Orchestra—76 musicians under the direction of Donato Cabrer. The All-National Honor Choir performs under the direction of Elena Sharkova.
Curtis helped the students prepare their auditions and learn the music they will perform at the Kennedy Center. She will also accom-pany the students as an official chaperone and attend rehearsals.

While in the nation’s capital, the students will visit the Washington Monument, Arlington National Cemetery, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Capitol building.
Curtis has worked with the students since they entered and won state and Northwest regional competitions. Auditions were first submitted in June of last year. But the five students’ experience in the performing arts began much earlier.
Curtis said that she has known Alex Armstrong, Evan Barrett,  Kayla Mathews, and Tess Whittlesey since they were in middle school, and she flashed upon a memory of Carolina Kehoe, in particular, from a Firehouse 5 workshop ten years ago.

“We were sitting on the swings, during a break, and I had this incredibly adult, really intelligent, philosophical conversation with this little girl—and it was Carolina. She’s had this love of singing and this love of theater for her whole life, and now it’s all coming together.”

In May, all five of the students had prominent roles in the musical My Fair Lady. The show was presented by Crazy Mountain Productions (Russell Lewis is Executive and Artistic Director) in collaboration with the local school district. Audience members watching the performance, the cast of which was composed entirely of High School and Middle School students, went away with an impression that the performers’ natural talents carried the show, the quality of which was described by observers as profess-ional and highly accomplished—but artistic success is the result of more than natural talent alone, Lewis said.

“The Livingston area has more than its share of talented young people, but they are as good as they are now,” Lewis emphasized, “because they put in a lot of hard work over the years.”

Lewis told the Pioneer that Carolina Kehoe began performing in Firehouse 5's Young Actors Workshops when she was just 8 years old. “She’s been doing multiple productions a year for a decade, and has put in the hard work that is necessary to get that good at anything.”    

Alex Armstrong and Tess Whittlesey also participated in the Young Actors Workshops for several years, as had Evan Barrett and Kayla Mathews. Some of the five, Lewis said, then went on to perform in three or four community theater productions every year. “At this point in time,” Lewis noted, “some of these kids have been in twenty or thirty shows, which is one of the reasons they are so good. We’re so phenomen-ally proud of them, not just for being uniquely talented, but for all their hard work.”

Just off the stage after a fundraiser at the Dulcie Theater in Liv-ingston, each student expressed their feelings about being selected to perform at the Kennedy Center and how they came to be selected.

“It’s breathtaking, for sure,” said Evan Barrett. “You don’t realize it until you really think about it…and you say I’m going to the Kennedy Center, and that helps you realize how magnificent an oppor-tunity this really is.”

Carolina Kehoe recognized that they had all worked hard over the years, and gave credit to their mentors. “It was the support of Russ [Lewis] and Nancy [Curtis] and the whole community that really got us there,” she said.

Asked how he felt about going to perform at the Kennedy Center, Alex Armstrong said, “It will be fun. We’ll see some sights, we’ll sing some songs, we’ll see some friendly faces...” In regard to five students being chosen locally, he added, “It’s because we put in the work, and because we enjoy performing so much, singing and acting. We found something we like to do and really worked at it.” 

“I can’t believe it,” said Kayla Mathews. “Five of us made it from this small town in Montana, when only 150 people in the entire nation make it there. I’m very grateful to be a part of this talented group of people.”

Tess Whittlesey acknowledged the bond that has formed among the group. “We all have been in many shows together,” she said, “so we’ve formed this group of friends, that’s who we are. Since we share this same interest, we’ve all become really close.”

Note: The All-National Honor Ensemble concerts at the Kennedy Center are held in coordination with MENC’s Music Education Week.

The generosity of the community would be greatly appreciated in supporting these students and helping with their travel expenses (registration fees alone total $700 each) and for their stay in Washington, D.C. Those wishing to help may call Nancy Curtis at 222-0448.
 

 

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