FAIRFIELD — How integral is music in the life of VOENA children’s choir founder and director Annabelle Marie? Well, she even sings the voicemail message on her cell phone.
Marie finds that describing VOENA as a “children’s choir” does not fully encapsulate the movement, scope, flavor or soul of the Benicia-based group. Marie’s young charges practice a technique she calls “physical singing.”
VOENA and Friends
- 7 p.m. Sunday
- Uptown Theater
- 1350 Third St., Napa
- (707) 259-0123
“Why should just the head and the mouth sing the music? The instrument we are all born with is a voice. Since the voice is inside the body then the whole body should express that instrument,” Marie said. “Physicality expressed in the voice enhances the performance and the relationship that the soul of each child has with the music.”
Marie started VOENA (Voices of Eve N’ Angels) in 1994 as a professional children’s choir that would celebrate the diversity of human culture. It grew from a dozen kids to now over 140. VOENA has toured across the United States and been to five foreign countries. It has shared the stage with notable artists including Maya Angelou, Jose Feliciano and Lily Tomlin and performed for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Tour stops have included the Vatican, the White House and Carnegie Hall.
“In 2000 we performed at Carnegie Hall with the North American Children’s Chorale and unlike all the other choirs from around the country, we showed up with no sheet music and they were very upset at me,” Marie said. “When I told them it was all memorized, their mouths dropped to the floor. They said “You have some 7-year olds here; you can’t tell me it’s memorized!” I said “It’s all been digested.” “
Memorizing or “digesting” the music is a staple of VOENA as well as their brightly-colored costumes and the members moving physically when they sing. Initially Marie’s unorthodox concept shook up the children’s chorus world and she was shunned by her peers. Now she has choir directors itching to duplicate her formula.
To Marie, the deeper purpose of VOENA is to counteract the modern American youth culture of entitlement and replace it with a foundation of self-esteem resulting from accomplishing lots of hard work. She calls her concept The VOENA Big 3 — (1) Accept the challenge ( 2) Be self-motivated and (3) Embrace an ethic for hard work. Marie briefly described each:
Marie has seen her approach yield results time and again. Two recent alumni, Kenya Wright and Mikala Cato, were awarded full scholarships to Brown University and UCLA respectively. Both wrote essays on their experiences with VOENA and the Big 3 and feel it was an integral part in them receiving their scholarships.
Addison Kauzer, a 14-year old Benicia resident, has been a VOENA member for eight years and can vouch for the effectiveness of the Big 3.
VOENA’s requirements for prospective members are that they be between the ages of 5-18 and be willing to sing and embrace The Big 3. VOENA has a strict-no audition policy, which has raised the eyebrows of other choir directors who wonder how Marie can ensure a sweet sound.
While some newbies show up who cannot, as the saying goes, carry a tune in a bucket, Marie does for them singing-wise what Lionel Logue did for George VI’s stuttering in “The King’s Speech.”
“I always say there’s no such thing as tone deaf unless there is an actual hearing deficiency — there is only a lack of education,” Marie said. “If you take someone, especially a child and develop their ear to hear pitch — and I have a technique to do that — they will start hearing more and more pitches and start reproducing those pitches where they need to be. I keep validating them and before you now it that range of three notes has increased to five notes, to ten notes to twenty notes. Every child I have had by the end of the year is usually singing 75 percent of the pitches.”
Marie used the techniques on her youngest son when he was with the choir and he went from not being able to hit a pitch to performing with the concert choir and becoming a section leader. Marie also has an adult choir at St. Dominic’s Church in Benicia and those she has helped learn to sing on key have found it to be transformative.
“Some of them get tears in their eyes because it is a stigma they have lived with for a long time and goes really deep to their hurt child,” Marie said.
VOENA sings songs in 20 different languages and, sometimes, in no language at all. “Sumbaie” (pronounced “zoom-by-yay”), a song on the group’s 2006 “Voices of Nations” CD, sounds like a song that famed African vocalists Ladysmith Black Mambazo would perform, but it is actually made of words Marie invented.
“I presented it to the kids and asked them what tongue it was in and they were all guessing African languages. I kept them guessing for weeks and told them if they learned half the song, I’d give them a hint,” Marie said. “Then I told them if they learned all the song and the harmonies, and choreography and completely digested the song that I would tell them what language it was.”
Marie tried the same trick with a new song “Sahng Gu” but a young five-year-old member busted her with a quick, “You invented it!”
The latest honor VOENA has earned is an invitation to perform at the Summer Olympics games in London. They were notified of their selection last November and have been fundraising to get the approximately 100 people across the pond ever since.
The choir performs tonight at 7 p.m. at the Uptown Theatre in Napa. They will be doing their magic and then yielding the stage to internationally-acclaimed acoustic guitarist Peppino D’Agostino who will be teamed up with Jeff Campitelli, the drummer for Bay Area guitar whiz Joe Satriani. KTVU’s Mark Ibanez is the emcee.
While there are pictures and video of VOENA on their website, Marie insists that the only way to “get” the group is to experience their unique, almost tribal ambiance at a live performance. She feels the commitment to excellence and familial feel of the choir helps to translate rehearsals into onstage magic.
“We all take this journey as a family and the struggle and the challenges of The Big 3 that sometimes brings these kids to tears makes them one with each other,” Marie said. “They are not alone; it is a journey that is to be shared.”
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at email@example.com