Behind the curtain is all of the controlled chaos of a professional production.
It’s five minutes until show time: Teachers and parents stand under a blue light to consult copies of show instructions that have the order of soloists scrawled in the margins. Students — most of them — are lined up in every unseen room or hallway along the wings of the auditorium in Helena Middle School.
The performers, K-5 students from Hawthorne Elementary, total nearly 250. They are about to display choral skills they have been learning since October to a crowd of family and teachers.
The holiday programs are a December tradition at most of Helena’s elementary schools, and each has a character of its own. This year Hawthorne students are celebrating “the most wonderful time of the year,” with a choral performance that includes tunes from different cultures and traditions.
“We’re performing everything from ‘Jolly Old St. Nicholas’ to a Renaissance song,” music director Mike Carella said.
Four minutes to show time: Carella places bars on a xylophone. Teachers hurry through with baskets of other instruments. An adult accompanist already has his guitar slung over his shoulder.
These are the frantic finishing touches to a program that is months in the making.
“It’s a huge project, really,” Carella said, especially the organization and coordination that it requires.
Carella has been directing Hawthorne’s shows for seven years and has taught at the school for many more. The show changes every year.
Students have been practicing the songs twice a week during music class for the past two months. Soloists, who audition for their roles, also practice during recess.
Parents and teachers help create the decorations, programs are printed — the list goes on.
Three minutes to show time: A kindergartner climbs a chair to see the mirror in the dressing room. Makeup or not, she wants to be sure everything looks just right.
The holiday program is the first time many kindergartners have ever sung together. By the time they reach fourth or fifth grade, they’re starting to learn harmonies, Carella said.
The performance itself is just the coda — a focal point for which the kids can learn singing and other techniques.
“There’s a lot of music education involved in it,” Carella said.
Carella emphasizes choral techniques over solos, in part because it’s healthier for the young performers.
“Their vocal chords are very tender at their age,” he said.
He sometimes incorporates a geography lesson or two into class when the students are introduced to songs of international flavor.
“It’s a good time to pull down a map and show them where that is,” he said.
Two minutes to show time: Two students suddenly need escorting to the bathroom. A young boy’s suspenders have come unclipped; he too needs some adult assistance. Someone tells the orchestra students to keep their bows in their laps.
The programs require a lot of work, but Carella said it’s always fun, both for him and the students.
“Most of them get really excited about it,” he said. “It seems to be special for them.”
He mixes in games and other activities into class, so practice “doesn’t get to be a grind for them.”
During the months of preparation, Carella said he also reminds students that their families will be watching. The show is their chance to give their families a gift for the season, he tells them.
One minute to show time: The curtain is drawn back, and fourth grader Jasmine Hinshaw steps onto the stage in a fur hat. Once the roar of applause dissipates, she adjusts the microphone, ready to begin.
Her accompanist, teacher Eric Lehman, cracks a joke to break the silence. Then he puts words to what’s in the air: “We’re both very, very nervous right now, so bear with us.”
Finally, they sing.