MILLINOCKET, Maine — If you want to know why the choir of Schenck and Stearns high schools won first place among Division II schools at the Maine State Vocal Jazz Festival this year, consider the numbers.
As near as they can figure, Unified Harmony members spent at least 750 hours rehearsing from November to April. Those 750 hours include three to five hours of work under Director Matthew Waite at least twice a week, weekend sessions and practice during February vacation, members said.
“We practice more than the basketball or football teams,” Stearns High School senior Chantel McLain said.
The figure doesn’t count smaller group sessions, solo practice or individual attention Waite gives students. Nor does it address the hours parents spent driving members from practice or the time choir and Performing Arts Booster Club members raise funds to make participation in such competitions possible.
The Town Council praised that dedication during its meeting on Thursday. About 40 people attended. Councilors called the sweep by Unified Harmony and the Millinocket Middle School choir, which also finished first in its Division II competition, something the Katahdin region should be proud of.
“Sometimes people don’t realize how stiff the competition is in these things. It’s tough,” Councilor Steve Campbell said. “You guys have done a great job.”
“It shows what we can do when we come together as three communities,” Councilor Jimmy Busque said. “I would like to see this happen a lot more.”
Stearns High School is in Millinocket. Schenck is in East Millinocket and serves students from that town and Medway, among others. Choir is among several activities the schools have combined to save money and create student opportunities.
This year’s win was Middle School choir Director Brenda Angotti’s third. Her choir previously won in 2000 and 2005, she said.
“The success of the kids comes because it’s really a well-oiled machine,” Angotti said, referring to the work of choreographer Sandy Hartley, accompanist Karen Giberson, the booster club and the students’ parents.
“Lots of parents come to the rehearsals and they are always asking, ‘What can we do to help?’ That makes my job as director so much easier,” she added.
Stearns sophomore Andrea Steward appreciated the council’s recognition, particularly since the choir is among the cuts proposed in the school department’s preliminary budget, she said.
“The performing arts are struggling in our community,” she said. “We need to make it aware of what the performing arts are doing and how they are needed by students.”
Eleven-year-old middle schooler Liza Brown said she handled the accolades at the council meeting, which included appearing on Katahdin Area Television with council members, much better than at the state finals.
“They said [at the finals] ‘First place goes to,’ and there was this big pause” before the judges said her name, Brown said. “Everybody started pushing me toward the trophy and I didn’t know what to do. I was just shocked that they called my name.”
Fifth-graders don’t typically win first place among sixth- and seventh-grade soloists, said Brown’s mother, Shellie Brown. Other winning efforts included a first place for Unified soloist Gwen Morneault and Unified’s taking a first place for choreography.
Brown’s ability is a measure of the depth of musical talent at the middle and high schools. Waite complimented his choir for learning a challenging new number, “Fosse,” something totally different from what they were used to, while his students complimented him for filling the big shoes of former choir Director Matt Madore, who won two state championships.