Singing Outside the Box


Gabi Berchtold

It is a typical seventh period, but the students eating lunch on the quad see an unusual sight: the members of Bel Canto cross the quad and climb the stairs to Feldman-Horn. Instead of practicing in the Chalmers choir room, the ensemble decided to shake up their routine and practice in St. Saviour’s Chapel.

“I really try to encourage them and be a positive force, while at the same time insisting on excellence,” upper school Choir Director Zanaida Robles said. “They have to get up in front of an audience and perform and they need to perform well. That’s the expectation.”

Bel Canto will attend the Redlands High School Choral Festival on Thursday. Twenty-six ensembles will participate in the festival, split between morning and afternoon sessions. Bel Canto members will leave school at 6:30 am, sing in the festival’s morning session and return to school before the end of the school day.

During the festival, a music professional, called a master adjudicator, will judge the choral groups. Bel Canto will also sing and interact with other choral groups.

Robles said the festival will be an opportunity to build camaraderie between schools, get Bel Canto out of the school environment and learn more about the world of choral music.

Bel Canto will perform three pieces at the festival: Psalm 100, Noel c’est l’amour, and an original composition by Robles, Kujichagulia, which means self-determination in Swahili. They will perform Kujichagulia a capella, accompanied by Robles on the djembe, an African drum. Robles said playing the djembe with Bel Canto is a good opportunity to collaborate with her ensemble.

“I actually went on YouTube and looked up how to play the djembe,” Robles said. “I spent a lot time learning patterns and I actually practice every day. I learned how to play the djembe as a result of these women [in Bel Canto] who have inspired me.”

Bel Canto has been preparing for the festival during their class period and has had their pieces memorized for the past two weeks.

“Preparing for the festival has been a little challenging since it is very close to the beginning of the year and we have a new teacher, so it was hard to get adjusted.” Bel Canto member Emma Sesar ’18 said.

During the festival preparation process, Robles aimed to get Bel Canto out of their comfort zone when performing. They have practiced in St. Saviour’s Chapel and on Ted Slavin Field.

“These women are really creating an all-encompassing musical experience all on their own, and it’s really amazing to see them claim that,” Robles said. “It’s very powerful.”

Robles has been working with the all-girls ensemble to develop their voices and presence throughout the year. She hopes the work will show during their performances.

“[They have] a real openness and willingness to persevere,” Robles said. “One of the biggest challenges, especially for a women’s ensemble, is claiming your power. I’m really working to challenge these women to claim their power, to be more energized, to sing with their whole body and not just their voice, to convince them that there is more in them that they can let out and to not be afraid to be vulnerable.”

Bel Canto singers appreciate the new perspective that Robles has brought to the choir in her first few months as director.

“With our previous director, we never performed at any competitions, so it is really nice to go and sing outside of Harvard-Westlake,” Bel Canto member Sarah Conway ’18 said. “I feel like Dr. Robles is mixing a little more fun into this competition. It is definitely serious and we are working very hard in making sure we sound great, but she also recognizes that this can also be a great bonding experience for Bel Canto.”

Robles said the ensemble has been working very hard and pushing their limits as they’ve been preparing their pieces.

Robles hopes for the ensemble to eliminate mistakes and create a flawless performance for the festival.

According to ensemble members, Robles’ perfectionist attitude has been beneficial to their work.

“Robles is strict about us knowing our pieces but we sound a lot better than we did last year.” Sesar said.

Students value her approach to teaching and her perspective as a director.
“It is really nice to have a female director,” Conway said. “She is able to be strict with us, making sure that we have our music memorized, while also bringing a lot of fun to the choir itself. She is very confident and very supportive of our singing. She is exactly what Bel Canto, and I believe all the other choirs, needed to get back on track towards success.”
Robles hopes that regardless of the outcome of their performance, the ensemble will take away one important message.

“Your voice matters,” Robles said. You have more power than you think you do. Don’t be afraid to sing out. It’s all or nothing. Your sound is informed by your mind, your spirit, your body, and it takes all of that to have an impact.”