In some ways, the story of the Grass Valley Elementary School Vocal Jazz choir is the classic underdog tale.
At the beginning of the year, nothing seemed to come together. The notes were flat. The students couldn’t figure out what teacher Natalie Wilson wanted them to do. They lacked experience and stage presence.
Fast forward eight months: The elementary school choir won the Northwest Vocal Jazz Festival middle school level competition, with high praise from the judges.
The choir sang three songs, and received top billing on all of them. These were “Take a Little Time,” “Everything Must Change,” and “Cloudburst.”
“Bravo, awesome and delightful group,” said one judge on an evaluation form.
“Way to go rhythm section,” another wrote. “And fine singing everyone. You blend so well, are in tune and do great with dynamics.”
“You have a very warm tone texture, just right for this song (‘Everything Must Change’),” another judge wrote. “Even though these lyrics are very mature, you folks sing them like you know their meaning. Wow! Wonderful interpretation.”
It is a long way to come, especially for a group that is open to all. Most of the middle school choirs at the competition were audition-based.
“I am so excited about this group,” Wilson said. “My standards are really high, so I didn’t let them perform until I thought they were really ready for it. I wanted to show them that less than your best is not OK.”
They students had their first taste of performing for a large audience at a jazz festival a few months ago in Edmonds, Wash.
“We received eight outstanding musician awards and a standing ovation,” Wilson said. “It was then that something just seemed to click with them. They decided to turn the switch and start doing a better job.”
It was the first time in 27 years of teaching that Wilson made the choice to hold a group back from performing until late in the school year.
But it worked out well. The young musicians, composed of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, were ready for the 44th annual Northwest Vocal Jazz Festival at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore., last month.
Previously, the group had garnered fourth- and even second-place honors. This year, they took first.
“I was on cloud nine,” Wilson said. “It was heaven. I have been to that festival for 25 years and we have never had a first-place win before. I have some kids who struggle to match pitch, but we still were able to do it.”
Wilson added that what she enjoys most about this group is their willingness to do what she asks.
“They are more willing to take risks than older kids and have a free spirit,” she said.
Samantha Dawson, a fifth-grader who has been a part of the group for two years, said performing is fun and she enjoys going to competitions.
“When we got first place, I was pretty surprised,” she said. “Then the whole team started screaming.”
Fifth-grader Alaya Mays added that she was really surprised to win.
“But it was really amazing,” she said.
Third-grader Lexi Howard and fourth-grader Jacqueline Muir were in awe of beating all the middle school teams.
“I was really excited,” Howard said. “The thought of third-graders beating eighth-graders excited me.”
Muir, who has been in the group since second-grade, expressed similar sentiments. “It was amazing winning,” she said. “I was just ecstatic. I couldn’t believe that we had won that.”