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Birmingham School Choir Shines at Festival of Gold

Selected to participate in the prestigious national event in San Francisco, students also enjoy a memorable three-day trip.

With budget cuts silencing music-education programs throughout the state, Birmingham Community Charter School teacher Michael Suffolk is happy, because his 40-person choir was selected to participate in the prestigious Heritage “Festival of Gold” in San Francisco. The principal of the school, Marsha Coates, joined the recent bus ride north to support the kids.

“It’s the best they’ve ever sang! St. Ignatius Church was the perfect venue acoustically for their voices," Suffolk told Patch. "I’m so glad Principal Coates was able to see what all the hard work and dedication to the program has led to—an amazing choir and incredibly well-behaved kids.”

Suffolk’s 40-member choir, the Birmingham Community Charter High School Chamber Singers, qualified to compete at the "gold" level in Anaheim last year. This led to the invitation to perform with 11 of the most accomplished choirs from Washington, New Jersey, Ohio and Canada. The choir spent weeks fundraising to pay their own way to the competition in April.

Suffolk said part of the competition required him to select eight of his students to be in an honor choir. Those students were taught four songs, and were directed by the composers of the songs themselves. Later, all the students participated in an encore presentation with the other choirs.

“The kids got very positive feedback from the directors at the festival and, believe me, those guys don’t sugarcoat anything,” Suffolk said.

For many of the students and parents, it was the three-day trip of a lifetime.

The choir earned scores that placed them in the upper 90 percent of the competition.

Senior Jacqueline Inouye, 17, who is headed to Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara to study fashion photography, said she felt honored and lucky to have this experience in her final year.

“Mr. Suffolk is very inspiring, and also a technically great choir director," she said. "He really challenged us with difficult songs in foreign languages, but it was so rewarding in the end.”

Jacqueline spoke of her favorite song, Daniel, Daniel, Servant of the Lord, and how Suffolk told students its back story, about an imprisoned friend of a king, which allowed them to sing the soulful song with more passion.

Jacqueline’s mother, Tarumi Inouye, who went along on the San Francisco trip as an informal chaperon, said joining the choir in her junior year brightened her daughter’s attitude toward school.

“She was hugely, immensely influenced by the choir and Mr. Suffolk," she said.
"Every single day, she stayed through a seventh period without a complaint because her dedication to the music and the group was so strong.”

Inouye said she felt the trip would have a lasting, positive impact on all the kids, many from low-income backgrounds who often don’t get opportunities or recognition for hard work.

While in San Francisco, the students visited Alcatraz Island and Chinatown, and went across the Golden Gate Bridge.

“The kids were on their best behavior the entire time because they felt grateful for the experience, but also because they knew Mr. Suffolk was going through a difficult personal challenge during the trip,” Inouye said.

Suffolk’s mother, Mary Suffolk, was diagnosed with brain cancer in February and died on May 7. Suffolk said this weighed heavily on him during the competition, but he reflected on how the best and worst things can appear at the same time in a person's life.

“I was so proud of them—they were amazing," Suffolk said of his singers. "I’m also grateful my mom was able to hear them perform and knew about the competition before she passed away,” he said.

Students were very supportive of Suffolk and his mother, and some even volunteered  during winter break to perform a Christmas program in the nursing home where Mary Suffolk was staying, Inouye said.

“[She] was the belle of the ball that day because everybody knew it was her son who brought all the beautiful music and joy to the nursing home," Inouye said. "It was wonderful!”

Inouye said her other daughter attends Portola Middle School, where she plays  clarinet in the band—and her music teacher just received a pink slip.

“It makes me want to cry," she said. For many of these kids, music is their favorite part of school."

karlotheetenor@yahoo.com June 07, 2011 at 07:17 PM
I will forever be Alumni to Birmingham Community Charter High School, and the Chamber Singers(4 years) being in the choir has been the best years of my life, it has pushed me into every art program from collaborating with the marching band to being a leader in stage crew and being casted as a lead (The Cowardly Lion) in The Wiz. The program has pushed me to strive not just as a performer or student but as a person. The San Francisco trip was AMAZING and most definitely unforgettable, from sword fights to cereal! It was amazing and a huge plus is to be able to say that my best friend Rene Parras and I (Karlo Cuesta) were the soloists for "Daniel Servant of the Lord" and we made girls whisper and guys hate on us, all in a church! Over all choir is amazing and Mr. Suffolk has been such an inspiring person to know and i hope Birmingham keeps him around because he is the heart of PVA(Performing Visual Arts Academy). Overall thank you Mr. Suffolk for the opportunity to shine in your program. Thank you. -Karlo Cuesta Tenor 2011 :)
Angelica Beas June 07, 2011 at 08:02 PM
It is an honor to know that not only does Ms. Coates, teachers, and parents have faith in us, but so do you Mrs. Bellantoni. Reading this article made me appreciate everything Mr. Suffolk did for us 10 times more. I am so blessed to be in this choir with all my fellow peers and their amazing talent. Being able to have the opportunity to just be in the presence of all these wonderful people has changed me so much, but all for the better. It’s made me grow as a person and appreciate life more then ever. Going to San Francisco was a great opportunity for each and every one of us, it helped us appreciate the art of music and friendship to a greater extent. This choir is one of a kind, no matter the hardships we went through, we ALL stuck it out to the best of our ability and that made us grow as one family. I want to thank Mr. Suffolk for even letting me in the choir so late in the semester, including my fellow friend Tania, I for one had the best time in this class. Mr. Suffolk I want you to know that your dedication towards your students is one of a kind, and we are all so blessed and honored to receive your full attention. Chamber Singers made my junior year unforgettable and one of the best years yet. I look forward to one more year in this amazing choir, and can’t wait for all the memories in store. Thank you Chamber Singers 2011, and Mr. Suffolk for all the great memories.
Luis Lugo Jr June 07, 2011 at 08:21 PM
The Chamber Singers of 2011 have made my sophomore year, and my first year in Chamber Singers, the best year I have ever had. There are so many amazing singers and many talented students in this choir, and it breaks my heart to have to say goodbye to the seniors who made my first year so special. Everyone worked their tooshies off to get to San Fran , but I can say with confidence that Mr. Suffolk has worked the hardest of us all. All of the students are beyond grateful for all the time that Mr. Suffolk has spent with us, and will always support him through all the hardships that he goes through. My first time in San Francisco was better than I could have ever hoped for and I am so blessed to have been a part of Chamber Singers of 2011! I look forward to my next two years in Chamber Singers ! - Luis Lugo Jr.
Eva Onyango June 07, 2011 at 08:51 PM
Eva Onyango It is an honor and a great blessing for me to be in Chamber Singers. The people I've met in this choir have made an impact on me. This class was always the class I looked forward to going to at the end of the school day. Being in Chamber Singers has helped me grow and know more about music and myself. We are very thankful to have a teacher like Mr. Suffolk. He is VERY hard-working and VERY dedicated to his work and students---always striving us to be the best that we can be. This trip was an unforgettable trip for all of us, we had such a blast! Chamber Singers made my freshman year a better start from coming into a new school. Chamber singers isn't just kids singing for the heck of it, it's a family who share a deep passion about music.
Brian Avila June 07, 2011 at 10:37 PM
I am honored and very blessed to be a part of The Chamber Singers. Being in this choir has made the biggest difference in my life and has helped shape me into much of who I am as a student and a teenager today. I was very excited about our trip to San Francisco this year because I knew that it was bigger and grander than anything we've ever done in the prior years. It was when we received a gold rating at the Anaheim Heritage festival that we were informed about opportunities to join competitions outside of the San Fernando Valley. And after months of faithful fundraising and extra rehearsals, we went to San Francisco not knowing exactly what to expect but with great determination and a mindset to do something big. It was an honor and a learning experience to compete against other great choirs at the prestigious St. Ignatius Church. I couldn't have asked for more from this whole experience. I owe it all to Mr. Suffolk, Ms. Coates, Ms. St. John, and our parents and teachers who have helped make this memorable trip possible for the Chamber Singers.

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