Every year, chorus director Jennifer Young welcomes fourth- and fifth-graders at Emerick Elementary School in Purcellville with a new challenge, such as learning a complicated routine or performing solo songs or instrumentals.
"The kids are always self-motivated and anxious to do well," said Young, who has taught at Emerick for six years.
This year's challenge was the news that the 172-member chorus had been selected to perform for hundreds of teachers from across the state at the annual convention of the Virginia Music Educators Association in Norfolk.
Traveling to out-of-town sports tournaments and band concerts may be common for high school students, but it's rare in lower grades and almost unheard of in elementary schools.
Young gave the students the good news the first day of school, and they began rehearsing immediately.
"It was exciting to know we had been picked to sing for people we have never known," said fourth-grader Kevin Wiley, whose family recently moved to Purcellville from Herndon. "It was an honor."
Young entered her students in the contest to perform at the convention last spring. She included a tape of their spring concert, including their versions of "Barbershop Blues" and "We Are the Young."
Emerick's was one of three choirs chosen, beating out more than 20 Virginia elementary schools.
Young started planning for the Nov. 22 one-day trip as soon as she got the news in June and was about to give birth to her second child. She spent the summer mapping out transportation arrangements and song lists. Traveling more than three hours with 172 nine- and 10-year-olds would be no small feat.
"Elementary school choirs are such a massive group," said Jim Harmon, music supervisor for Loudoun public schools. "It takes a lot of extra work to make a repertoire of songs and an audition tape" for outside performances, he said.
Young and Emerick Principal Jayne Meadows asked the PTO and such community organizations as the Robey Foundation, Purcellville Lions Club, Olde Loudoun Realty and Loudoun County Music Department to help pay the $9,600 for chartered buses, meals and museum admission charges.
Emerick's performance was a grand show of sorts as the chorus performed in the ballroom of the Marriott hotel. They sang "How Can I Keep From Singing," "Come Rejoicing," "America, My Home," "Hi! Ho! The Rattlin' Bog," "Listen," "Two Israeli Folk Songs," "Off to the Races" and "On Eagles' Wings." Some students accompanied the chorus with violins and drums. By the end, the audience was offering a standing ovation.
In addition to performing, the students toured the conference, greeting vendors, testing products and doing some musical shopping. Fourth-grader Mitchell Rehovich bought a set of drums. They also made a few stops around Norfolk, touring the Nauticus maritime center and the battleship USS Wisconsin berthed at the center.
"We went to a museum and touched a shark," said fourth-grader Joshua Janney.
The students topped off the evening with a hearty buffet dinner at Golden Coral. The most memorable culinary delights: gummy bears, ice cream and fried chicken. They were back at school by 10:40 p.m.
Fifth-grader Courtney Jackson said of the performance: "It was really exciting and fun. I think a lot of people enjoyed it."
The Norfolk performance has shot a new level of energy and enthusiasm into the chorus. The students are even more excited about the power of their songs and look forward to forthcoming engagements, Young said. She is channeling that energy into a one-hour weekly practice, preparing students to sing at the school's spring concert in April and at the Loudoun County Arts Festival in May.
Young, 27, is the only music instructor at Emerick and is responsible for bringing song and music to the school's 587 students. Students in first through fifth grades are given a half-hour of music instruction a week and the kindergartners 15 minutes. "We're working on singing on a steady beat," she said of the youngest children.
The chorus is an optional extracurricular activity in which students meet the last hour of the school day every Tuesday in Young's classroom. With yellow walls and bright lights, it is filled with all items musical. Songbooks are scattered on the piano against the wall, a chalkboard is covered with lyrics and a small set of bleachers in front of a large carpeted area could host an audience.
Young prefers to refer to the group as a chorus, not a choir. "I think it sounds more fun, less formal," she said.
When the chorus meets in Young's classroom, members know their places on the stands and take to them comfortably. Most of all, they seem excited about participating.
"Chorus is not a competition," said Stephanie Chepega, a fifth-grader who joined the group last year. "We sing for fun and for the audience."
"Singing in the choir is what I've been wanting to do since third grade," Kevin Wiley said.
Young said she tries to instill a love of music. "I love my job," she said. "I try to make the program as best as I can here."
Young knew throughout college that she wanted to teach music. She graduated from West Chester (Pa.) University with a bachelor's degree in music education and began her teaching career in Pennsylvania. Her husband, Darron, 34, is music teacher and band director at Potomac Falls High School.
"Jennifer teaches choral music and music theory and how to play instruments," said Meadows, principal at Emerick for 14 years. She has witnessed Young interact with her chorus and other students and said Young instills excitement in her group. "Jennifer's strengths are her youth, vitality and enthusiasm. In her group, she is just as excited and involved as the children are."
Young likes to incorporate dance and movement in performances. "I don't have them do anything too complicated," she said, "just a few things they can do on bleachers."
A move of the shoulders here, a twist of the hips there, a sway from side to side in unison, and the Emerick chorus takes ownership of its piece.