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Clarksville tradition takes students to Philly for Thanksgiving

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For 94 years, the streets of Philadelphia have been home to the oldest Thanksgiving parade in the country, complete with marching bands, floats, balloons and visit from Santa Claus.

And for the last 12 years, the Clarksville Elementary School chorus has been there.

Almost three dozen fourth- and fifth-graders last week made the trip to Philadelphia with their families to take part in the 850-member youth choir at the 6ABC Dunkin' Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade, continuing a holiday tradition for the Clarksville school.

"It gives them a chance to perform and work with another group and learn from someone else," said Karen Randall, vocal and music teacher at Clarksville and choral director at the school. "Kids are singing with kids they've never met before — from Michigan, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware — and kids from all different levels, all the way up to high school. It's wonderful."

Every year the Youth Choir, organized by Under the Sun Productions (the group also responsible for the Cherry Blossom Parade in Washington, D.C.), stands on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum — the same steps immortalized in the "Rocky" movies.

"It's so fun," said Lynn Rovansek, the Clarksville PTA liaison for the chorus whose fourth-grader sang at the parade. "It's a chance for children to be a part of something huge. They're learning how to represent themselves, their school, their parents and their teacher. You have to have discipline in order to stand on those steps and be able to do that."

There are about 170 fourth- and fifth-graders in the Clarksville chorus, and the 34 children whose parents signed them up for the Philadelphia trip started preparing in October, Randall said. They had about four weeks to learn the music they would be singing, and the choreography to go with it. Randall has high expectations of her students, she said. She teaches them respect and discipline, and on Thanksgiving, the students know she's not in charge anymore, she said. They are.

"I tell them, 'Remember all the things I taught you. Pay attention, listen to the conductor, do what you're told, but remember how I've taught you to sing. Do your best,' " Randall said.

In three-minute sets, the Clarksville students in the youth choir sang "Shout!" and a medley of holiday songs.

"Parents were calling and texting their relatives, saying 'turn on the TV now,' " Rovansek said. "When they're standing on the steps, the relatives can pick out their kids on the TV."

It's a nice way to celebrate the holiday, Randall said, especially since these families are giving up two days of their Thanksgiving break to take part in the parade.

"That group of children now have this experience that only they have gone through," Randall said. "That's what this chorus does."

The trip to Philadelphia brings together Clarksville students who might not normally hang out together at school, Rovansek said, and the performance also fosters confidence among the more shy students.

"It's heartwarming," she said. "To be out there working as a group and being out there as part of something that big, that huge, it's awesome to watch. We see the kids gain such confidence, and I think it's because they're not out there by themselves, but they're out there as a group."

Music creates a level playing field, Randall said, and helps the students "realize what they're capable of and the things they can do. They're able to do so much."

Besides, nothing's better than children singing holiday songs, Randall said, as long as they sing them well.

"They get up on those steps and they just look so cute," she said. "And then they open their mouths, and they can sing. They can really sing."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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