Ira Lyon, 16, dashed into rehearsal at a Timonium church yesterday, a little exasperated after the drive from her home in Severn. After a few exercises to warm up body and voice, she was harmonizing with the Children's Chorus of Maryland.
"We all know each other so well that we sound like one person singing," Ira said.
The chorus' tour choir leaves tomorrow for a 12-day tour of Europe. The trip, which celebrates the chorus' 30th anniversary, includes performances at churches and music halls in Vienna and Salzburg in Austria, and at the Prague Children's Music Festival in the Czech Republic. The tour showcases choirs from around the world, with one from Los Angeles and the Children's Chorus representing the United States.
"We are representing the East Coast and we can do it just fine," said Betty Bertaux, founder and artistic director of the Towson-based chorus. "We feel really proud to represent Maryland, too."
The chorus comprises up to 120 singers ages 5 to 18 who must audition to join. The group performs a wide range of choral music at events throughout the year, including concerts at churches and senior centers. Typically voice students who are recommended by their music teachers, the singers gather twice a week at St. Timothy's Lutheran Church in Timonium to rehearse, and also learn to read and write music.
The tour choir is made up of 17 members of the chorus age 10 and older who could afford to make the trip.
In Prague, the choristers will sing with the 300-member Dulwich College Shanghai Children's Choir from China.
"We are meeting choirs from around the world," said Lisa Diver, 17, of Baltimore. "We don't speak the same language, but we sing the same language. Music is the universal language."
Meryem Ahmadian, 18 of Perry Hall is a chorus member who has been singing and dancing since she first walked and talked.
"Now I will be singing with children around the world," she said.
Ira, Lisa and Meryem are chorus alumnae who were invited back to join the tour. They have practiced with the choir twice a week since November and daily for the past several weeks. Lisa missed a week of rehearsals to take a graduation trip to Walt Disney World in Florida, but she practiced with tapes she had packed with her beach gear.
"It is an incredible lot to learn, and they are singing some songs in Italian and others in Czech," said Mairee Pantzer, assistant artistic director of the chorus. "While other kids are at camp, these children are learning Czech folk songs."
During its final practice yesterday, the chorus whisked through lively jazz tunes, intoned solemn hymns and sang folk songs in Italian and German, as well as Czech.
Lisa, Ira and Meryem added 1950s-style dance moves to their campy rendition of "Mood Indigo," a song popularized by Duke Ellington. The trio could not contain giggles while singing the "I'm so lonesome I could cry," and the laughter spread.
If laughter was going to trip them up, better it happen at practice, Bertaux said. She had the "alumnae trio" redo the song.
"Betty is always upbeat, but she demands a lot and the kids rise to it," Pantzer said. "There is for everybody a hunger to push for excellence."
The mood turned more serious when chorus took up "Can You Hear," a rousing spiritual that many of the singers called their favorite in the repertoire of nearly 30 songs. Lisa and Meryem signed the words as the others sang:
Can you hear my cries?
Can you see my eyes?
I am calling out to you.
The song sprang from the Sounds of a Better World project, devoted to improving the lives of children everywhere.
The chorus has traveled before, including performances at Disney World and Carnegie Hall in New York City.
"To see your child singing at Carnegie Hall - it doesn't get much better than that," said Sue Goetze, the chorus' trip coordinator and mother of 14-year-old member Amanda Walsh. "These kids are getting a musical education at college level without even realizing it."
Goetze is responsible for making sure everyone makes it to the airport on time with everything they need, including music, choir attire and passports.
"What a wonderful way to see this area of the world, to sing in cathedrals and experience the culture," Goetze said.
The trips enhance the musical experiences for the children, Bertaux said.
"We proudly show their talents and accomplishments," Bertaux said. "Their lives will be richer for it."
Renee Bertaux, Bertaux's 14-year-old granddaughter, said, "This is a great place for kids to hang out and learn great musical skills."
Chorus members each paid $3,000 for the trip and many raised the money through pizza and flower sales and raffles. Since rehearsals coincided with the dinner hour, pizza sales went especially well, Goetze said.
A paper route in York, Pa., helped pay the way for Spencer Allen, 13, the only boy who will make the trip.
"It will be worth every minute," Spencer said, adding his older brother is a little jealous of all the female companionship. "I am going to Austria to sightsee and sing."